The Indo-Asian News Service (IANS) is reporting that Father John Ferreira, a yoga guru and principal of St. Peter's College in Agra, which is one of India's oldest educational facilities, is once again in the news for extolling the glories of yoga in a big way at St. Peter's. Although he's been teaching yoga regularly for several years at the school, he has just unveiled a 6,000-square-foot gallery adjacent to the school's historic cathedral that features paintings and embossed reliefs of the various yoga positions and their purported health benefits.
“The idea was to bring the esoteric science of yoga to the masses from the closets of ashrams and libraries,” Ferreira told IANS.
When Ferreira took over as the principal of the school five years ago, he introduced a one-hour daily yoga regimen for students and was met with quite a bit of resistance from parents, teachers and even the Church; however, he claims a great "miracle" resulted in that his students are now regular practitioners of yoga.
“Some of them have become yoga teachers; the Catholic priests are also yoga fans, including the archbishop. The whole campus exudes positive vibes. Other schools too have taken to yoga and the various school boards are now planning to introduce yoga in the curriculum,” Ferreira said.
Ferreira's penchant for yoga began 30 years ago when he claimed it healed him of an illness after he had lost all hope of a cure. He has been singing the praises of yoga ever since, even going so far as to claim Jesus was the greatest of all yogis.
“Jesus Christ was the greatest yogi," he told IANS. "Only a yogi can make supreme sacrifice as Jesus made. Yoga does not belong to any particular religion. It is a universal science being practiced in various forms by people all over. Even the sound ‘Om’ is universal, just as the gayatri mantra. Yoga can only make you good Christians.”
He continued: "Only a supreme yogi could bear the extreme pain as Jesus Christ did when crucified. He had total control over his self and he always chose to forgive the sinners. Similarly Mahatma Gandhi was a maha (great) yogi,” he explained.
Of course, there is not a shred of evidence to prove that Jesus practiced yoga or that He relied on the practice to withstand the horrible tortures of the crucifixion. Nor is there any proof that "only a yogi" can withstand the kind of brutality Our Lord suffered at the end of his life. Not only did Jesus withstand this brutality without yoga, but so did thousands of his followers who endured excruciating deaths from the gridiron and the jaws of lions to the starvation chambers of Auschwitz.
And to put Jesus on par with Mahatma Gandhi, even if that is not what he intended when making the comment, is even more outrageous to be coming from a Catholic priest who is expected to be more mindful of causing scandal.
But this is not the first time the controversial priest has made headlines for his zealous promotion of yoga. He weighed in on a dispute in the United Kingdom that erupted in 2007 after the Silver Street Baptist Church and St. James’ Anglican Church in England rejected a children’s exercise class because it teaches yoga.
“We are a Christian organization and when we let rooms to people we want them to understand that they must be fully in line with our Christian ethos,” said Rev. Simon Farrar of Silver Street Baptist Church according to the The Times of London.
Farrar said he believes yoga “clearly … impinges on the spiritual life of people in a way which we as Christians don’t believe is the same as our ethos.”
The Rev. Tim Jones, vicar of St James’, supported Farrar's decision, noting that yoga “has its roots in Hinduism and attempts to use exercises and relaxation techniques to put a person into a calm frame of mind – in touch with some kind of impersonal spiritual reality. . . . The philosophy of yoga cannot be separated from the practice of it, and any teacher of yoga, even to toddlers, must subscribe to the philosophy.”
Ferreira weighed in at the time, claiming that anyone who says yoga is "unchristian" is ignorant about the practice.
“They know nothing about yoga,” he told IANS. “They should first study and experience the benefits of India’s ancient science before commenting.”
Unfortunately, Ferreira's description of yoga as a science is not supported even by Hindu philosophy. In India, yoga is considered one of the six branches of classical Hindu philosophy and is referred to in the Vedas (ancient Indian scriptures). The goal is to reach “Kaivalya” (ultimate freedom) by releasing the soul from the chains of cause and effect (karma) which tie the person to continual reincarnation. Yoga uses physical exercises, powers of concentration and breathing techniques as well as meditation to achieve these ends.
Nor do experts in Hindu philosophy agree with his description of yoga as a mere science.
In an article published in the January-February 2006 issue of Hinduism Today, Subhas R. Tiwari, professor at the Hindu University of America who holds a master’s degree is yoga philosophy, says that no matter what one chooses to call it, yoga will always be Hindu.
“The simple immutable fact is that yoga originated from the Vedic or Hindu culture," Tiwari writes. "Its techniques were not adopted by Hinduism but originated from it."
The same point is made in an article published on the Hindu American Foundation website and expresses concern for the kind of thinking that Father Ferreira is espousing - the trend to disassociate yoga from its Hindu roots and call it something other than what it is.
"Both Yoga magazines and studios assiduously present Yoga as an ancient practice independent and disembodied from the Hinduism that gave forth this immense contribution to humanity," the article states. "With the intense focus on asana, magazines and studios have seemingly 'gotten away' with this mischaracterization. Yet, even when Yoga is practiced solely in the form of an exercise, it cannot be completely delinked from its Hindu roots."
The article goes on to quote the legendary Yoga guru B.K.S Iyengar who writes in his best selling Light on Yoga: "Some asanas are also called after Gods of the Hindu pantheon and some recall the Avataras, or incarnations of Divine Power."
In the same book, he also clearly states that the asanas "are not just physical exercises: they have biochemical, psycho-physiological and psycho-spiritual effects.”
The article expresses an almost palpable disappointment in yogis who regularly practice yoga but deny it's Hindu roots by trying to call it an "exercise" or a science.
"In a time where Hindus around the globe face discrimination and hate because of their religious identity, and Hindu belief and practice continue to be widely misunderstood due to exoticized portrayals of it being caricaturized in 'caste, cows and curry' fashion, recognition of Yoga as a tremendous contribution of ancient Hindus to the world is imperative. Yoga is inextricable from Hindu traditions, and a better awareness of this fact is reached only if one understands that 'Yoga' and 'asana' are not interchangeable terms."
The Hindu American Foundation "firmly holds that Yoga is an essential part of Hindu philosophy and the two cannot be delinked, despite efforts to do so."
We need to keep Father Ferreira in our prayers, as well as our Hindu brothers and sisters whose belief system is being distorted and degraded by the profit-driven "exercise only" yoga fad that has captivated so much of the West.
Our Learn to Discern series includes a booklet on yoga which contains detailed information on why yoga and Christianity don't mix. Click here for more information.