The Devil wears Yoga

The Daily Telegraph has been having a great deal of fun with a story about the former exorcist for the Diocese of Rome, Fr. Gabriele Amorth. The 86-year old priest had been invited to a film festival to speak before the screening of “The Rite,” a new release starring Anthony Hopkins.

In the course of his remarks, Father Amorth denounced yoga as Satanic and said the Harry Potter novels were tools of the devil.

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! — yes, he really did say that.

The Telegraph sub-editor who came up with the title for this article, “Harry Potter and yoga are evil says Catholic Church exorcist,” should see a little extra in his pay packet this week, as this is a Google search engine dream. If he had only been able to work in Justin Bieber he could have crashed the Telegraph‘s servers.

While the story is great fun and smartly written, I came away from it thinking it was not fair. It links the pope to Father Amorth’s over the top comments and gives the impression the exorcist’s views are those of the Catholic Church. The Telegraph also avoids the question of the spiritual roots of yoga.

It opens strongly:

Father Gabriele Amorth, who for years was the Vatican’s chief exorcist and claims to have cleansed hundreds of people of evil spirits, said yoga is Satanic because it leads to a worship of Hinduism and “all eastern religions are based on a false belief in reincarnation.”

Reading J.K. Rowling’s  Harry Potter books is no less dangerous, said the 86-year-old priest, who is the honorary president for life of the International Association of Exorcists, which he founded in 1990, and whose favourite film is the 1973 horror classic, The Exorcist.

This sort of thing is great fun for a reporter — no hemming and hawing nor any need to ask Father Amorth what he really thinks. The story then quotes the exorcist and provides some foundation for the opening lede.

The Harry Potter books, which have sold millions of copies worldwide, “seem innocuous” but in fact encourage children to believe in black magic and wizardry, Father Amorth said.

“Practising yoga is Satanic, it leads to evil just like reading Harry Potter,” he told a film festival in Umbria this week, where he was invited to introduce The Rite, a film about exorcism starring Sir Anthony Hopkins as a Jesuit priest.

“In Harry Potter the Devil acts in a crafty and covert manner, under the guise of extraordinary powers, magic spells and curses,” said the priest, who in 1986 was appointed the chief exorcist for the Diocese of Rome.

“Satan is always hidden and what he most wants is for us not to believe in his existence. He studies every one of us and our tendencies towards good and evil, and then he offers temptations.” Science was incapable of explaining evil, said Father Amorth, who has written two books on his experiences as an exorcist. “It’s not worth a jot. The scientist simply explores what God has already created.”

How about that! What a great line … yoga is Satanic and leads to evil just like reading Harry Potter. There is plenty in that sentence to upset the average Telegraph reader as she peruses the paper with her morning tea (hopefully before her yoga class.) The second half of Fr. Amorth’s quotes are less vigorous and taken by themselves do not raise any eyebrows. At this point the Telegraph seeks to place Fr. Amorth’s views in context — but it does so in a somewhat oleaginous way.

His views may seem extreme, but in fact reflect previous warnings by Pope Benedict XVI, when as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger he was the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s enforcer of doctrinal orthodoxy.

In 1999, six years before he succeeded John Paul II as Pope, he issued a document which warned Roman Catholics of the dangers of yoga, Zen, transcendental meditation and other ‘eastern’ practises.

They could “degenerate into a cult of the body” that debases Christian prayer, the document said.

Yoga poses could create a feeling of well-being in the body but it was erroneous to confuse that with “the authentic consolations of the Holy Spirit,” the document said.

The “enforcer” line was fun for a few weeks mid 2005, but is a bit stale at this point. However, this linkage between Fr. Amorth’s the devil wears yoga pants and reads Harry Potter and the Catholic Church’s warnings against the New Age won’t do. “Jesus Christ: The Bearer of the Water of Life. A Christian reflection on the New Age” lays out the church’s teaching on “some of the traditions which flow into New Age … ancient Egyptian occult practices, Cabbalism, early Christian gnosticism, Sufism, the lore of the Druids, Celtic Christianity, mediaeval alchemy, Renaissance hermeticism, Zen Buddhism, Yoga and so on.”

This has nothing to do with yoga poses, and everything to do with the spiritual practices of yoga. The Vatican document explains:

Yoga, zen, transcendental meditation and tantric exercises lead to an experience of self-fulfilment or enlightenment. Peak-experiences (reliving one’s birth, travelling to the gates of death, biofeedback, dance and even drugs – anything which can provoke an altered state of consciousness) are believed to lead to unity and enlightenment. Since there is only one Mind, some people can be channels for higher beings. Every part of this single universal being has contact with every other part. The classic approach in New Age is transpersonal psychology, whose main concepts are the Universal Mind, the Higher Self, the collective and personal unconscious and the individual ego. The Higher Self is our real identity, a bridge between God as divine Mind and humanity. Spiritual development is contact with the Higher Self, which overcomes all forms of dualism between subject and object, life and death, psyche and soma, the self and the fragmentary aspects of the self. Our limited personality is like a shadow or a dream created by the real self. The Higher Self contains the memories of earlier (re-)incarnations.

The philosophical premise then of yoga is one that profoundly conflicts with the Christian world view. However, this review is not the place for a full discussion of the church’s teachings on this point. Suffice it to say the potted explanation provided by the Telegraph is not adequate to the task of explaining why the Catholic Church is uneasy with yoga.

The article then turns to critiques of Father Amorth’s views, noting “Italian yoga schools said Father Amorth’s criticism was absurd.”

“It’s a theory — if one can call it a theory — that is totally without foundation. Yoga is not a religion or a spiritual practise. It doesn’t have even the slightest connection with Satanism or Satanic sects.” Giorgio Furlan, the founder of the Yoga Academy of Rome, said yoga had nothing to do with religion, “least of all Satanism.” “Whoever says that shows that they know absolutely nothing about yoga,” he said.

While yoga instructors are given a voice denying the religious nature of yoga, the Telegraph neglects to offer the views of Hindu groups or religion scholars who might hold a contrary position — not about Satanism, but yoga’s spiritual/religious nature.

My colleague at GetReligion, Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, has pointed to American examples of the sort of error the Telegraph has made, accepting without question the premise that yoga is not spiritual. My purpose, however, is not to debate these issues — nor defend Father Amorth from the charge that he is a nut, nor argue that he is a saintly man of God. The problem with this story, as journalism, is that the Telegraph errs in ignoring what MZ Hemingway calls the “religious dimensions of yoga and what it means, in a religious sense, to practice yoga.” The editorial voice of the Telegraph story is that an aged Catholic exorcist has gone a bit mad and said some silly things about stretching exercises. There really is more to it than that.

Is this story fair to Father Amorth, to yoga, to Hinduism, to the pope? I say no. Am I being fair to the Telegraph? What say you GetReligion readers?

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

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  • Jerry

    Am I being fair to the Telegraph? What say you GetReligion readers?

    What I say is that I disagree with your conclusion that

    The philosophical premise then of yoga is one that profoundly conflicts with the Christian world view.

    Because the premise of Yoga in the spiritual sense is also stated in the Bible, specifically Matt 5:48

    Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

    The theology built on that premise is something different, of course, but there are assertions like the following:

    The Sermon on the Mount represents the essence of both Christ’s teachings and the teachings of Vedanta.

    http://adishakti.org/_/sermon_on_the_mount_by_swami_prabhavananda.htm And many identify the basic law of Karma as present in the Bible in the many verses about sowing and reaping.

  • http://gottagetgoing.blogspot.com Kunoichi

    “… because it leads to a worship of Hinduism”

    Isn’t this like saying doing something might least to the “worship of Christianity?” Or am I missing something?

  • Margarita Speratti

    I do not see a real conflict between the Christian Bible and the ideas in the yoga philosophy or in Hinduism and other religions. They all want mankind to be good and to help each other. The problem is that religions in general want their followers to help the organization called “Church” or whatever name you call it, and to support it, the building and the many people who make their living off it (namely, priests, pastors, monks, etc.) In Yoga you support the center by paying for your classes or seminars or retreats, at least, it is more open and you do not fall into sin if you do not go to one class!

  • Stan

    Now this is an article that freely quotes its subject–apparently accurately–but since the subject makes comments that many readers will find absurd, you think the article is unfair. You seem to think that the purpose of journalism is to apologize and sanitize religion rather than to get it.

  • joann

    I think the article is unfair because it did not fully explore the assertions made by the exorcist. When the Potter book first came out I was teaching school and saw first hand the impact they had on young (6-8 years) children exploring black arts and wizardry. Those children wanted to be like the characters and have their power and used the internet to find out how.

  • Dave

    I basically agree with Stan. However I think the article does come up short for reasons alluded to, that there is a disagreement among Yoga practitioners as to whether it is a spiritual exercise or not.

  • Joanie Casey

    The term yoga means union, in much the same way that catholic means universal. When the essence of these definitions are considered, their meanings can be lifted out of the boxes which bind them to various institutionalized constructs and skewed misconceptions.

    Many Catholics, as well as those of non-Christian religions, seek and desire a fresh understanding, if not a wholehearted rediscovery of the mystical wisdom tradition that was once a powerful component of Christian spirituality. Uncountable and reputable priests and monks, past and present, who remain in good standing with the Magisterium, and who study, practice and teach various philosophical perspectives inspired by Eastern religions have existed throughout the Catholic history.

    Fr. Henri Le Saux, a Benedictine monk from France, who became known as Swami Abhishiktananda, co-founded Saccidananda Ashram, a monastic institution dedicated to integrating the monastic values of the Benedictine tradition with the values of the Indian monastic tradition. He is well known for his deep immersion into the yogic Advaitic spirituality of India.

    Benedictine Fr. Bede Griffiths, a saffron-robed, Catholic priest, also known as Swami Dayananda, promoted the awareness and practice of contemplative prayer by helping people to be more receptive of the Divine Presence. At his ashram, Shantivanam, in South India, Fr. Bede believed, that the call to contemplation is universal. Contemplative practice and experience will, in turn, nurture a spirit of peace and compassion among the peoples of the earth. This teaching is the essence of Yoga.

    Fr. Raimon Panikkar, son of an Indian Hindu father and a Spanish Catholic mother, was one of the greatest scholars of the 20th century in the areas of comparative religion, theology, and inter-religious dialogue. He had a close relationship with Opus Dei founder St. Josemaria Escriva for 25 years. In 1961 Fr. Panikkar presented his doctoral thesis, The Unknown Christ of Hinduism, at the Lateran University in Rome. He asserted that Christ and His teaching are not the exclusive property of Christianity seen as a historical religion, but rather, Christ is the universal symbol of divine-human unity, the human face of God; and that Christianity approaches Christ in a particular and unique way, informed by its own history and spiritual evolution, but that Christ vastly transcends Christianity. Looking back on his life, Fr. Panikkar once stated, “I left Europe [for India] as a Christian, I discovered I was a Hindu and returned as a Buddhist without ever having ceased to be a Christian.”

    Benedictine Fr. Thomas Merton’s writings were profoundly inspired by Buddhist teachings; Cistercian Fr. Thomas Keating is founder of Centering Prayer which he modeled directly from his practice of Transcendental Meditation; Carmelites, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila each taught about union with the Divine, and expanded, mystical perspectives on the Christian faith. These are the philosophies of Yoga.

    Whatever we choose to call it, the true EXPERIENCE of Yoga, or Union with the Divine, transcends conceptual expression and hence, does not conflict with Christian doctrine. To quote Shakespeare, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

    Benedictine Fr. James Wiseman said, “How, after all, could anyone be so certain that the speculations of theologians like Saint Athanasius, Saint Basil, Saint Augustine, or Saint Thomas Aquinas on the Incarnation or the Trinity did not arise out of their own deep experience of these mysteries?”

  • http://uwgpsychology.org/ Psychologist

    It is probably safe to assume that we all would have a different relationship and interpretation of yoga. For some it could be an integral part of their spiritual practice. For others, it might just be about physical fitness. For some it may just calm and center.

    Extreme positions make for good press and for good arguing, yet clearly are they holistic, inclusive views.

    There are plenty who say that they feel like better Christians or Jews because of their yoga practice.

  • http://uwgpsychology.org/ Psychologist

    whoops… I meant “rarely are they holistic”

  • Dr. O. P. Sudrania

    I thought that Jerusalem is in East where Jesus is supposed to have been born without going in the raging controversies which the scholars are at loggerheads about? In fact there is no exception in it that all the religions were born in East. This was a statement made to me by a Scotsman when I was in Ayrshire in 1970-1980s.

    Secondly to criticise in such blatant way other religion is unwise and deficient in his concept of religion itself. This is also very well reflected in the fact that as I discover in these reports, “He is not supposed to come out publicly as per his conditions of appointment by the Vatican”. Why is he breaching the trust in/of Vatican is ill understood?

    Pope has been organising his controversial “Interfaith Conventions” on one hand while his team members are defying him and engaging in such blasphemous remarks, doesn’t augur well with a religious institution! Who doesn’t know the atrocities commited by the conversions by the Catholic priests and still continues. Vatican is said to fund in the press propagandas. Telegraph.uk is well known in this press propaganda machinary. I am sorry, my intention is not to indulge in but point out some of the glowing controversies the Vatican is involved in. I only hope that it is not an attention diversion dirty politics from the Holy Altar.

    I pray for Fr Amorth’s soul to be exorcised too so that he can start seeing the “Truth” within himself instead of showing these little ‘Idols” in his hand. May the Lord bless his little soul. Amen

  • http://catholiclivingrocks1.blogspot.com/ Joan

    The exercises of Yoga date back nearly 5,000 years to the cult in which “Yogi” was the supreme god. This cult and its followers were even regarded as evil by the pagans. Their large city in India was invaded, burnt and the ground salted, that is how evil the surrounding nations regarded those who worshiped the god “Yogi”. Each exercise in the yoga discipline was crafted as an invitation for a lesser god or “spirit” to enter into the body through that position. Take it or leave it, it is something to ponder.

  • Will

    There is the matter than when westerners say “yoga”, they almost invariably use it to mean just *hatha yoga”, treating jnana yoga, bhakti yoga, artha yoga and karma yoga as nonexistent. This like using “medicine” as a synonymn for “orthopedics”, or “science” just for biology. I know, I know, I can’t really blame the papers for a misnomer so pervasive, but it is really irritating.

  • Joanie Casey

    I don’t know whether to laugh at Joan’s comment, or be appalled. I certainly wouldn’t want any unwitting person to believe her statement as truth. The idea that 5000 years ago there existed belief in a supreme God named “Yogi” and that spirits entered the body through yoga postures is incredulous! It would be more responsible, Joan, to post only information that you know to be factual.

  • http://presbyterianblues.wordpress.com/ “Michael Mann”

    Protestantism also has its yoga detractors:

    “But I guess it’s all the same to Reverend Mohler and Pastor Mark who claim that doing stretching, balance, and core exercises at the local YMCA is pretty much worshiping a non-Christian god. Mohler approves of the idea that yoga “cannot be fully extricated from its spiritual roots in Hinduism and Buddhism,” and Driscoll uses more pixels to say the same thing. As a type, this argument is well-worn in religious circles…”

    Watch Your Posture, You May be Worshipping at http://presbyterianblues.wordpress.com/2011/11/30/watch-your-posture-you-may-be-worshipping/

  • Dr. O. P. Sudrania

    Joanie Casey, thank you for your enlightening comments. You have sufficiently said on Joan. I just add that the age of Yoga is still an issue under discussion. Whether it is 5,000
    or 3,000 or 30,000 years or more is for the time to tell us, if ever; but Joan makes one belive as if she lived that period. God bless you Joan and keep your conspiracy alive. You will certainly assure a job in his council.

    Yogas are mentioned in Vedas from times immemorial until The Sage Patanjali codified and systematised it in his famous Yoga Sutra. It has nothing to do with your ill conceived concept of Paganism. I am still not clear as to what is meant to you by Paganism or Heathenism etc. Besides that, how many common believers read their own religious scriptures? Leave the question of other scriptures.

    @Will,
    I quote you, “jnana yoga, bhakti yoga, artha yoga and karma yoga..” Firstly there is nothing like artha yoga, just for your information. Secondly the other Yoga words used by you are novice to you to comment if you do not have the basic notion.

    I am glad that you have some positive thoughts on Hatha Yoga
    which ultimately leads you to the same destination. You should stick to them. But that doesn’t mean that it ends there if you don’t know or have no more to proceed. It is an individual choice. That is the beauty in Hinduism. There are no fatwas or jihads. Only a sweet will. I hope it clear to you. With respect to you all,
    God bless

  • Dr. O. P. Sudrania

    @Will, With respect to you and as a part of my sacred duty to enlighten you, since you have raised these points:

    “jnana yoga, bhakti yoga, artha yoga and karma yoga”. There is one more “Purushottam Yoga” and all these are different paths to achieve the Purushottam Yoga. You will understand it if you are a man with some idea in Eastern Philosophy or comparative philosophy. I am still glad that you are aware of these great Yogas. All these different paths are mentioned to suit the different temperaments of devotees to achieve the Purushottam Yoga, i.e. the vision of the Lord (Purushottam). Purushottam comes from two root words. Purush = Man and uttam = best or excellent. An excellent or best ‘Man’. Who else could be other than the Lord?

    The reason is the same like coming to New York or London or Paris or Delhi. It depends on where you live. You have to adopt the way that suits you. You certainly do not have to follow someone else. Hence these different pathways are mentioned. I hope it should be clear. Lastly if you have no inclination to travel at all, no force or blames. You are the ultimate gainer or looser. God bless

  • Daniel

    When we cross the line from saying that Jesus embraced yoga to saying that Jesus invented yoga, I think we are doing violence to historical context. Let’s get real. How many have written to entertain me, and how many have written to inform me? Do journalists seriously take the positions they espouse? For Christians to claim yoga today, is not the same thing as saying it has been part of Christianity from the get-go. What did Jesus do, say and teach? This is almost getting to the point of humor religion coverage. What did His disciples practice? This would seem to be grist for discussion of this story. Many posters have correctly referenced discipleship amongst yoga practitioners, but injection of this note at this point would seem to be appropriate. Picturing Jesus in Western garb is almost as funny as picturing Jesus in a yoga pose.
    In my post I’m not objecting to people’s current religious practice. I hane mine, and yours in not my business. But I suggest just that let’s be truthful about whether Jesus’ original disciples promoted or recommended yoga. I wouldn’t claim that Jesus did unless I knew it to be true.

  • http://absolutelyhonestly.com Roman

    Could not resist but commented it in my blog:

    http://absolutelyhonestly.com/2011/12/satanic-yoga/

  • Julia

    The reporter might also have compared it to the Church frowning on Ouiji boards and seances.

  • http://www.christiananswersforthenewage.org Marcia

    I applaud the criticism of The Telegraph for not recognizing that yoga is spiritual. How can anyone say it’s not? It is part of Hindu beliefs and practice. Furthermore, Hatha Yoga, the physical Yoga that uses the body, is only one of 4 major types of Yoga, the others being Karma, Bhakti, Jnana, and Raja Yoga. They are all part of one system, which is totally spiritual in nature. Yoga has nothing to do with Christianity since Christianity is Christ-centered. Yoga by definition has nothing to do with Jesus Christ but rather is a means whereby one is supposed to transcend false identity and realize the Atman, or Divine Self.

    And so, from that viewpoint, Yoga is Satanic, not in the sense that it is Satanism (the worship of Satan), but in that it is way to liberation outside of and against what Jesus taught, that redemption is through faith in him alone. I am sure this is what the priest means. I see nothing wrong with what he said about Yoga or Harry Potter. In fact, I think he has good insights. The problem is that our culture has been so blanketed with Yoga mats (forgive the pun) and immersed in Harry Potter as a good guy that we are desensitized as to what evil and good truly are.

  • Will

    Nothing will induce me to say that “Hatha yoga is better than none.”

  • Bern

    Since few of the comments deal with journalism I’ll just go with this: If people are “using” hatha yoga to become physically fit and/or make a buck or two, that’s the American way–and maybe the Italian way, too, as the quote in the story implies. Yoga poses have no more affected my belief in Jesus than doing ballet poses have.

    As for Harry Potter: it’s a fantasy. Any experienced elementary school teacher has got to know that all kids “want powers” at some point in their development. Used to be they’d want to fly like Superman, or shoot like the Lone Ranger, or slay Goliath like David. If the issue is searching on the Internet for “magic” and “spells” might get them into real live Satanism: their parents need to monitor their computer use as well as their reading choices.

  • Barbara

    I think this critique is well-balanced and well-informed.

    The comments that indicate that there is an equivalence between yoga and Catholicism are using superficial terminology or overly broad categorization to say that the two are fundamentally not in conflict. To say that because yoga means “union” and Catholic means “universal” therefore they are headed toward the same objective is incorrect simply because the two words don’t mean the same thing and in any case, don’t refer to the same aspect of each religion. That there may be some similarities between the teachings of Jesus and teachings of a Hindu guru points to a certain (felicitous) universality of the concepts of good. but the concept of a personal God that created us in his image, with its attendant pathway to salvation, is a Christian belief that isn’t shared by Hinduism. There may be many paths to God, but that doesn’t mean they are all the “same”.


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