The Syro-Malabar Synod of Bishops issued a note for the clergy, saying that yoga is beneficial for the body and the mind, but should not to be confused with spirituality. The practice is compulsory in Indian schools, but is often used to promote “a Hindu lifestyle."
Mumbai (AsiaNews) – The Syro-Malabar Church, one of the three rites of the Catholic Church in India, has issued a note to its clergy, saying that "Yoga is not a means to experience the divine, although it may contribute to physical and mental health".
In the statement, the Church’s Synod of Bishops recognises the important role yoga plays in Indian culture, but adds that it "must be considered as a physical exercise, a posture to concentrate or meditate." By contrast, "the divine experience does not need any particular posture."
For former Synod spokesman Fr Paul Thelakat, yoga is “acceptable and useful for concentration, meditation and for the holistic well being of body and mind. However,” he told AsiaNews, “the Synod does not consider yoga as a mythic or esoteric short cut to the spiritual life.”
Yoga is a practice of mental and physical relaxation that originated in India and spread around the world. It combines physical exercises and breathing techniques. However, in Hinduism, the practice also represents a spiritual quest through which people experience the contact with the deity.
In India, yoga is a required subject in schools. Every year, on International Yoga Day of (21 June), education in schools takes a back seat to yoga events and initiatives.
In the recent past, some Indian activists and intellectuals have claimed that the observance is mandatory, forcing students to sing Hindu hymns and mantra. This limits freedom of worship among minorities and represents a lack of "sensitivity" towards Christian and Muslim students.
Against this background, a Pentecostal pastor was arrested in Tamil Nadu last week because he had criticised "compulsory yoga in schools and elsewhere”, which “forcibly promotes a Hindu lifestyle." At the same time, he had also highlighted yoga’s beneficial properties for mind and body.
The note, signed by Card George Alencherry, head of the Synod, clarifies the position of the Church in the matter. The "God in whom we believe is a personal God,” it reads. “God is not someone who can be reached through a particular posture.” For this reason, "It is not quite right to think that the experience of God and the personal encounter with the Lord is possible through Yoga."
In view of this, “every one should take utmost care to avoid getting into those prayer groups and spiritual movements which are against the Catholic faith and do not recognise the official teachings of the Church".
In fact, the “Synod does not consider yoga as a mythic or esoteric short cut to spiritual life,” Fr Paul Thelakat added. The “Catholic Church teaches the ways of self-purification and union with God are found in asceticism and prayer.”
As a Catholic priest, who has practiced yoga for years, he believes the Synod is right "to point out the Church's teaching on spirituality, which has nothing to do with magical practices."