Is Pope Francis Yogaphobic?

As Luke Coppen noted in a recent piece in The Spectator, Francis “has been spun as a left-liberal idol,” in the popular media. There is reason to believe, however, that conservatives are also misappropriating Francis when convenient and spinning his words in service to their own agendas. Such conservative efforts have resulted in Francis contributing, if inadvertently, to a growing and increasingly global yogaphobia.

In a homily at a morning mass on January 9 in the Santa Marta residence, Francis reflected on that day’s gospel reading, which described how the apostles were frightened when they witnessed Jesus walking on water. The Pope explained that they were afraid as a consequence of their hearts being hardened. He went on to list a variety of potential reasons why peoples’ hearts might become hardened, such as a painful experience from a person’s past, religious narcissism or “creating a world within oneself, all closed in,” or insecurity and fear “that something painful or sad will occur.”

Francis asserted that the Holy Spirit is the only thing with the power to open peoples’ hearts to God. Most significantly perhaps, he stated a person can take a thousand catechism courses, spirituality courses, yoga courses, or zen courses, but none of those things would free the person to be like a child of God. Only the Holy Spirit, according to Francis, has the power to break the hardness of the heart and make it docile toward God and free to love.

Given the frequent Catholic and evangelical yogaphobic moments in recent history, I asked myself if the Pope’s remarks were yogaphobic, but I concluded that yogaphobia did not appear to be at play in Francis’ homily. The Pope, after all, listed yoga alongside catechism classes and so did not set it apart as a practice that Catholics should avoid altogether, as a practice that is incompatible with an authentic Catholic identity.

Rather, he seems to have suggested that nothing, not even formal religious classes offered by the Catholic Church itself, could facilitate a loving disposition without a personal relationship with the so-called Holy Spirit. Since yoga was not set apart from Catholic practices in this regard, I did not think it made a notable contribution (or any contribution for that matter) to yogaphobia.

But that Francis did not appear to target yoga as an inherently flawed or problematic practice at odds with Catholicism did not deter Father Roland Colhoun, a Catholic priest from Northern Ireland, from co-opting and misconstruing Francis’ remarks in service to Colhoun’s own yogaphobic agenda. And Colhoun’s yogaphobia is a part of a much larger conservative movement.

There have been many high-profile examples of evangelical yogaphobia (I have written about some of them here and here), but evangelicals are not the only players in the yogaphobic movement. Fr. Colhoun’s comments concerning yoga were not dissimilar from other yogaphobic remarks from contemporary high-profile Catholics whose positions have ranged from identifying yoga as self-destructive activity to associating it with Satan.

Back in 1989, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) of the Roman Catholic Church published the “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation” warning of the “dangers and errors” of fusing Christian and non-Christian meditative methods. The letter was written by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) and was approved for publication by Pope John Paul II.

Understandably, the CDF seeks to prevent Catholics from undermining Church doctrine, yet the letter is fear-inciting insofar as it addresses so-called eastern body practices, which are deemed incompatible with Catholic doctrine as well as destructive of human stability. The letter warns that those engaged in such practices for the sake of anything beyond mundane physical exercise or relaxation are involved in self-destructive activity; that unless the practitioner is an advanced adept no bodily experiences can be legitimately identified as spiritual; and points out that Christians who have acknowledged the meditative role of body practices avoid the “exaggerations and partiality” of eastern methods, which are often recommended to those insufficiently prepared.

It adds that postures and breathing can become an “idol and thus an obstacle” to experiencing God, then states that such body practices “can degenerate into a cult of the body” with severe consequences, including “mental schizophrenia,” “psychic disturbance,” or “moral deviations.” More recently, in 2011, Italian priest and chief exorcist for the Diocese of Rome Gabriele Amorth warned that yoga is satanic and “leads to evil.” And, in 2014, in County Donegal, Ireland, Father Padraig O’Baoill warned his parishioners against “endangering” their souls by practicing yoga, which he suggested was “unsavoury.”

Colhoun joins this yogaphobic maelstrom and, unfortunately, drags Francis in with him. He recently warned that yoga leads to the “Kingdom of Darkness” and draws people toward “Satan and the fallen angels” by distorting the words of Francis:

Pope Francis said ‘do not seek spiritual answers in yoga classes’. Yoga is certainly a risk. There’s the spiritual health risk. When you take up those practices from other cultures, which are outside our Christian domain, you don’t know what you are opening yourself up to. The bad spirit can be communicated in a variety of ways. I’m not saying everyone gets it, or that it happens every time, and people may well be doing yoga harmlessly, but there‘s always a risk and that’s why the Pope mentioned it and that’s why we talk about that in terms of the danger of the new age movement and the danger of the occult today. That’s the fear.

The real fear, however, is not that yoga will make you self-destruct or worship Satan. No evidence supports such conclusions. The reasonable fear, rather, is that yogaphobia is becoming so ubiquitous that it no longer surprises us when otherwise innocuous comments by powerful, high-profile individuals, such as the Pope, are misappropriated and put in service of identity politics meant to justify an agenda to prevent social, political, and religious boundary crossing.

Just as Coppen notes in response to liberal fantasies about Francis, “What matters is what the real Francis says and does. And that should be more interesting than even the most gripping invention.” Catholics and others should attend to the actual words Francis used in his January 9 homily.

At the same time, despite the efforts of some Hindus who have urged Francis to denounce Colhoun for his public yogaphobia, Francis has not acted. The Pope might not have expressed yogaphobia, but neither has he denied the legitimacy of Colhoun’s statements. And, unfortunately, we can expect real social consequences when people invent stories about a person revered by over a billion people worldwide.

  • Jim Reed

    Catholic leaders seem to be obsessed with their religion. I wouldn’t worry too much about what they say.

  • Craptacular

    “When you take up those practices from other cultures, which are outside our Christian domain, you don’t know what you are opening yourself up to.” – Roland Colhoun

    This is the most harmful statement of Colhoun’s, in my opinion. The “othering” is so strong you can smell it. Instead of using any factual data, pro or con, to support his assertions, he uses ominous wording and unnamed religious fears to erect a cultural barrier between catholics and everyone else.

    This could be one of the reasons catholics feel so attacked culturally, as well, due to the paranoia that develops from constantly being told that the rest of the world is dangerous to their spiritual well-being. Well, it doesn’t happen to every catholic every time, but that’s why I talk about it in terms of danger. That’s the fear. (See, I can make bald-faced ominous assertions, too.)

  • Jim Reed

    What is jain yoga? Any relation?

  • RoyMix

    “Francis asserted that the Holy Spirit is the only thing with the power to open peoples’ hearts to God.”

    This is called Grace, and it is the only way that Christians believe that we can overcome our fallen state. If there was another way then there would be no point to the incarnation, to Christ’s sacrifice at the crucifixion, or to the resurrection. There would be no need for Jesus.

    The author is upset that the Pope is espousing the fundamental tenet of his religion, of Christianity in general. That this is obscure to anyone shows how far Christian religious education has collapsed so it is really not her fault, but it is depressing.

  • Jim Reed

    Christianity is in trouble because of its contradictions clashing with reality in the 21st century world. More Christian religious education would do nothing but make things worse.

  • RoyMix

    The problem cannot get worse than to stop being Christianity.

    Abolishing Christianity is a completely respectable position, but call it what it is.

  • Jim Reed

    That is something that Christians will have to do for themselves.

  • apotropoxy

    The RCC has been explaining to their followers for a long time that yoga meditation is a back door the devil uses to infect the souls of the naive. F1 is soft-soaping the issue but he won’t reverse the absurdity.

  • RoyMix

    While I see little problem with Yogic Practice, it is a religious practice and thus in competition with Christianity when it thinks it can lead one to God without Christ or the holy spirit.

    As to it being absurd, is it absurd to preach one’s own religion over another religion? Here The claim is made that Yogic Practice leads one to God, that is a fundamentally religious statement. If you object to Christian objections to the introduction of Yogic Practice into their religion you are saying that Yogic religion is True and Christianity is not.

    By recognizing this, Francis is taking Yoga far more seriously than many of its alleged practitioners seem to.

  • RoyMix

    Jain Yoga is the yogic practice of the Jain religion. It is different from other Yoga in that it is Jain in focus rather than other traditional Yogic practices which are generally Hindhu or Buddhist.

  • Jim Reed

    Christianity is the one saying it is true, and other religions are false. Yoga might be saying you are responsible for your approach to God. Christianity is saying Christ and the Holy Spirit. These are creations of the church, so Christianity is actually saying their creations are God. They seem to be discounting people in the process, and putting the Church in the place of God, and directing people to worship the church.

  • Huh?

    The Colhoun statement you quote just shows pure superstition on his part … as if the act of touching your toes will open you up to evil. But the Irish can be very superstitious (and I can say that because my family is Irish).

  • apotropoxy

    “…is it absurd to preach one’s own religion over another religion?” … ” If you object to Christian objections to the introduction of Yogic Practice into their religion you are saying that Yogic religion is True and Christianity is not.”

    _______________________

    Religion is the ritualization of magical thinking andI believe it is absurd per se.

  • Andrea Jain

    Thanks for your comments. I agree that this type of “othering” is incredibly dangerous and based on a revisionist history of yoga and a fundamentalist approach to Catholicism.

  • Andrea Jain

    Thank you for your comment, but I think you misread me. I stated that there was nothing yogaphobic about Francis’ homily in itself: “Given the frequent Catholic and evangelical yogaphobic moments in recent history, I asked myself if the Pope’s remarks were yogaphobic, but I concluded that yogaphobia did not appear to be at play in Francis’ homily. The Pope, after all, listed yoga alongside catechism classes and so did not set it apart as a practice that Catholics should avoid altogether, as a practice that is incompatible with an authentic Catholic identity. Rather, he seems to have suggested that nothing, not even formal religious classes offered by the Catholic Church itself, could facilitate a loving disposition without a personal relationship with the so-called Holy Spirit. Since yoga was not set apart from Catholic practices in this regard, I did not think it made a notable contribution (or any contribution for that matter) to yogaphobia.”

  • RoyMix

    No I am sorry for my sloppiness. I really appreciated yor post and my tone was crotchety.

    I am a Catholic who uses Yoga in my own meditation, so I have no problem with the technique, Iwas just trying to explain why a genuine conflict can exist.

  • Jim Reed

    is it absurd to preach one’s own religion over another religion?

    Is that the reason for believing in your religion? Because it is my religion? It makes sense. That might be the best reason anyone can have for believing their religion.

  • RoyMix

    No I am saying that since religions are not objectively provable in that they are transcendental systems that exist outside of the scientific principle of falsifiability, that saying that one religion should do something in favor of another religion is basically saying the second religion is superior.

    There is no other way to put it.

  • RoyMix

    Exactly, I believe it because I believe it to be true. I can try to explain it to others but unless they choose to believe it as well they cannot understand it. I think many religious people would say something along these lines.

  • apotropoxy

    Science can not disprove the existence of deities but it can explain how and why belief in them came about. In that sense, they fall within science’s purview.
    I don’t see yoga as fitting the definition of a religion or religious practice.

  • RoyMix

    I think yoga is technology that was developed for religious meditation, it has an ideology that can be seperated from it, but is also pretty essential to why it is called Yoga and not physical therapy or physical training.

    Yoga in its pre 19th century forms was an explicitly religious activity. That it was adapted in the late Victorian era to serve mystical nationalist purposes, and then adapted from there by Europeans with a mystical focus didn’t change this. And the non religious history of yoga is pretty short. Of the yoga instructors, as opposed to physical therapists, I know, none of the accomplished ones fail to attribute mystical and spiritual aims to the practice.

    Yoga is at least 4500 years old, seals with yogic positions have been found in some of the most ancient urban sites on earth, and for almost the entirety of that time it was used for explicitly religious purposes.

  • apotropoxy

    Prayer is religious meditation directed at an external entity. Yoga can achieve a calming and happy outcome along with a strengthening of the body. Its focus is internal.
    I think the word religion is not well applied to the eastern spiritual traditions. Way of life is, I think, closer to the mark.

  • Jim Reed

    In a way history does provide us with a time machine regarding Christianity and the story of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is from the gospels, and they were written in the last decades of the first century. They were written one following another, and copying fhe story and adding to it. The time machine is the earlier writings of Paul from the middle of the first century. They show a Christianity with a Jesus that he found in old testament scriptures, plus his vision. None of the gospel story that was written later is found in the extensive writings of Paul. This time machine shows Jesus the man was a later invention. He started as a heavenly spirit being, and by the end of the century, or on into the next century, he was changed into having a human form and a story of a man on earth.

  • RoyMix

    Well you can go read Tom Harpur or whoever and believe you have found the absolute truth with the certainty that only religious faith can provide, despite the vast and overwhelming majority of scholars, even atheistic ones disagreeing with you.

    But even Bart Ehrman, who denies almost everything, thinks there was an historic Jesus. I won’t respond any more on this thread, but I suggest you look more into the matter on your own time.

    I will add that we have more evidence, and in closer temporal proximity for the existence of Jesus than we do for Alexander the Great, even if the gospels were not written until the second century.

    So happy reading, might I suggest the study of Anatoly afomenko.

  • Jim Reed

    Bart tried to explain it, but then he got kind of slaughtered on the internet, and in his later writing he no longer sounds as sure about all that as he did back when he wrote Did Jesus Exist.

    The closer proximity on the Jesus thing is still Paul, and that is why you can’t go by the gospels that were made up later.

  • That is precisely what I was taught starting at 7 years old. I was made to think lightning would strike me dead the moment I entered a Protestant Church. I was thrown into my first existential crisis when my Mother signed me up for Girl Scouts at Bethany Presbyterian. And Miss Perry, member of the Junior League, was my first troop Leader. She looked like an angel.

  • Eponymous1

    No wonder you’re so messed up now.

  • Burnt Orange

    Does the concept of “phobic” apply to anything someone dislikes are avoids. Is someone “crimeaphobic” if they go out of their way to avoid high crime neighborhoods. I could go on but you get the point. In the 60s we were warned about being “judgmental.” Even though we were adults with life experiences we could not judge for ourselves anything. It became almost immoral to decide anything about another based on their actions, what they said or did.

    Now we are being hectored by the “phobics” and must guard against Islamaphobia even though tens of thousands of Muslims are publicly killing and murdering women and children.

    Not to put too fine a point on it but it has become the literary “go to” suffix on anything that anyone for any reason does not care for. Seems lazy writing and over the top chiding of others. Between political correctness and the phobias the Orwellian language police have you boxed into a corner where ideas are whispered and filtered for compliance before being uttered or even considered.

    It is almost as if there is a conditioned precognition where new concepts and ideas are aborted before they can take root. A culture of Kardashian obsessed empty headed zombies might be right around the corner.

  • Mel Morris

    Thank you Jim,

    You are a genius! Only intelligent people and not brainwashed or illiterate people will think like you do.

    Jesus is the biggest myth ever existed. Do we study of Jesus in any history
    book? Nope. We learn about Buddha in history books, we
    learn about Mohammed in history books.
    We learn of Hitler in history books.
    We learn of Stalin etc in history books.
    Jesus comes in only in the bible.
    Jesus is a big hodgepodge. The
    writers of the bible have taken different persons and figures like the Sun God,
    Krishna, Buddha and other figures and constructed a mythological figure and
    named it ‘Jesus’. They also called him
    the prince of peace! Now look, it is
    2000 years after so called the prince of peace was born and look at the peace
    in the world! There is not a single day
    goes by without wars and who is waging all these wars? The followers of the Abrahamic religions –
    Muslims and Christians.

  • classyoga

    Unlike the new-agey types, many Christians know what they believe (right or wrong) and they know that factually all of (real) Yoga is Hinduism.