JUST BREATHE

Catholic priests are stirring up an epidemic of yogaphobia

We see yoga practically everywhere we turn, from strip-mall yoga studios to advertisements for the Gap. So it seems reasonable to assume that yoga is near-universally accepted, if not practiced. But a growing number of individuals and institutions oppose yoga, and actively encourage fear of it.

Yoga is satanic and “leads to evil,” warned Gabriele Amorth, Italian priest and chief exorcist for the Diocese of Rome, reported Vatican Insider in Nov. 2011. Three years later in July 2014, Father Padraig O’Baoill of County Donegal, Ireland, warned his parishioners against “endangering” their souls by practicing yoga, which he called “unsavoury.” Other high-profile opponents of yoga in the US include Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Pat Robertson, television evangelist and founder of the Christian Coalition of America.

It’s what I call the Christian yogaphobic position.

The danger of yoga, according to yogaphobics, is its Hindu essence, thought to be incompatible with Christianity, as I argue in Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture (Oxford, 2014). Even Pope Francis, idol of the leftist media, has become part of this yogaphobic maelstrom.  

In one of the most high-profile cases of Christian yogaphobia, in Feb. 2013, some parents in Encinitas, California, complained that yoga classes from their kids’ public schools were promoting Hinduism. Supported by the National Center for Law & Policy, an evangelical Christian civil liberties organization, the parents sued their school district for introducing religion into the curriculum. Although the judge ruled in favor of the school district, the fight continues.

Even Pope Francis, idol of the leftist media, has become part of this yogaphobic maelstrom.

At one Jan. 9, 2015 morning mass in the Santa Marta residence in Vatican City, the Pope spoke of that day’s gospel reading, and mentioned that only the Holy Spirit could open peoples’ hearts and free them to love, no matter how many catechism courses, spirituality courses, zen courses or yoga courses they took.

It didn’t seem like an intentional dig. The Pope had, after all, listed yoga alongside catechism classes and so did not set it apart as a practice that Catholics should avoid altogether, or as something incompatible with Catholic identity. Rather, he seemed to simply suggest the unique importance of a personal relationship with the Holy Spirit. But one conservative immediately spun the Pope’s words as another contribution to the growing, global yogaphobia movement.

In a homily on the devil and exorcism delivered on Feb. 8, 2015, in County  Breathing can become an “idol and thus an obstacle” to experiencing God. Londonderry, Northern Ireland, Father Roland Colhoun warned that yoga leads to the “Kingdom of Darkness” and draws people toward “Satan and the fallen angels.” In a later Feb. 23 interview about his homily with the Derry Journal, Colhoun misquoted the Pope:

Pope Francis said ‘”do not seek spiritual answers in yoga classes.” Yoga is certainly a risk. There’s the spiritual health risk. When you take up those practices from other cultures, which are outside our Christian domain, you don’t know what you are opening yourself up to.

The “bad spirit,” he added, could be caught in all sorts of ways:

I’m not saying everyone gets it, or that it happens every time, and people may well be doing yoga harmlessly, but there’s always a risk and that’s why the Pope mentioned it and that’s why we talk about that in terms of the danger of the new age movement and the danger of the occult today. That’s the fear.

Other contemporary high-profile Catholics have identified yoga as self-destructive activity, and associated it with Satan. In Selling Yoga, for example, I write about a 1989 letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) of the Roman Catholic Church, titled: Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation.

The letter warns of “dangers and errors” in fusing Christian and non-Christian meditative methods. It was written by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later to be known as Pope Benedict XVI, and approved for publication by then-Pope John Paul II.

Understandably, the CDF wants to prevent Catholics from undermining Church doctrine, but the letter does more—it incites fear, by judging eastern body practices as not just incompatible with Catholic doctrine, but dangerous.

The letter warns that unless a person is an advanced religious adept in the Church, no bodily experiences can be legitimately identified as spiritual. It also asks that Christians who have acknowledged the meditative role of body practices avoid the “exaggerations and partiality” of eastern methods.

Postures and breathing, according to the letter, can become an “idol and thus an obstacle” to experiencing God. It also warns that such body practices “can degenerate into a cult of the body” with severe consequences, including “mental schizophrenia,” “psychic disturbance,” or “moral deviations.” Even innocuous comments by powerful, high-profile people, such as the Pope, can be co-opted and put in service of a conservative agenda. 

The Christian yogaphobic position leans on the misconception that yoga is definitively Hindu, an idea that ignores yoga’s actual history and lived reality. Selling Yoga cites many scholars who have shown that yoga has always taken a variety of forms in South Asia as Hindu, Buddhist, Jains, and others prescribed them.

Recent scholarship has also problematized the identification of modern postural yoga, that widely popular physical fitness system, which involves the movement through physical postures and the synchronization of those postures with breathing, as Hindu. In fact, modern postural yoga is a product of a 20th-century response to transnational ideas and movements, including military calisthenics, modern medicine, and the Western European and North American physical culture of gymnasts, bodybuilders, martial experts, and contortionists.

Nothing like modern postural yoga appeared in the historical record up to that time.

There is no evidence that yoga will make you convert to Hinduism, self-destruct, have a schizophrenic breakdown, or worship Satan.

The more legitimate fear should be that yogaphobia has become so ubiquitous that even otherwise innocuous comments by powerful, high-profile people, such as the Pope, can be co-opted and put in service of a conservative agenda. This can prevent experimentation with widely popularized fitness-oriented yoga, even though there are many evidence-based claims regarding its physical and mental health benefits.

And when powerful, charismatic religious leaders are publicly cited insisting upon apparently irreconcilable differences between them (that is, Hindus) and us (that is, Christians), we can also expect real social consequences.

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