Hindus have asked the Vatican to discipline retired Lincoln Diocese Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz for telling Catholics that doing yoga could lead to serious sin.
In a statement issued Friday morning, Hindu cleric Rajan Zed urged Pope Francis to discipline Bruskewitz for the unnecessary condemnation of yoga. Zed is president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, a noted leader in interfaith relations in Nevada and in 2007 was the first person to offer a Hindu prayer before the U.S. Senate.
The controversy stems from a May 18 blog posted on the website of a Catholic apostolate on whose board Bruskewitz serves. In a letter to Women of Grace, which was posted in part on the blog, Bruskewitz wrote the following:
“It would be most desirable for persons who are Catholic to abstain from the practice of yoga and use other methods to exercise. ... We are never allowed to place our Catholic faith unnecessarily in any danger, and certainly the practice of yoga could be an occasion of serious sin ... "
The blog went on to say, “(Bruskewitz) correctly points out that yoga originated in, and is an important part of, various forms of the Hindu religion which is, in the Catholic perspective, ‘a pagan religion based on heathen beliefs and false doctrine of revelation involving such things as transmigration of souls, and so forth.’”
Yoga is an important part of Hinduism, Zed said, but it is not a religion.
Women of Grace blog author Susan Brinkmann called Zed's comments interesting, noting that last year the cleric publicly opposed a Washington, D.C., yoga tax claiming that "yoga wasn't exercise but was the means by which the human soul unites with the universal soul."
"So he seems to agree with the bishop who also believes it's impossible to separate the religious aspects of yoga from the asanas (poses), the practice of which could lead people into embracing non-Christian beliefs," Brinkmann wrote in an email on Friday.
Bruskewitz declined to comment on the matter. But Lincoln Diocese spokesman JD Flynn said the retired bishop's comments were drawn from the teachings of the church.
"Catholics do have to be careful to distinguish between what is Christian and what is rooted in other religious traditions," Flynn said.
Zed also declined an interview request, saying his statements in the news release were sufficient.
Medical professionals tout the physical, emotional and mental benefits of yoga, and the National Institutes of Health say it may help one feel more relaxed, be more flexible, improve posture, breathe deeply and get rid of stress.
Given its proven and well known health benefits, Zed suggested it be introduced in all the schools of the world.
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A recently released NIH survey report revealed more Americans of all ages are rolling out yoga mats in an effort to improve their health and that approximately 21 million adults and 1.7 million children practice yoga.
Yoga is a $27 billion industry in the U.S., Brinkmann said.
Zed noted that the Vatican Library reportedly carries various yoga-related books such as “Bhaktiyoga,” “Yoga,” “Yoga-system of Patanjali” and “Yogic Powers and God Realization.”
Brinkmann countered that even among Hindu leaders there is disagreement over whether the physical aspects of yoga can be achieved minus the spiritual implications.
Although introduced and nourished by Hinduism, Zed said yoga is “a world heritage and liberation powerhouse to be utilized by all.”
According to Patanjali, an ancient sage behind yoga sutra, yoga was a methodical effort to attain perfection through the control of the different elements of human nature, physical and psychic.
It traces back to about 2,000 BC and the Indus Valley civilization, Zed said.
“Yoga was the repository of something basic in the human soul and psyche," he said.
The Hindu cleric also is asking the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to take action.
Brinkmann doubts anything will come of Zed's appeal to the pope.
"The bottom line is that Bruskewitz will never be reprimanded by the Pope because his views are neither controversial nor out-of-line, but are shared by millions of Christians," she said by email. "In fact, the U.S. population in general is largely divided on whether yoga is a spiritual practice or 'just exercise.'"
Catholicism is not the only religion to take issue with yoga. Some evangelical Christian churches warn congregants that it is incompatible with Christianity. In response, Christian yogis have adapted the stretches and meditations to include Christ-centered prayer and scripture.
And indeed, although most of the public comments have been critical of Bruskewitz and his position, Flynn said the diocese has heard from a number of Catholics who have expressed appreciation for Bruskewitz's comments.