News that Fr John Chandler has banned yoga classes in his church hall has made the national headlines. On the one hand, we have Fr Chandler saying he banned the classes and refunded the booking fee when he learned that they were being billed as ‘spiritual yoga’ :
Yoga is a Hindu spiritual exercise. Being a Catholic church we have to promote the gospel, and that’s what we use our premises for.
We did say that yoga could not take place. It’s the fact that it’s a different religious practice going on in a Catholic church. It’s not compatible. We are not saying that yoga is bad or wrong.
On the other, we have Corrie Withell, who was intending to give the classes, saying
As a nation we have an obesity epidemic. I was trying to bring some exercise to the community and coming across blocks like this is frustrating.
In other words, we have the classic situation of two people addressing the same question from two completely different perspectives. Fr Chandler is arguing that yoga is a Hindu spiritual practice, and because Catholic premises are not supposed to be used for the practice of non-Christian religions, he has banned the classes from taking place. (Each priest is at liberty to decide for himself what he thinks appropriate, there is no national/international policy.) Ms Withell, by contrast, sees yoga as as a helpful exercise programme, not a religious activity at all. In this she has been supported by Ravindra Parmar, President of the Vedic Society Hindu Temple of Southampton. However, meditation is said by many to be an integral part of yoga, and that is where I suspect the heart of the problem lies.
Anyone who has been involved with the Dialogue InterMonastique (D.I.M.) knows that there is a lot of common ground between Christian, Buddhist and Hindu practices of meditation, but there are also some important differences. Christianity is monotheistic, with belief in a God who is Person. Most Christians are rather hazy about the beliefs and teachings of other religions (and, quite often, about their own). One would hope that Fr Chandler is better informed than most, if only because the area where he serves is ethnically and culturally diverse. Whatever Ms Withell’s personal beliefs may or may not be, she may have misjudged the uneasiness felt by the priest with her use of the term ‘spiritual yoga’. Many people want to be spiritual without being religious and do not realise the dilemma they pose the religious!
Perhaps the most useful lesson we can learn from this particular dispute is the need to inform ourselves about the beliefs and practices of others, rather than simply assuming that we know. I am certainly not taking sides. Fr Chandler has highlighted for me the problem of how to be Catholic in a plural society, and Ms Withell has made me think again about how much religious knowledge we can take for granted.