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Can we practice yoga, Catholics ask their church

Catholic groups in Mumbai are debating about yoga’s compatibility with their religious beliefs.

mumbai Updated: Oct 23, 2017 00:21 IST
Manoj R Nair
Manoj R Nair
Hindustan Times
(Picture for representation)

After a church in Andheri started yoga classes in its premises, Catholic groups in Mumbai are once again debating about yoga’s compatibility with their religious beliefs.

Yoga is a term for a wide range of practices, including asanas, breathing exercises, meditation and chanting. Its practitioners have said that regular yoga has helped their mental well-being; some have said that the exercises have made them feel fitter.

Yoga has been adopted by diverse groups. A drug de-addiction centre in Mumbai run by a Catholic order, for instance, uses yoga as part of the treatment programme.

Not everyone has embraced yoga unquestioningly; here some have likened yoga to esoteric practices done by cult-like groups. Sone church-goers feel that yoga’s stress on the unity of the human mind with god conflicts with their religion’s focus on god. “We are taught to pray outward to god, whereas yoga asks its practioners to look inward,” said a church member.

Credible information on yoga is hard to come by and some church members have a question: Can they practice yoga without feeling guilty of having trodden on their religious beliefs?

The Andheri group, which has been discussing the issue on social forums, said they were confused when a newsletter published by the Catholic order that runs the church featured an article on how yoga helps the mind. “We wanted some clarifications,” said a church member. Is yoga fine as an exercise and are we not supposed to go beyond that?”

Their confusion, the church member said, has grown after a shrine in Mumbai depicted Christ dressed as an Indian ascetic, with arms in a position that could be interpreted as yogic poses. “We are Indians and have no problem with Indian-syled iconography, but Christ in a yoga pose?,” wondered one man who wanted guidance.

There are no answers to the questions - at least from the local church. Father Charles, the head priest at the Andheri church, said, “I have no views on yoga, but in our parish we are offering (yoga) courses to senior citizens. There has been no objections to the courses and I have not received any complaints.”

Another priest said that he was not aware of the local church’s policy on yoga. “It depends; yoga is allowed in the church halls, but not in the main church building,” the priest said.

Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church, is known for his more liberal views on issues like divorce and homosexuality - though many who favour ordainment of women and openly-gay people in the clergy do not think he is doing enough - but he has not made any direct reference to yoga and its practice. Recently, he is reported to have said that courses in yoga and zen - a Buddhist practice - cannot give believers the ‘freedom’ that comes from belief in God. But he has also said that catechism - religious instruction, and spirituality courses do not necessarily provide the answers about God.

The debate on yoga is not new. A few years ago, an article by Bishop Thomas Dabre of Pune on the benefits of yoga, published in the local Catholic Church’s weekly newspaper, become an issue of contention.

Critics of the article said that it misrepresented the church’s position on yoga, but the bishop replied that yoga provides physical and mental benefits, and has therapeutic value.

Father Joe Pereira, founder and managing trustee of Kripa Foundation, a group that helps people with drug addiction, had told this reporter that he has been practicing yoga since 1968 and teaching it since 1971. He said that he used yoga in his de-addiction programmes. “The church in India has never looked at Yoga as wrong,” he had said. “It is a fundamentalist view.”

But some church members wanted more clarity. One person wrote last week to the archbishop of Bombay, asking for his advice on the subject. “The debate (about yoga) has been going on for long,” said a member of the Andheri church. “Can we do it as asanas, or as a form of exercise? We want to know.”

First Published: Oct 23, 2017 00:21 IST