On colorful towels and blankets spread carefully on the open ground, students at St. Joseph’s School in eastern India twisted, turned and stretched in unison, as they took part in International Yoga Day.
St. Joseph’s was one of several Church-run schools in India that participated in the fifth incarnation of the global event held on June 21, despite controversy in recent years over whether the discipline is compatible with Christianity.Yoga has its roots in ancient India as a spiritual and meditational practice, according to many traditionalists.
But it has grown into a global phenomenon extolled as a form of physical exercise that also improves concentration and reduces stress.Joining the students at the Catholic school in the city of Ranchi was English teacher Father Kishore Toppo, who has been practicing the tradition since his seminary days.“It has nothing to do
with the Hindu faith,” Father Toppo said.
“I do yoga daily for at least half an hour. It helps improve my concentration, focus on work and keeps me energetic throughout the day,” explained the 35-year-old priest from Ranchi Archdiocese in Jharkhand state.With more institutions participating in the yearly event, the Church in India has started to move away from its opposition to yoga.
This year some 192 nations, including 44 Islamic countries, observed the day, according to media reports. The U.N. General Assembly adopted International Yoga Day
in 2014 as a way of raising awareness of its benefits.However, a Vatican document issued in 1989 discouraged Catholics from practicing yoga as a form of prayer and meditation.
The document was signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was then head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, before later becoming pope.Eastern prayer and meditation methods are “not free from dangers and errors” harmful to Catholic spirituality, the document said.
The Eastern methods mentioned in the document included yoga.“With the present diffusion of Eastern methods of meditation in the Christian world and in ecclesial communities, we find ourselves faced with a pointed renewal of an attempt, which is not free from dangers and errors, to fuse Christian meditation with that which is non-Christian.”Efforts at harmonizing “Christian meditation with Eastern techniques need to have their contents and methods ever subjected to a thorough-going examination so as to avoid the danger of falling into syncretism.
”Syncretism is the merging of different religious beliefs into a new belief.However, suggesting Christians were opposed to yoga was misplaced, said Catholic Bishop Jose Chittooparambil of Rajkot in the western Indian state of Gujarat.“We are not against yoga at all. We generally don’t prefer to recite certain slogans identified with the Hindu religion while practicing yoga,” he told ucanews.com.“That does not mean we are against yoga.
It is a good method of exercise that helps develop better concentration and good health,” Bishop Chittooparambil explained.Most Catholic schools in Jharkhand not only took part in the yearly event, but practiced yoga daily “to build up positive energy, good health, and mental stability”, said Father Anand David Xalxo, a spokesman for Ranchi Archdiocese.
“There is no opposition to yoga in our schools. There are instances of our priests and nuns practicing it and teaching others,” he said.Several schools in India’s Christian-dominated northeastern states also held special yoga sessions on June 21, said Father Felix Anthony, spokesman for the North East Regional Bishops’ Council.A daily practitioner, Father Anthony said yoga helps him “effectively discharge his priestly ministries” and provides him with “better stability and ability to focus on what is right.
” Yoga, he argues “should be kept out of any religious identity”.A church document, published by the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council, supports the idea of practicing yoga while still adhering to the principles of Christian spirituality.
The 2018 paper explains that yoga is a good physical and mental exercise regimen. While practicing yoga, Catholics should not fail to declare the uniqueness of Christ as God, it says. Christ is not just one of the gurus, but the only begotten Son of God, the incarnate Word of God.Catholics also should not compromise on their understanding of salvation.
In Hinduism, yoga can help a person achieve salvation or moksha by realizing the god-ness of the self. This is different from the Christian concept of salvation, which is communion with God.“Yoga is helpful as much as it nurtures Christian spirituality. It’s wrong to consider it as a meditational form away from the Christ mystery,” the document says.