The students at St. Joseph’s School in the Indian city of Ranchi stretched, twisted and turned in a carefully choreographed display that at first glance resembled an old Hollywood musical scene being conducted in slow-motion.
However, this was not an elaborate 1930s-style dance performance.
They were among students from several church-run schools on the subcontinent taking part in International Yoga Day, an annual global event on June 21 that takes place despite criticism in certain religious circles that the practice is not Christian.
Yoga is a collection of physical, mental and spiritual disciplines with roots in Hinduism that developed in ancient India, according to many traditionalists. But in modern times it has evolved into a global phenomenon which practitioners extol as a way to reduce tension, stress and boost concentration.
Among the stretching students at St. Joseph’s was Father Kishore Toppo, an English teacher who has been practicing the tradition since he was a young seminarian.
“I do it each day for at least half an hour,” the 35-year-old priest from Ranchi Archdiocese in Jharkhand state told ucanews.com.
“It helps improve my concentration, focus on work and keeps me energetic throughout the day.”
He and the students at St Joseph’s are not alone.
This year saw more Catholic institutions taking part in the annual event which is now in its fifth year, indicating that the Church in India has started to relax its opposition to yoga.
According to media reports, at least 192 countries observed the special day, which was adopted by the United Nations in 2014 as a way of raising awareness of its health benefits.
The move, however, went against a 1989 Vatican document that called on Catholics to steer clear of yoga as a form of meditation prayer.
The document was issued and signed by the future pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the time.
It said eastern prayer and meditation methods were “not free from dangers and errors,” and were harmful to Catholic spirituality. Among the eastern practices mentioned was yoga.
“With the present diffusion of eastern methods of meditation in the Christian world and in ecclesial communities, we find ourselves faced with a pointed renewal of an attempt, which is not free from dangers and errors, to fuse Christian meditation with that which is non-Christian,” the document stated.
Efforts to blend “Christian meditation with eastern techniques need to have their contents and methods ever subjected to a thorough-going examination so as to avoid the danger of falling into syncretism,” it added.
Syncretism is the merging of different religious beliefs into a new one.
However, Catholic Bishop Jose Chittooparambil of Rajkot, seems to suggest Christian opposition to yoga is misplaced.
“We are not against yoga at all. We generally don’t prefer to recite certain slogans identified with the Hindu religion while practicing yoga,” the prelate from the western Indian state of Gujarat told ucanews.com.
“That does not mean we are against yoga. It is a good way of exercise that helps develop better concentration and good health,” Bishop Chittooparambil said.
Yoga in most Catholic schools in Jharkhand is practiced daily “to build up positive energy, good health, and mental stability,” Father Anand David Xalxo, a Ranchi Archdiocese spokesman told ucanews.com.
“There is no opposition to it in our schools. Priests and nuns practice and even teach it to others,” he said.
Schools in India’s Christian-dominated northeastern states also took part in marking International Yoga Day, according to Father Felix Anthony, from the North East Regional Bishops’ Council.
Speaking to ucanews.com, Father Anthony said yoga helps him “discharge his priestly ministries” and provides him with “better stability and ability to focus on what is right.”
Yoga, he argues “should be removed from any religious context”.
This view appears to have the backing of the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council, which published a document in 2018 supporting the idea of practicing yoga while still adhering to the principles of Christian spirituality.
It said yoga is an excellent physical and mental exercise regimen, during which Catholics should not fail to declare the uniqueness of Christ as God.
Christ is not just one of the gurus, but the only begotten Son of God, the incarnate Word of God, it added.