Who Fears Yoga?

Dr. Meledath Kurian Thomas – (OCP Research Associate)
Dept of CHurch Research and Studies
Orthodoxy Cognate PAGE – 20/6/15

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Global: June 21st, 2015 is declared as the International Yoga Day. There are a lot of arguments for and against its celebration, particularly  on the grounds of religion. Before going for a debate let us consider the below details.

Metropolitan Paret Mathews Mar Ivanios of Kottayam (Indian Orthodox Malankara Church), entered into the eternal rest on 31 August 1980. He departed at the age of ninety one without any major ailment. Everyone knows that he was six feet plus in height and a person with well disciplined food and life habits. But very few know that he was regularly practicing Yoga until one month prior to his demise. That too includes Shirshasan, the headstand pose!
Mar Ivanios himself disclosed that he was practicing Yoga since his ordination as an Orthodox deacon. He practiced it without interruption at until his last days. According to the records, he was elevated into the minor order of deaconate (Korooyo) on 7 June 1889 at Puthuppally, India. He was ordained as a full deacon (M’samsona) on 17 May 1908 at Jerusalem.

Even if the latter date is taken into the account, it is quite clear that he practiced Yoga for long seventy one years! In between, he was elevated as a priest, bishop and Metropolitan. In all those capacity, he went on practicing Yoga. Not practicing by himself but advised at least one of his disciples to practise Yoga who was facing physical problems.

Metropolitan Paret Mar Ivanios, a conservative Orthodox Christian, was the son of Parat Kochumathu, a patriotic Nazrani from Puthuppally, India. He was a student of St. Vattasseril Mar Dionysius of Malankara and later become his close associate. None of these rigid Orthodox Christian backgrounds forbid Mar Ivanios from practicing Yoga. He never considered it as a practise against Orthodox Christianity. His superiors, the Malankara Metropolitan and the Catholicos of the East agreed the same. It is interesting to note that, one among his superiors, prohibited a young bishop from playing badminton for exercise! It is also worth to note that Yoga was not popular among ordinary people of India while Metropolitan Mar Ivanios started practicing it, (even at the time of his demise).

There are several Indian sciences like Ayurveda, Yoga, Kalari Payattu (a martial art) etc. Practicing any such will not harm one’s Christianity. Its practice will make any one as a member of any specific religion. Thousands around the world practicing Chinese science Acupuncture. But nobody claims them as the followers of Confucianism or Taoism. Nazranis of the Malankara Orthodox Church do not believe that the ingredients of Christianity are not alone those propagated by the Europeans, since the Indian Christianity is much older than that of the Europe.

There are priests in the Malankara Church who were trained in Kalari Payattu, Kerala’s martial art and Marma Vidhya (the nerve science) for more than fourteen years before entering into Seminary for priestly training. They are not treated as persona non grata, but as professionals like engineers or medical practitioners. That is the Indian way of Christianity.

The chief opposition about Yoga nowadays is about the practice of Surya Namaskara which means Sun Salutation. Bot factions, those who are in favour of Surya Namaskara and those who are against it, claim it as Sun worship. I do not know whether this is a common sequence of exercise in Yoga, or can be done only facing east in the dawn and west in the dusk. However, I know that several people perform Surya Namaskara within closed rooms.

There is nothing religious in the names of certain elements in the Indian sciences. Agasthya Resyana, Brahma Resayana, Chavanya Prashem etc., are some of the popularly used Ayurvedic medicines. Nobody bothered about the person associated with its name while consuming the same irrespective of their religious orientation. Why not consider Surya Namaskara in the same manner? Naming a product is always the will of its inventor/developer. It reflects his personal affiliation – personal, religious, political, patriotic, or whatever else – only. I believe that there is nothing wrong in practicing Yoga including Surya Namaskara if its religious element can be kept apart.

On the other hand, no religion can claim the patronage of any Indian sciences. It is the part or the offspring of the Indian culture. Religion is not the deriving factor of Indian culture but just an element of it. If speaks strictly in religious terms, Ayurveda, the Indian science of medicine, was developed and propagated by Buddhist monks. What will happen if somebody demands the users of Ayurveda must become Buddhist? People indeed treat him as insane. This logic is also applicable for Yoga.

But, at no point, nobody can insist Yoga to be practiced by all people if they do not wish for the same, or to make it mandatory. All individuals are free to choose it. Let people practice Surya Namaskara as an exercise like consuming Agasthya Resayana as a medicine, if they wish. Do not inject it with narrow minded religious fanaticism. We must refrain from associating the great Indian culture and its products to any particular religion alone.

Another point of disagreement is regarding the sounds like ‘Om’, which is being used in the practice of certain Yoga postures. Some argues it as the sacred sounds of a particular religion. Hence, some refrain to use it or the Yoga practices associated with it. On the other and, some others insist the use of such sounds as a tool of religious subjugation. There are certain sounds associated with the Chinese martial arts like Karate and Kung-Fu. Nobody bothers to analyse its linguistic or religious roots but just using it as a part of the training. Why not treat the sounds associated with Yoga in this manner? If anybody believes it as scared, let them do it and leave others to use it as part of the training.

There are only two roads in front of us. Those who wish to promote the great Indian science, Yoga – keep it away from religion. Those who wish to see it – disintegrated will mix it with religion and propagate the same as a tool of subjugation. Let us keep in mind that such fanaticism will not do any good for Yoga nor for the mankind.