Friday, June 26, 2020

On the Demonization of Yoga in the Orthodox Church

By Metropolitan Konstantinos of Singapore and South Asia 
(Ph.D in Sociology)

"Yoga". An attention-grabbing issue. With conflicting views and arguments. It makes ratings and causes disagreements on television. The presenters of the shows rub their hands. Proponents present it as a panacea for the human body and soul. On the contrary, critics accuse it of being presented in an attractive wrapper but with dark and occult content.

Without understanding the reason, this issue became relevant again. In the month of June. The month that "hosts" it as a world day. My thoughts traveled through time. Five years ago. It was the first celebration of World Yoga Day established by the United Nations. I re-read my thoughts in my diary: June 21, 2015. It was a day like any other day that had passed.

I will confess. I have always been wary of the global celebrations of a UN event. Not out of whimsy or snobbish tendencies, but because ... "every day something else" becomes a bit frivolous at the end of the day. Whether it is significant or insignificant, everything goes in the same cauldron. Just figure it out.

Justifiably, then, when the news of the establishment of World Yoga Day reached my ears, I felt suspicious. Suspicion is a bad thing. And as the time approached for the day of the first celebration, the more I had my "antennas" stretched to listen to what was happening and especially what was "hidden".

It was one day then it was over. I also experienced it in India, the homeland of yoga.

I saw the Indian government promote the celebration in every way. Giant ads, messages on our mobile phones. Endless TV shows. Events in the squares and streets in all the cities of India. The country's prime minister was the first to attend the celebration. It was the first issue on all the TV channels. The government's intention from the outset: Yoga was born in India. Our "offering" to world culture. National pride. A piece of Indian heritage that resonates on every side of the globe. Even if you follow modern forms of yoga. Forms that have nothing to do with its traditional form (asanas).

Suspicion is a bad thing! I kept searching and observing, believing that I would find out what was hidden that they wouldn't tell us!

My research is "fruitful".

I noticed the Hindu gurus shouting that yoga only gains strength and dimension when you enrich it with Hindu beliefs. Back to the roots.

Muslims shout in all tones that they are participating in the celebration without making religious Hindu movements in the asanas (eg, invoking the sun god).

Protestant groups protest that the celebration is on Sunday and that they should move it to Monday. First church and then the celebration. They shouted, but took part in the celebration in response to the government's call.

Doctors urge people to do yoga exercises for good health. Multinational sportswear to give promotional gifts taking advantage of the celebration for their own advertising and promotion. Opposition lawmakers say that yoga is for the wealthy with "potbellies" who should lose a pound and not for the poor people who have to work for a living all day. The government is wasting money. All "bread and circuses". Elections here and now!

Everyone has an opinion. India also has a large population. Where to figure it all out. A true Babel. Many opinions, strong arguments, passionate reactions. But nothing dark and occult.

Then I was informed what they are saying in our country. On Greek TV shows, everyone tries to anoint themselves as an expert and say what comes into their head. All invested in one lifestyle without most people really knowing. Unfortunately, few knew.

I saw the celebrations in different countries of the world. From the United States to Iran! And in other Muslim countries. I was impressed.

In the orphanages of our Orthodox Church in Calcutta, India, I met our children and wanted to talk to them about it. Explain to them. To protect them. Let me see what they think. Children seven, eight, ten and twelve years old. So I asked them, what do you know about yoga? They all fell on me, they pulled at my hands, my cassock and with their voices and their smiles they took me to the dining room. There they lined up on their own and started exercising. My older children explained to me that what I was seeing was yoga. I was surprised. I watched different exercises than I had seen before. My children smiled. They started explaining to me: “We are not making these moves because they are only for Hindus. Neither these nor some others. We don't meditate." I didn't have to talk. My children had taught a lesson. Not me. I cried. Young children knew how to distinguish their tradition as Indians and their faith as Orthodox Indians. They knew it themselves.

Suspicion is a bad thing. But what a blessing it is to be discerning. To be one who does not reject the tradition of a people with a long and ancient history, while removing and not accepting those parts that are not in line with our faith and our communication with God.

After all, we did the same with our ancient Greek tradition. We "renovated" it through Christian teaching and removed all pagan elements that had no content and replaced them with the Christian ones that were now being expressed to us! However, we did not deny our tradition or our identity! We just gave it a new meaning and substance.

Nor, of course, did we deny that our "past" offers us good. In his day, Hippocrates was accused a few times that his rational way of dealing with disease was disrespectful to the gods. Today, Hippocrates is considered by all to be the father of Medicine! He was never disrespectful! Even today in India there are 30,000 "Yunani" doctors who treat exclusively with the methods of Hippocrates.

At the same time, I remembered that traditional Thai massage therapy comes from Buddhism. Tradition has it that the Buddha's physician helped him to meditate and healed his body from immobility. In fact, in its traditional form, there are specific prayers for before and after the massage. It was a religious ritual! Do you assume that anyone who is currently undergoing massage or physical therapy accepts the principles of Buddhism? Are physiotherapists Buddhists and do they hide it from us?

It was one day then it was over. And that day taught me that discernment is a blessing. A great virtue. Nothing is bad if it does not offend me as a person and does not change my choices and my faith. Knowledge and faith overcome suspicion and fear. Semi-learning leaves "shadows" and maintains fear. Knowledge is needed. And discernment. It sets the limits.

"Yoga". Another World Day for the UN. An important part of India's cultural heritage. For the Hindu, it is a "way" towards nirvana. For Western man, another reason to search for the "exotic" atmosphere of the East. For gymnasts, a form of a workout. For me, the reason for an important "lesson". Anything foreign to my own tradition, my own way of thinking is not a priori reprehensible. It may not suit me. It may not "fit" in my life. It may never be something I choose. But what we reject should not be demonized. There is no reason.

After all, for the Christian, God is the Truth. The Truth that "illuminates" everything. Even the "dark" paths. We are usually afraid of the dark ... but if you are in the Light, why are you afraid?

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.