Catholic college removes 'yoga' from name of classes, to erase any link to Hinduism

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The program “Yoga Behind Bars” gives teenage inmates at Remann Hall Juvenile Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, a chance to work out their anger and frustrations through stretches, poses and meditation.
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The program “Yoga Behind Bars” gives teenage inmates at Remann Hall Juvenile Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, a chance to work out their anger and frustrations through stretches, poses and meditation.

Yoga is designed to help bring peace and wellness to body and mind.

But at Benedictine College — a small and strongly Catholic liberal arts school in Atchison, Kan. — yoga classes per se will soon be yo-gone, out of apparent concern that use of the word “yoga” suggests advocacy for Hindu mysticism.

College spokesman Stephen Johnson said that starting this fall, both recreational classes and for-credit exercise classes that once taught yoga will likely still be taught the same way, but instead will be rebranded as “lifestyle fitness.”

“We’re changing the name,” Johnson said.

The move to recast the practice of yoga, with positions like upward dog and downward dog, into classes of more generic stretching and breathing exercises has landed the college of 2,000 students in something of a doghouse.

An online petition posted by students calls on Benedictine President Stephen D. Minnis to “bring back yoga!” So far, it has received 105 online signatures. The petition has also drawn the support of Rajan Zed, a well-known Hindu cleric in Nevada, who urged the college to “relook into their reported yoga decision.”

Johnson, the spokesman, said the decision to ditch the term yoga came soon after the college began offering recreational yoga classes (as opposed to the one-hour, for-credit yoga exercise class it has offered for years) at the school’s new recreation center, which opened last fall.

Complaints, Johnson said, began to come in from alumni, students, faculty and some administrators who argued that as a Hindu practice, yoga was not in keeping with Catholic-based education. Others, Johnson said, argued that the name yoga should no longer be used because in teaching just the exercise aspects of yoga — as opposed to both its physical and spiritual aspects — Benedictine wasn’t teaching true yoga. Thus it should not use the Hindu name.

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The college’s school newspaper, The Circuit, first reported on the move April 5 and noted that concern also was raised by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, and Abbot James Albers of St. Benedict’s Abbey in Atchison.

The paper quoted college President Minnis.

“Yoga as created has some potential for eastern mysticism which has caused concern among members of the Catholic Church,” Minnis told the college paper. Archbishop Naumann “has expressed his concerns and the issues surrounding that. We asked ourselves if there was a way to bring those yoga benefits to our students and faculty without the possible effects of eastern mysticism.”

Contacted by The Star, the archdiocese sent the following statement from its chancellor, the Rev. John Riley.

“Many people do not realize that yoga … is intended to be more than a series of exercises coupled with deliberative breathing and meditation,” Riley said in an emailed statement. “It is a mind and body practice developed under Hinduism, the goal of which is spiritual purification that will lead to a higher level of understanding and eventually union with the divine.

“Although the Catholic Church teaches that much good can be found in other religions, Catholics believe it is only brought to fullness in Christ. … It is for these reasons that Catholics are alerted to the dangers of the practice of yoga and are encouraged to look for other exercise alternatives that do not incorporate a spiritual dimension.”

Riley said if Catholics want exercises that include a spiritual dimension, they should consider Pietra Fitness, a set of exercises that includes Christian prayer and meditation.

Benedictine yoga instructor Julie Romano, a yoga practitioner for 10 years, questioned the decision.

“I have a moral objection to taking something that people spent thousands of years working on and calling it something else,” she told the school paper. “I don’t see a conflict in yoga and Catholicism and I don’t see why we should call it something else to appease others.”

Eric Adler: 816-234-4431, @eadler

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