Catholic yes to yoga?

I have been waiting for the American press to pick up an article found in Saturday’s edition of La Stampa, the Turin-based Italian daily, on the Catholic Church and yoga. But as five days have passed with no mention of Bishop Raffaello Martinelli I expect we will not be seeing anything for the moment.

This is shame really as the the intersection of yoga and state, as GR’s editor TMatt has described it, is a live issue. My colleague, Mollie Hemingway, has written about the intersection of yoga and American culture — noting the consternation Hindus feel when its non-Hindu devotees reject claims they are appropriating a spiritual exercise of their faith.

Last December the New York Times ran a detailed article on a dispute in a California school system that had introduced yoga classes for students. On 20 Feb 2013 the Associated Press reported the dispute had now become a law suit with parents suing the school district saying their children are being taught religious doctrine by public school teachers. The school district’s response to the lawsuit is to deny that yoga is religious and that the ends justify the means.

Superintendent Timothy B. Baird said he had not seen the lawsuit and could not directly comment on it, but he defended the district’s decision to integrate yoga into its curriculum this year. The district is believed to be the first in the country to have full-time yoga teachers at every one of its schools. The lessons are funded by a $533,000, three-year grant from the Jois Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes Asthanga yoga. Since the district started the classes at its nine schools in January, Baird said teachers and parents have noticed students are calmer, using the breathing practices to release stress before tests.

“We’re not teaching religion,” he said. “We teach a very mainstream physical fitness program that happens to incorporate yoga into it. It’s part of our overall wellness program. The vast majority of students and parents support it.”

The kids are calmer after practicing yoga and therefore it is a good thing. Would the superintendent have been willing to accept money from a Catholic charity to hire someone for each school to teach kids Christian meditation? Or if the issue is movement of the body, would it have engaged a Falung Gong instructor to teach Dharma Wheel Practice if the group had put up the cash?

Into this mix  comes Saturday’s La Stampa article entitled “Vescovo Italiano apre a Yoga” ["Italian bishop open to Yoga"]

The lede states:

Un vescovo italiano, Mons. Raffaello Martinelli (consacrato vescovo il 2 luglio 2009), che è stato per un lungo periodo collaboratore di Joseph Ratzinger quando era Prefetto della Congregazione per la Dottrina della Fede, “apre” a forme di meditazione orientale, da utilizzare in un quadro di spiritualità cristiana.

Which I translate as:

An Italian Catholic bishop states he is “open” to the use of Eastern meditation by Catholics in their prayer life. However, Msgr. Raffaello Martinelli, the Bishop of Frascati, (consecrated 2 July 2009), who served as an aide to Pope Benedict XVI when the pope was the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, said these practices must be used in the framework of Christian spirituality.

The article goes on to say that Msgr. Martinelli in December 2010 published a catechesis that is being sold in Catholic book stores in Italy that says meditation practices from non-Christian religions such as Zen and yoga “can be a suitable means for the faithful to stand before God.”

The explanation the bishop offers is that:

Since the Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions [Nostra Aetate, 2], a Catholic should not be prejudiced against controlled breathing, mantras and other Eastern practices as being non-Christian. The Catholic can, however, take from them what is useful, provided he does not lose sight of the Christian conception of prayer, its logic and its needs since it is within the Christian spiritual sphere these practices must be employed.

Quite a strong statement from the bishop — and if it finds a way into the yoga and state debate in the U.S. will likely need to be clarified by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Newspaper articles about Catholic parishes refusing to rent space to yoga classes appear from time to time, but the question has not been definitely addressed for Catholics by the Magisterium.

When he was an aide to the then Cardinal Ratzinger, Msgr. Martinelli was involved in the preparation for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation which warned against syncretism. The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue’s Jesus Christ, The Bearer of the Water of Life also argues that there must be a complete separation of a yoga exercises from their Hindu religious or philosophical roots — and Southern Baptist commentator Albert Mohler has argued Christians should not practice yoga at all due to the dangers of syncretism.

I do hope we will see some quality reporting in this area — there is an abundance of material for the journalist covering the story to find.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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  • Julia

    The Catholic rosary was inspired by missonaries returning from China reporting about the prayer beads used there. The prayer bead idea was transformed into a really Catholic idea with Catholic prayers and meditations.
    The bishop wants something along those lines. Renting space to outside yoga instructors is chancey. Some of them are into New Age thinking and don’t recognize that what they think of as cultural aspects of yoga are really religious practices. Another example of the “spritual” but not “religious” meme that doesn’t recognize “religion” when it’s standing right in front of them.
    Thomas Merton was fascinated with the East and so was Teilhard de Chardin; both were Catholic clerics. Both did some writings influenced by Eastern ideas and were told not to go so far with adopting Eastern ideas. The tendency to give such warnings or even ban books is a hold-over from the days not so long ago when most people were not educated and usually not very good at distinguishing fine points. Today it’s more that writers are not to present such thinking as official teachings of the Church. That’s why the bishop may OK the practice of yoga, instead of banning it, but with guarantees that no Hindu religious overtones remain.
    My opinions -I’m not the Pope.

    • Craig

      1. http://newadvent.org/cathen/13184b.htm

      2. A valid concern is that we have Catholic laity and clergy utilizing these exercises of foreign religions, but at the same time cannot even cite the simplest of Catholic beliefs. We should not be adding more of the world, but focus on Catholic Tradition and strong catechesis.

  • Jerry

    To take this issue to the logical end point, would Hindus object to physical therapists who use a particular posture to treat low back pain. That’s not hypothetical. When I got PT for my back problem, I recognized the posture I was doing as a “cobra” posture. Why should that be any different if a particular posture is being taught as part of a class in order to promote back health? Where is the line drawn?

    So when news stories come up about such issues, I think there needs to be a healthy sense of when someone is making a case which is really reductio ad absurdum.

    And when commenting on stories, it’s helpful to avoid statements such as “Hindus object”. Qualifiers such as “some”, “many” and “most” are much better and more accurate to use in such situations.

  • Elaine T

    I may have been the reader who sent the link about the LA dispute to Get Religion. The article quoted a previously (self-described) skeptical attorney who investigated and decided there is a conflict. The kids aren’t just being taught poses, there are posters of the god, and of the religious goal of this form of Hinduism. It really does look like the sort of thing that would not be allowed for any Christian equivalent.

    Whether the poses and breathing and whatever can be pulled out of their cultural context, I haven’t enough knowledge to guess.

  • SouthCoast

    Why can’t they just get a P.E. teacher to run a calisthenics, stretching, or rhythmic gymnastics class?

  • Julia

    Nothing wrong with the “cultural” aspects of yoga. It’s the Hindu aspects that are problematic. If a public school can’t do Catholic meditation techniques, it should not do Hindu practices with pictures of Hindu gods and articulating religious goals.

    • pjm

      Each position in yoga represents a Hindu god, and is a way for a Yogi to worship that god. For a Catholic, this is a sin against the First Commandment.. You’re also giving scandal to others who may not be as strong in their faith, and can easily be led into eastern practices. Just take up Pilates or similar stretching exercises.

  • steve weatherbe

    As I write I have beside me a very tattered copy of J.M.Dechanet’s Christian Yoga, first published in 1956, carrying a Nihil obstat from Adrianus Van Vliet, censor deputatus, and Imprimatur from E.Morogh Bernard, vicarius generalis. Dechanet’s simple point: do the positions to make meditation easier; do the meditation to connect with God. Much more suspect is karate, with its ritual obeisance to some obscure oriental deity each time one enters the training area.