A Catholic college in Kansas has decided to do away with its yoga classes, recasting them instead as “lifestyle fitness.” Administrators are concerned that offering yoga will give the mistaken impression that the Catholic Church is down with Hindu mysticism. It’s not! It swears!!
According to the Benedictine College Circuit, the decision to refashion yoga as a non-spiritual stretching hour was made in response to “a growing number of concerns from students, alumni and faculty and by the request of Archbishop Joseph Naumann and Abbot James Albers.” From the paper:
“Yoga as created has some potential for eastern mysticism which has caused concern among members of the Catholic Church,” said Stephen Minnis, president of the college. “[Archbishop Naumann] has expressed his concerns and the issues surrounding that. We asked ourselves if there was a way to bring those yoga benefits to our students and faculty without the possible effects of eastern mysticism and are currently investigating other alternatives.”
In short, Naumann wants to cherry-pick the aspects of a millennia-old tradition that comport with his philosophies, then repackage them under a new, unequivocally secular name. This is not to say that pricey studios and retailers like Lululemon haven’t already done a thorough job of co-opting and monetizing what was once an essentially metaphysical practice. But for the college to willfully purge yoga of its inherent spiritualism misunderstands the core benefits of doing it in the first place.
The struggle over the morality of yoga is one that’s haunted the church for years. As one writer for the Catholic apostolate Women of Grace wrote: “Even in [yoga] classes where Christians change the names of the postures to more biblical concepts doesn’t negate the source of the [preternatural] power within the postures.”
That line was quoted in a 2012 article that appeared on the website Catholic Answers, titled “The Problem With Yoga.” The piece itself takes issue with the notion that a pose is intrinsically problematic, pointing out that kneeling is a gesture associated with Christianity, but used in plenty of secular activities.
Nevertheless, the author does ultimately conclude that “yoga is incompatible with Christian spirituality.” But!
But if you can separate the spiritual/meditational aspects of yoga from the body postures and breathing techniques common to yoga, then you might be able to use those postures and techniques beneficially for health.
Not everyone seems to feel that way. Reached by the Kansas City Star, the chancellor of the city’s archdiocese, Rev. John Riley, sent the following statement:
“Many people do not realize that yoga … is intended to be more than a series of exercises coupled with deliberative breathing and meditation,” Riley said in an emailed statement. “It is a mind and body practice developed under Hinduism, the goal of which is spiritual purification that will lead to a higher level of understanding and eventually union with the divine.
“Although the Catholic Church teaches that much good can be found in other religions, Catholics believe it is only brought to fullness in Christ. … It is for these reasons that Catholics are alerted to the dangers of the practice of yoga and are encouraged to look for other exercise alternatives that do not incorporate a spiritual dimension.”
Benedictine students have started a petition protesting the cancellation of yoga, which has garnered around 170 signatures as of this writing.
The school’s current yoga teacher, Julie Romano, said she’s unsure whether she’ll continue teaching in the event that the rebranding effort goes through.
“I have a moral objection to taking something that people spent thousands of years working on and calling it something else,” she told the Circuit. “I don’t see a conflict in yoga and Catholicism and I don’t see why we should call it something else to appease others.”