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Despite Church’s 'Yogaphobia', Was Late Pope Paul VI a 'Secret' Practitioner of Yoga?

The late BKS Iyengar had claimed in a 2005 book that an ailing Pope Paul VI had even invited him to the Vatican for yoga lessons, but the pre-condition to keep the visit a secret proved to be a deal-breaker.

Kay Benedict |

Updated:July 2, 2019, 11:30 AM IST
Despite Church’s 'Yogaphobia', Was Late Pope Paul VI a 'Secret' Practitioner of Yoga?
A picture of Pope Paul VI is seen during a Mass for his canonisation at the Vatican on October 14, 2018. (REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi)

Yoga is an ancient Indian practice to attain fusion of body, mind and spirit for mental and physical well-being. Since long, Indians, regardless of religious affiliations, have been practising yog-asana in the confines of their homes and nobody raised a stink. Then why the hype over yoga has triggered a row now?

Concurrent with the BJP government’s ascension to power in 2014, yoga has become controversial with a section of Christian and Muslim clergy objecting to its imposition on non-Hindus.

Church sources say they are not against yoga per se, but the occult content of it, especially Hatha and Tantric yoga as these are against the fundamental tenets of Christianity and, therefore, efforts are on to ‘Christianise’ yoga. Other popular branches are Rajyoga, Bhakti yoga, Karma/Kriya yoga and Jnana yoga.

Oddly, even as the Catholic Church opposed yoga, late Pope Paul VI “secretly” received yoga lessons from the late BKS Iyengar, a global yoga brand ambassador. Pontiff Paul who reigned from 1963-1978 was canonised and proclaimed a saint in October last year by Pope Francis.

In a personal note, BKS wrote: “1966 (from Italy) Here I met His Holiness the Pope (Paul VI) at 12 noon. He was very happy to have met me and praised my book, my work and he blessed me several times. We were together for eight minutes and during that time he was holding my arms firmly and spoke of India and Indians and the affection he has towards my country. He said, ‘As you are a professor and a director, what more have I to tell you, when you have done such wonderful work, BKS’.”

Iyengar’s disciples included distinguished personalities like Elisabeth, Queen of Belgium, violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin, Jiddu Krishnamurthi and Jai Prakash Narayan.

A 2005 book called Light on Life authored by Iyengar says the Pope was in poor health and invited him to Vatican “with a view to giving him yoga lessons”. According to christianforums.com, which carried an excerpt from the book, Iyengar accepted the invite, “but suddenly, at the behest of his cardinals, he (Pontiff) imposed a condition. The lesson were to be kept a total secret as it might be interpreted in a twisted fashion as if a Catholic Pope were to be seen to be following practices associated with Hindusim. Of course, I assured him that yoga is universal, transcending any creed or cult and I was able to say that I could not broadcast what was taking place. Nevertheless, I said, if questioned about it, I was not prepared to lie...”

In contrast, reigning Pope Francis disapproved of yoga practices. In a homily in 2015, he reminded listeners that yoga is not capable of opening our hearts to God. “You can take a million catechetical courses, a million courses in spirituality, a million courses in yoga, Zen and all these things. But all of this will never be able to give you freedom,” he cautioned.

Two years ago, Vatican’s top exorcist Father Cesare Truqui branded yoga and fantasy novels like Harry Potter as ‘Satanic’ acts. At an in-house meeting, Vatican officials discussed whether yoga is worshiping Hindu gods or mere anatomical postures and concluded that yoga originated from the ancient worship of Hindu gods and out of sync with Christianity.

Around the same time, yoga classes were banned in the central Russian city of Nizhnevartovsk by the authorities to “check the spread of religious occultism”. On the other hand, parishioners of St. David’s church in Ceredigion (Wales) UK threatened to boycott a church that banned yoga from its premises.

Privately, many Indian Christian theologians and intellectuals are of the view that 2,000-year-old Christianity cannot be undercut by mere yoga practices. And yet, fearing that yoga might emasculate the faithful and they may deviate from the path, the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council last week issued guidelines for Christians practising yoga so as not to believe anything that goes against the core of Christianity.

The primary reason for the ‘yogaphobia’ is the belief that yoga is part of a hidden cultural nationalism agenda of the Narendra Modi government remote controlled by the RSS. The ruling apparatchiks going overboard with its Hindutva and ultra-nationalism has not helped the yoga cause either.

Way back in 2015, Popular Front of India chairman KM Shareef had in a statement said that Muslims are not against yoga but “the ongoing yoga campaigns by the government with the Hindutva outfits acting as key players have brought in apprehension among minorities because of the religious fervour added to it.”

The All India Muslim Personal Law Board had also expressed reservations, saying that the BJP was compelling Muslim students to take up “Hindu religious practices”. Ideology-neutral and agnostic Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was a yoga afficionado and practised even the hazardous sirsasana (head stand). But there was no public display of it.

The United Nations declared June 21 as International Yoga Day in 2014 and the Modi government and the BJP went hyper to promote it, triggering unease among a section of minorities.

Yoga, first introduced to America by Swami Vivekanda in 1893, has now become highly commoditised globally. It became a multi-billion dollar industry with some Christian communities offering “Christian-based” yoga practice in US and Europe.

Fearing that the BJP will use yoga for electoral benefits, even the CPM had sponsored a mass yoga programme in 2017, giving it a “secular twist” with party insiders billing the programme a way of fighting “attempts by communal forces to misuse India’s traditional knowledge for ulterior purposes” and “misappropriate ancient knowledge”.

There is no yoga in Veda and Swami Vivekananda popularised Raja yoga in the West as against Hatha yoga. Yoga is essentially an elitist pastime; those who sit for long hours, move around in vehicles and eat junk food need yoga to stay fit more than the working class and those toiling in agricultural fields. So, why this hullabaloo about yoga?

(The author is a senior journalist and political commentator. Views are personal)

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| Edited by: Nitya Thirumalai
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