Catholic priests are stirring up an epidemic of yogaphobia – Andrea R. Jain

Prof Andrea R. Jain“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.” – Prof Andrea R. Jain

Fr. Gabriele AmorthWe 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 nearly universally accepted, if not practised. 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). 

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. 

Pope FrancisEven 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  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.

Pope Benedict XVI: As Cardinal Ratzinger he was the head of the Inquisition.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.”

Fr Roland ColhounThe 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 Hindus, Buddhists, 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. 

Shiva wearing a yoga bandThe 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. – Quartz, 26 March 2015

» Andrea R. Jain is an Assistant Professor, Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis, Indianapolis, Indiana.

See also

5 Responses

  1. Part 1

    Part 2

    This is the best interview with Gerald Posner, exposes the Vatican to to bottom.

  2. I’m a North American who has been practicing and teaching Sivananda Yoga and mantra meditation for over 25 years and I have to say that not all Catholics are the victims of yogaphobia. Aside from having had Catholics in my classes, I have been invited to give a talk on Hinduism, Advaita Vedanta and Yoga to a group of retired or former Catholic priests next month. Yes, there could be resistance but perhaps not. After all, there is very little difference between Hinduism and Catholicism (but that is another topic for another time). I can let you know the results if you are interested.

    • It will be interesting to know of that meeting & their responses.There will be something of every religion in Hinduism except their iconoclasm!

    • About not all Catholics buying the Church propaganda : thats nice to know. But that doesn’t negate the Church’s ability to influence & its influence over those of its flock still under its power.I had a Catholic comment that we are trying to spread Hinduism/ /making Yoga Hindu for having the Shanthi mantras at the end of a meditation class. This was 5-6 years back & in India. It really left me speechless to hear it. reading this makes partial sense. Though how any one can deny its Hindu character is beyond my understanding. While doing Yoga wouldn’t make a one a Hindu & it doesn’t deny one from worshipping their Favourite God, It remains a Hindu practice; the same way we have accepted Sunday as a weekly holiday which is a Christian practice but we don’t become Christians because we follow it!

  3. Surya Namaskar

    The Catholic Church is quite right. Yoga is a Hindu practice.

    That the Catholic Church then spins it as a demonic practice is to be expected. Yoga gives spiritual independence and spiritual independence for Catholic ‘sheep’ is what Catholic bishops and priests fear most.

    They would be out of work—and little boys—if the faithful ‘sheep’ ever got independence!

    The professor’s argument that yoga is not Hindu is really quite specious. She presents yoga as a purely secular practice. What is her real agenda for arguing thus, we wonder?

    Yoga is a revered school of Hindu philosophy—just for starters. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras date to the 5th century CE. Because Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs—all Hindus in fact (though they deny it)—practice yoga doesn’t make it less Hindu.

    When she writes that “modern postural yoga is a product of a 20th-century response to transnational ideas and movements” she is being untruthful (or at least ignorant of the facts). If “postural yoga” means Hatha Yoga and asanas, then Hatha Yoga was codified already in the 11th century by Gorakshanath and the Nath Yogis.

    Of course yoga has been secularised and money-fied in the US by clever Hindu entrepreneurs and godmen. But that is not yoga. That is the physical fitness business in the name of yoga. The professor should be more clear about what she is actually talking about.

    American Hindus have worked very hard to reclaim yoga for Hinduism. They have been quite successful. We really don’t need the likes of Prof Jain trying to tell us otherwise just because the Pope and his priests get jittery whenever they hear the word yoga.

    Madam Professor, please read what Ramesh Rao has written under the title “It is wrong to deny yoga’s Hindu origins” in The Guardian.

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