Fitness instructor Cori Withell, who was banned from using the church hall for yoga
London, Sept. 30: A Catholic priest is proving surprisingly unbending in his opposition to yoga — he will not allow his local church hall to be used for teaching yoga because he views it as an alien Hindu practice that could undermine the Catholic faith.
The hardline attitude on yoga by Father John Chandler has shocked thousands of its practitioners, Indians and non-Indians alike.
He has banned Cori Withell, a fitness instructor, from using St Edmund’s Church Hall in Southampton, where he is in charge, for yoga lessons.
“There are other halls she could use in Southampton,” was the priest’s final word on yoga.
Fr Chandler is not in the mould of the gentle, tolerant priests who run St Xavier’s and other missionary schools in India. Fr Chandler is convinced yoga is born out of Hinduism and permitting lessons would be to stray on to a slippery slope.
“Yoga is a Hindu spiritual exercise,” he insisted. “Being a Catholic Church we have to promote the gospel and that’s what we use our premises for.”
“We did say that yoga could not take place,” he went on. “It’s the fact that it’s a different religious practice going on in a Catholic Church.”
He explained his moral dilemma: “On one hand we say to our parishioners, ‘Be strong in your faith,’ and on the other hand there’s this other religious belief that’s not part of our faith. It’s not compatible. We are not saying that yoga is bad or wrong.”
But there is no disguising his firm belief that yoga is wrong. He also accused Withell of being devious in the way she had booked her lessons. She had initially pretended she was only going to give lessons in Pilates (a fitness regime which began in Germany), but later slipped in yoga, he alleged.
Far from seeking to control a troublesome priest, Portsmouth Catholic Diocese, Fr Chandler’s employer, gave him full support.
There wasn’t a Catholic Church policy on yoga as such, a spokesperson said, but emphasised: “The Catholic Church cannot permit activities which have their origins in non-Christian religions to take place on church premises.”
Withell, 37, who lives in Eastleigh, said she paid £180 when the church accepted her booking two months ago. She was later telephoned and told that since yoga derived from another religion, she could not have the hall. A separate booking for pilates was also cancelled.
The church would not budge. “I offered to go down and show them the moves and, literally, the shutters came down.”
Withell said: “There was never any meditation in my class — just exercises. Yoga is not religious: spiritual, but not religious. I do not object to anyone having a religious viewpoint, but it seemed terribly petty to cancel the classes.”
She also pointed out: “As a nation we have an obesity epidemic. I was trying to bring some exercise to the community and coming across blocks like this is frustrating.”
Fr Chandler could have followed the example of Prince Charles, who will, like the Queen, one day be “Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England”.
Only last week, he and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, visited the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre near Epsom, Surrey, which looks after British soldiers horribly injured in Afghanistan.
The Prince of Wales was only too happy to be snapped practising “his own version of tree pose yoga” alongside Marine Chay Coulbert, one of the patients.
The royal couple were inaugurating a £16.9 million rehabilitation compound, which has a 48-bed complex, with therapy rooms, a gym and a workshop for hi-tech prosthetic limbs. It offers yoga, which it clearly would not do if it was thought to be anti-Christian.
The Telegraph had recently reported on how David Stone, 31, who suffers from cerebral palsy, said attending the Bihar School of Yoga at Ganga Darshan in Munger had helped him win cycling gold in the Paralympic Games earlier this month.
Fr Chandler’s narrow mindedness was slammed by readers of The Sun. “Narrow minded,” was a typical view. “Shame on you.”