Yoga and religion: the storm continues

……here we go again…..a few years ago there was a storm that began in a teacup when a yoga teacher had her classes discontinued in a church hall as the religious organisation involved in the case felt that the philosophy of yoga was at odds with christianity……interesting…..and THEN came the knee jerk reactions as churches around the country panicked and started cancelling yoga classes. It nearly happened to me. I used to hire a church hall in my local area (that shall remain nameless, because my intention is to educate not mud-sling) who, having allowed me to run my classes there for over a year, panicked when the aforementioned story hit the press and asked if I could teach yoga “without the philosophy, or any chanting, or incense” …???

I said No, and got into a debate the vicar, about what his issues were with yoga. It transpires that he had no real idea about what yoga was, and was not, and they let me stay. Curiously,  at the SAME time I was working there, the church opened it’s doors to a Muslim group to come and pray, which was FANTASTIC! A local spiritual epicentre encouraging and embracing world religions? Yes please…….but the spiritual element of yoga? NO THANKS! Weird. But I felt undermined and via various small means they made it clear that they did not want me there, so a short while after, I upped and left, and took my students to another church hall who had a more open minded attitude.

Thankfully since then, there have been no further episodes, until now. I was sitting in a cafe on Sunday treating myself to a long read of the Sunday papers (bliss) over a latte and a muffin, when I found the article below. Heart drop. Here we go again.

Ok first things first: the facts. There is debate about the origins of yoga, some research suggest that yoga pre-dates Hinduism, some that it grew alongside, and others that it sprang from within this Eastern Religion. But it is not a religion, though it does UNDOUBTEDLY  have a spiritual element. I find  it interesting that the yoga teacher who wrote the article was not aware herself of the debate surrounding Yoga’s ancient origins, (they teach us all about it at yoga school) but therein lies another hornets nest. Yoga is a complex discipline that requires years of study to begin to understand, and yet… can qualify as a “YOGA TEACHER” in a week at some schools…..don’t get me started. And her comment about people being open to a “satanic presence” during relaxation, made me so sad.  I could see ahead the unnecessary turbulence this well-intended but hugely inappropriate comment was going to cause, as every vicar, pastor, father of every church across the land, looked at his or her Letting Agreements and feels the pressure to investigate who they are letting to and for what purpose, and quite rightly so; if I were in their shoes I would investigate such a situation, because it would be my JOB to take care of my parishioners and protect them from harm.

The problem begins as it began for me, when there is no investigation, but knee jerk panic, and cancelling of classes. To my mind, church halls are community resources. Less people go to church these days, but many go to activities in church premises, and I see that as a triumph for the outreach role of religious organisations of all denominations. When my babies were little I went along week after week to my local toddler group in Stoughton, run in a church centre, by christian volunteers who gently showed us the strength of their faith through their kindness, tolerance and understanding. I always felt a warm glow when I was there and have many happy memories of sitting with my fat babies on my lap singing “Jesus love is very wonderful” quite unselfconsciously (and doing all the actions: “so wide you can’t get over it!”) even though I choose not to attend a church or temple, and have not  fully subscribed to any particular religion.

The bedrock principles that underlie yoga are: to cause no harm, to tell the truth, to not covet or take what is not yours, to use sexual energy wisely,  to be pure in body and mind, to learn to be content with what you have, to be self-disciplined, to study the self and to surrender. Yoga takes the notion out into the world that we are all connected, all the same, and encourages people to be open, vulnerable and tender, all qualities that this world desperately needs. I fail to see how this philosphy conflicts with any organised religion.

But it has started again…..a phone call just two days after this article was in the Sunday Times from a colleague saying that her church owned premises have asked her to change the name of her class from Yoga to something else……how very very disappointing. In this case, they appear to be saying “We don’t mind what you do, as long as you change the name of it, so we don’t get any hassle” and that is the stance of a coward. There are yoga groups for and run by Jews, Catholics and Christians to my knowledge, who embrace the spirituality of yoga and use it as a spring board to deepen their faith, and as a useful tool to discuss and experience spirituality and a sense of connection between all of humanity. I would rather that church owned premises were clear and not straddling the fence. If they understand what yoga is and feel it is a conflict, then they do not open their doors to yoga classes. If they understand what yoga is and welcome it, then great. I respect decisions that have been made when the persons deciding have all the information necessary to make such a decision, and then the integrity to stick to it, come what may.

Here is the article.  Lets hope yoga students won’t be having to move to new premises any time soon, as this often results in classes being  cancelled, or moved away from the local area, making them inaccessible to many students (usually those on a low income who do not run a car, and this often includes many older ladies and gentlemen who walk or get the bus to class). Available properties to rent are like Hen’s Teeth, and I do believe that yoga helps, unifies and heals, and it would be a damn shame if some churches try to put a stop to that.


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