Culture / Kirstin Fairnie

Blasphemous Yoga

Blasphemous yoga: it sounds like the overworked name of a teen-angst band, but this unlikely syntagm is just another symptom of the Catholic church’s ability to shock us.

I would have been able to understand Father John Chandler objecting to that kind of yoga class. But this week, a Catholic priest banned a ‘spiritual yoga’ class from meeting in his church hall. He claimed that it was inappropriate to use a Catholic space to practice a ‘Hindu’ tradition (in fact yoga is not limited to the hindu faith).

Yoga classes are held in sports centres across Britain, so either we have forgotten yoga’s original spiritual use, or sports centres are endowed with a blessed presence. In fact, I think both are partly true. I don’t know if practicing Hindus feel offended by the use of yoga as a fitness activity, but I think that some people who initially practice it as a sport later discover that it enables them to connect with a je ne sais quoi that in many religions is called the ‘Holy Spirit’.

What does spirituality mean in 21st-century Britain? To describe as spiritual the relaxed satisfaction one feels at the end of a yoga class doesn’t seem over-the-top: in an increasingly secularised Britain, I think it is important that even people of no professed faith have the ability connect with their own personal sense of spirituality. Even in formal religions, descriptions of holy spirits are invariably nebulous, so only a dogmatic preacher would claim that connecting with a sense of spirituality through yoga could only be one type of religious spirit.

The Christian tradition holds that the Holy Spirit is everywhere, and that Christian places of worship are houses of the Lord. So surely if yoga induced a sense of spirituality in a Catholic Church hall, it could arguably be a Christian sense of spirituality. If Father Chandler had been confident with his own church’s dogma, he would not have seen the influence of other religions as a threat.

Practising an element of one religion to enrich another strikes me as progressive. Religion is of course a hugely controversial subject, no less today than it has been for thousands of years. But haven’t we learned anything from hundreds of years of oppression and violence in the name of religion? Thankfully for anyone who doesn’t want to see a monotone Britain, attempts to exclude particular religious groups from society simply don’t work: they’re a waste of effort, reputation, and, if nothing else, money that could be spent more effectively in the community. We need to at least try committing to inclusion and multi-culturalism. If that doesn’t work, we can try something else, but since we haven’t properly committed yet, we cannot say that it’s impossible. A good first step would surely be to share positive elements between religions. So, for example, Christians could deepen their understanding of the gospel by spending time focussing their minds through yoga: if nothing else, at least they’d all tone up by Christmas. The hindu culture has shared yoga with the rest of the world, helping thousands of people deal with stress and work out. By banning it Father Chandler is sharing a much less positive message that, rightly or wrongly, could reflect poorly on the rest of the world’s impression of his religion.

Kirstin Fairnie

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