August 29, 2002
1610 IST

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English vicar bans yoga classes in church hall

Shyam Bhatia in London

An English vicar's decision to ban yoga classes from his church hall has underlined the fragility of Britain's continuing experiment with a multi-cultural society.

The vicar in question is Reverend Derek Smith, who is in charge of St Michael's Church in the parish of Melksham in Wiltshire.

Rev Smith says his decision to stop the classes is because of yoga's association with Hinduism.

His wife Sue told that the decision was taken after extensive consultations with the local parish church council.

Yoga is one of the fastest growing extra-curricular activities in the United Kingdom with a following among all sections of society. A decade ago, it was actively promoted by one of India's most popular diplomats in Britain, High Commissioner Apa Pant, who delighted his friends by balancing on his head.

In London a spokesman for Britain's Anglican Church backed the right of clergymen to take a stand against any practices which "do not square with Christian teachings".

He said other vicars share the concerns about the spiritual basis of some versions of the exercise regime, since many church halls across the UK accommodate yoga classes.

The spokesman added: "Yoga is used as a kind of generic term for exercise and stretching, but there are many different types of yoga. Some have a more spiritual basis as handed down from Eastern religions.

"It's reasonably understandable that someone can say so if they don't want something with a spiritual basis taught in their church hall."

The Church of England was keen to promote good relations with other religions, he said, but that did not involve being "wish-washy or mealy-mouthed" about distinctions in faith.

Although there are no plans to call for a blanket ban on yoga classes in church halls nationwide, yoga enthusiasts are angered by the move, which appears to be a growing trend.

Last November another vicar in a different part of the country in Henham, Essex, took the same step.

The British Wheel of Yoga, the governing body recognised by Sport England, condemned Rev Smith's action as "ignorant".

Spokeswoman Jane Hill said: "It's not a religion and it doesn't push any version of one. I don't think it will affect his flock. He should have a bit more of an open mind."

Hindu spiritual leaders have also criticised Smith for his narrow-minded approach, while agreeing that every place of worship needs guidelines about what may be permitted on its premises.

"I don't think there would be a problem if we opened our temple premises to our Christian brothers," said Bimal Krishan Das, secretary of the National Council of Hindu Temples.

"We Hindus are broadminded and it is surprising for us to hear a Christian vicar say he will ban yoga classes.

"Most people practise yoga for health benefits, but even if they were aware of the links with Hinduism, what is the harm? There are many paths to God."

Meanwhile, Rev Smith has called upon Christians who practise yoga to examine their consciences.

The 50-year-old vicar said he had no regrets about his church hall's ban on the weekly yoga classes, which were incompatible with Christianity.

On the other hand, he admitted that the decision to axe the sessions, which had been running since March, had upset at least one woman parishioner.

Rev Smith said that even if followers in the West used it just for fitness, spiritual leaders in the East insisted it was inseparable from Hindu devotional practice.

Speaking from his rectory in Melksham, he said: "I would ask people who do yoga to think about whether they believe they were in breach of their faith or not.

"If they genuinely believe what they are doing is acceptable -- and I know people that do -- of course, I would ask them to follow their consciences."

He added that he would never consider trying the exercise regime because it would be wrong.

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