Yoga is more than just exercise

“Catholic priest bans yoga classes” was a small item in the Telegraph last week. It seems that Fr John Chandler of St Edmund’s Church, Southampton, is in trouble for cancelling yoga and Pilates classes which had been booked for his church hall. He says that at first the hall had been booked only for Pilates, but classes were later advertised for “spiritual yoga” as well. According to a spokesman for the Portsmouth Catholic diocese, “It’s not possible for Catholic premises to be used for non-Christian activities and there is a dilemma with yoga as it can be seen as Hindu meditation or as relaxation.” Mrs Cori Withell, who was to lead the classes, insisted that “Yoga is not religious: spiritual but not religious.”

Who is in the right here? Decisions are left to the local priest’s discretion; he has to discern whether parish premises are being used merely for exercises such as Pilates, a physical fitness system developed by a German called Joseph Pilates in the early 20th century, or for offshoots of Eastern religions, with all their non-Christian assumptions and beliefs. But even Pilates is not entirely innocent, it seems; a later hybrid development is “yogilates”, combining aspects of yoga as well as Pilates, so perhaps Fr Chandler is being sensible here, rather than over-cautious.

Also, although Mrs Withell makes a distinction between what is “spiritual” and what is “religious”, there is too much overlap to separate them where yoga is concerned. According to Wiki, “yoga” means “union” and true yoga is union with the Divine i.e. it is not just a set of physical exercises. It is a comprehensive system lasting a lifetime if practised properly, all about achieving spiritual enlightenment. But such “enlightenment” and “the Divine” are far from the Christian concept of the Trinitarian God, repentance or sacramental grace. Fr Jeremy Davies, the official exorcist for the Westminster archdiocese, warns against the practice of yoga: “Beware of any claims to mediate beneficial energies (e.g. Reiki)…any alternative therapy with its roots in Eastern religion… They are not harmless”, he insists.

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When I was at my convent boarding school I was briefly interested in yoga. I found a book called “Christian Yoga” written by a French Benedictine who believed yogic exercises and breathing techniques could be harnessed for Christian meditation; instead of intoning Sanskrit words you invoked the name of Jesus and so on. Perhaps something similar is taught at certain Catholic retreat centres where yoga is advertised? My own youthful involvement was curtailed by a friend who insisted on barging into my room whenever a “session” was in progress. I also got bored; yoga, like youth, is wasted on the young.

But Fr Davies’s reference to Reiki did bring me up short: not long ago I won a raffle prize – which turned out to be a free Reiki session with a local practitioner. I went along out of mere curiosity, ignorantly thinking I might get a foot massage which might be quite pleasant. All the practitioner did was stroke my toes, at the same time solemnly telling me she could sense a build-up of “toxins” in my body which she hoped to “expel”. I seem to recall scented candles and low “meditative” music in the background. What she said was ridiculous and I felt ridiculous. Are people actually gullible enough to pay for this mumbo-jumbo?

Later, I checked out Reiki on wiki: a Japanese technique for stress reduction that also promotes “healing”. It is administered by “Laying on hands” and is based on the idea that an unseen “life force energy” flows through us; if one’s “life force energy” is low, then we are more likely to get sick. Its adherents believe it is “effective in helping virtually every known illness and malady and always creates a beneficial effect.” Further, “Because Reiki comes from God many people find that using it puts them more in touch with the experience of their religion.”

As with yoga, one has to point out that this is not the Christian God. It is trying to achieve spiritual wholeness on the cheap, by following a technique, and through a sentimental feeling of “spirituality”; there is no Way of the Cross here. I subsequently noticed two advertisements in our current local directory: one offers “Healing, with energy, light and love”, offered by an “intuitive life coach, Energy Healer and Reiki Master”; the other offers a range of “wellbeing therapies” which include aromatherapy, holistic massage, Indian head massage, reflexology, Reiki, Pilates, acupuncture and hypnotherapy. Whew.
I think Fr Chandler would be well advised to avoid booking any of these practices in his parish hall. Satan is real and he is devilishly clever.

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