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Swamiji’s yoga ties Catholics up in knots

Zagreb, Nov. 2 (Reuters): Croatian elementary school teacher Marijana Ivanovic has taken up yoga to help her relax. Nothing controversial about that, or so she thought.

“Yoga really helps recharge one’s batteries and eases my lower-back pain,” said Ivanovic, who has taught for more than 30 years, during the first session of a state-supported yoga programme for teachers.

But her ancient oriental exercise routine is at the centre of a highly charged public debate because it has fallen foul of the powerful Roman Catholic church in this overwhelmingly Catholic country.

The education ministry introduced the programme this year as part of efforts to help teachers work better.

The ministry awarded 50,000 kuna ($7,624) in annual support to a local group known as ‘Yoga in Daily Life’, which draws on teachings of Hindu spiritual leader Paramhans Swami Maheshwarananda, known as Swamiji. The yoga courses started in October. In addition to relaxation, the programme aims to develop “a more efficient approach in communication with pupils,” according to the official booklet.

“Easing stress and improving health were the main motivations for those who applied to attend,” said Vedrana Josipovic, who is in charge of the programme.

The sessions are held in the four largest Croatian cities — Zagreb, Split, Rijeka and Pula and Josipovic insists they have nothing to do with the institutionalisation of yoga in schools.

But Croatia’s Catholic bishops are not impressed. In July they issued a statement protesting “an attempt to introduce yoga in the Croatian education system”.

The Croatian Bishops’ Conference said the programme would “make an unacceptable favour to an organisation and its founder who wants to introduce Hinduistic religious practice in Croatian schools”. It said everything was being done under the guise of exercise.

“It is evident that teachers will apply yoga practice in their work with children,” the Bishops’ Conference said.

The bishops’ statement appeared to have an immediate impact in a country where almost 90 per cent of the people profess to be Catholic. Local media reported that interest in the yoga programme had fallen sharply after the protest..

Yoga ran into similar trouble in Slovakia in 2001 when a proposal to teach yoga in schools was eventually dropped after fierce opposition from Slovakia’s Catholic church and allies in the Right-wing government.

“Croatian bishops reacted in the same way as Slovak bishops, but I think they misunderstood what exactly the programme ‘Yoga in Daily Life’ meant,” Swamiji said by telephone from India.

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