Twenty years ago I fulfilled a yearning going back decades. On Jan. 30, 1994. we landed at the airport in New Delhi. As a child I had been fascinated by India as portrayed in bound volumes of the “National Geographic Magazine” that filled several bookcase shelves at our Vermont home. Over the years I developed an intense curiosity about its various faiths, enormous admiration for Mahatma Gandhi, and a strong desire to visit the majestic Taj Mahal, viewed by many as the world’s most beautiful building.
The tour, sponsored by Elderhostel, included a “Homestay” in the city of Puna. The gracious host family was Hindu, with an image of the elephant god, Ganesha, on the front door. They had been made aware in advance of my profession, and the father kindly drove me to Hindu, Jain, Muslim, and Sikh houses of worship. He also arranged for me to meet with the Catholic Bishop in Puna, and on Sunday morning accompanied me to a local Methodist church. An entire wall in the host’s home exhibited images of Hindu gods and goddesses, and I was invited to add a picture of Jesus. I declined but expressed appreciation for the inclusive spirit motivating the gesture. They had no problem including Christ with those they viewed as representations of the divine. Our discussions revealed that this Hindu family really was monotheistic - well, with a strong pantheist twist.
More and more immigrants from India have come to the United States over the past half-century, and another major import from there has been Yoga. Roughly twenty million Americans are involved in this system of physical exercises, with an emphasis on meditation. There are dozens of different schools of Yoga, some more difficult than others, all aimed at fostering strong, healthy bodies and clear, bright minds.
The origin of Yoga is blurred, but may go back before recorded history, even prior to the emergence of Hinduism. An early text is attributed to a scholar known as Patanjali, who gave step-by-step instructions. From his writings Ashtanga Yoga emerged, also referred to as Classical Yoga. Most adherents in this country practice some variation of Patanjali. Thousands of classes are held across the co untry at yoga studios, Ys, colleges, churches, and elsewhere. A major 300-acre Yoga center known as Kripalu is located in Stockbridge, Mass.
Yoga has its critics in America, mainly because of its historic ties to Hinduism. Various evangelical clergy have spoken out sharply against it. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has said that Yoga is “at odds with the Christian understanding....Believers are called to meditate on the Word of God.” The televangelist Pat Robertson has charged that Yoga “gets real spooky.” (Actually, Robertson can get real spooky.)
There are strong Catholic critics, too. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, before he became Pope Benedict XVI, warned that such practices could lead to the blending of different religious beliefs - syncretism - thereby endangering infallible church doctrine. Programs on Mother Angelica’s EWTN network, among them “Women of Grace”, have targeted Yoga as antithetical to Catholic teaching.
The Rev. Nancy Roth, an Episcopalian, has promoted what she calls Holy Yoga, arguing that there is need for a Christian integration of “the newest research in psychology and physiology and the wisdom of other, even more ancient, spiritual traditions.” Here in central Connecticut the Rev. Alex da Silva Souto, Methodist pastor in South Meriden, teaches Yoga at both Yale and Quinnipiac.
Most Yoga in this country today has little connection to Hinduism. When a suit was brought against a San Diego school district where Yoga classes are included, a California judge ruled last July that they could continue as Yoga there is taught in a totally secular way to promote physical flexibility and balance. Probably that case or a similar one will eventually reach the Supreme Court.
Some church leaders have a concern apart from anxiety over possible Hindu influence. Among its most avid devotees, Yoga can become a substitute for religion, and going to Yoga classes takes precedence over attendance at traditional houses of worship.
There is considerable literature on Yoga for those interested, The first major American exhibit on the general topic is traveling across America, starting in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Among the many displays are photographs taken by the British during their dominance in India, deliberately demeaning yogis as half-clothed, disheveled and ash-smeared freaks.
How should we feel about Yoga? As for me, it depends upon how it is practiced. Who can object when its only goal is to promote healthy bodies and minds? Probably I should have explored it more fully by taking a class or two myself. My daughter, Joy, commented a few months ago that she needed a new yoga mat. Her birthday soon followed, and I gave her one.
Ralph Lord Roy of Southington is a retired United Methodist minister. Email: Ralphlroy@aol.com.
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