Woman practices yoga during a mass floating event in the Dead Sea. Yoga is a universal phenomenon and not a religious practice, claims Indian yoga gurus. (Photo: Reuters)
Woman practices yoga during a mass floating event in the Dead Sea. Yoga is a universal phenomenon and not a religious practice, claims Indian yoga gurus. (Photo: Reuters)

Father Chandler, a priest at St Edmund's Church in Southampton, has banned a yoga instructor from conducting classes on the church's premises. Fr Chandler has indicated the practice of yoga (an ancient form of physical, mental and spiritual exercise) is a Hindu religious practice and is therefore inconsistent with the Catholic Church's doctrines.

"Yoga is a Hindu spiritual exercise. Being a Catholic church we have to promote the gospel, and that's what we use our premises for. We did say that yoga could not take place. It's the fact that it's a different religious practice going on in a Catholic church. It's not compatible. We are not saying that yoga is bad or wrong," Fr Chandler explained in a BBC report.

Yoga - A 'Universal' Phenomenon

However, the banning of yoga classes and Fr Chandler's remarks have drawn criticism from several quarters, including teachers and practitioners from India, who spoke exclusively to IBTimes UK. They described the basic concept of yoga - the elimination of distracting forces within the mind - as being prevalent in religious texts of all faiths, including Christianity.

Raj Kamal, who holds a degree in Applied Yogic Science from the Bihar School of Yoga (one of India's oldest and most acclaimed schools, located in the eastern state of Bihar), debunked the connection between yoga and Hinduism by pointing out its existence in multiple cultures across the world.

"Archaeological findings of Mayan and Incas paintings, ancient cave paintings in Russia, Australia, China and elsewhere have all shown people in yogic postures," he explained, while also adding that Christian texts, like the Apocalypse of Peter, contained references to mental and spiritual states of mind similar to yogic practice.

Yoga and Hinduism

The connection between India and yoga (and consequently the Indian religion of Hinduism and yoga) arose because the form of the exercise most popular today was created in that country. Indeed, even the word "yoga" is of Indian origin.

Kamal, who now runs the Yoga Wellness Center in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru, admits the fact "yoga" is a word from the ancient language in which Hinduism's religious texts are written can create confusion. And it doesn't help, he adds, that groups with particular agendas tend to portray the practice of yoga as being intrinsic to that of the Hindu religion.

However, Devatma, a teacher and co-founder of the Yoga Wellness Center, points out that despite such misinformation, the practice has followers from across faiths and that continues to grow.

"If yoga was a Hindu religious practice, we would not have had people from other religions, including Islam and Christianity, coming to us to learn it," he stresses, adding, "Yoga is about practicing various asanas (postures) to quiet your mind."

A pregnant woman practices yoga during the summer solstice in New York's Times Square, 20 June, 2012. (Photo: REUTERS)
A pregnant woman practices yoga during the summer solstice in New York's Times Square, 20 June, 2012. (Photo: REUTERS)

Devatma further argues that the role of meditation in yoga, which requires the chanting of the word "Om", is misunderstood. The perception sometimes is that because "Om" is a Sanskritic verbalisation it has links to Hinduism. The truth, he explains, is it is simply a technique of meditation and has no religious significance.

"Om is a meaningless word. When you chant Om or Ameen (Muslims say it after offering prayer), both show same frequency of 136.1 Hertz," Devatama added, reiterating yoga was simply a "universal" phenomenon which has become hugely popular. The fact mass yoga classes were organised in New York City to welcome the summer solstice would suggest the same thing.

"Yoga is such a universal phenomenon and such is its fame there are many variations and schools across the world - like the Scandinavian Yoga and Meditation School and even Christian Yoga," Devatma concluded.

Christian Yoga

There is a school of thought in the US, a yogic school of thought, which believes there can be a Christian approach to yoga. The instructor of the Christian Yoga school, Susan Bordenkircher, is a certified yoga instructor and the creator of a video combining Hatha Yoga (an intense form of abstract meditation) and Christian meditative techniques.

Commenting on the St Edmund's Church, Bordenkircher said that yoga was designed to bring mind, body and spirit into harmony and can be used in the context of any faith.

"Yoga predates Hinduism by hundreds of years and was designed as a lifestyle approach which involved a spiritual component. The spiritual component was designed to align with one's personal faith, not one particular religious practice or denomination. The Hindu faith was one of the first (but not the only) to take the practice of yoga and make it part of their religion," she said, adding, "As Christians become more educated and experienced in yoga, they often can enjoy a 'Christian spiritual experience' of cultivating a calm, contemplative spirit that is quiet enough to hear God, to encourage a deeper prayer life, to be thankful for body, breath and movement and to be fully present to experience the life for which we are created."