November 7, 2002
0140 IST

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Concern over English vicar's decision
to forbid yoga

Shyam Bhatia in London

Another English vicar's decision to forbid yoga classes on his premises is causing concern among community leaders and has prompted complaints to one of the most senior officials of the Anglican Church.

Reverend John Walker of St Wilfrid's Church of England in Calverley, Yorkshire, has banished a yoga group from its hall because of what he describes as the exercise regime's links to New Age thinking and Hinduism.

After vicars in Essex and Wiltshire, he is the third one in as many months to take this controversial decision.

The anti-yoga movement is blamed on Bible-thumping evangelicals within the church who believe they have to be more assertive about their Christianity, even if it means taking issue with followers of other faiths.

Ironically, evangelicals like Rev Walker are raising their heads at a time when a confirmed liberal is about to take office as the new head of the church. Archbishop of Canterbury-designate Rowan Williams has even agreed to accept membership of an ancient Druid order that has its roots in pre-Christian Britain.

Meanwhile, members of both Christian and Hindu groups say Rev Walker, whose Calverley parish is close to the South Asian population centre of Bradford, is wrong in claiming that yoga is "against the teachings of the Bible".

Joniah Parthasarathi, secretary of the Yorkshire branch of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, has even branded the vicar "ignorant" and says he will complain to the Archbishop of York, the second highest-ranking clergyman within the Church of England.

The yoga group had been holding sessions at the church hall, known as the Barn, ever since the Parochial Church Council bought it in 1984. It was refurbished with help from the local Rotary Club and Leeds City Council to be used for community activities.

Those who welcome the group's activities include the team leader of the Methodist Touchstone Centre in Bradford, The Reverend Geoff Reid. He says the Church has nothing to fear from yoga.

"Many people use yoga as a modern way to unwind from their stressful lives. It is in the interests of Christians to understand it. There can be a spiritual element to yoga, but that doesn't make it hostile to Christianity," he told

"I know there are some people in the Church who get a bit upset about it. But I can see no harm in it and I do not think the Church has got anything to fear from it."

Parthasarathi, who is also a member of the Bradford Multi-cultural Society and a specialist on interfaith affairs, says he is outraged by the decision.

"Intolerance is a mild word to describe his actions. The vicar is ill informed and he has passed a judgement that is ignorant.

"Yoga is a part of modern human society and has nothing to do with any particular faith. It is no threat to Christianity and I am extremely disappointed in him. We are supposed to be promoting Bradford as a contender for the Capital of Culture in 2008, but something like this is hugely damaging to multi-culturalism in the city."

Another English clergyman, The Reverend George Moffatt, team vicar of the nearby Manningham Parish, says there is no problem with church halls being used for yoga.

"I find it difficult to disagree with other members of the Church, but I would beg to differ with Reverend Walker.

"For most people in this country the philosophy that lies behind yoga is not something that bothers them. They are more interested in the relaxation techniques," he says.

But he agrees that Rev Walker is not alone in his views. "There is quite a strong opposition from the evangelical wings of the Church to things such as yoga."

In York, Rob Marshall, a spokesman for the Archbishop says complaints have been received about the restrictions imposed at St Wilfrid's church hall, but adds that he is not hopeful about effecting a change of policy.

"We believe these issues are best left to churches in the parish," Marshall says. "All the archbishop can do is write to the incumbent and check that everything is in order.

"Many different opinions are represented within the church as a whole and there are some fundamentalists who are concerned about anything on their premises."

Monica Burton, chairman of yoga's governing body, the British Wheel of Yoga, has the final word. She describes Rev Walker's decision as "old fashioned" and "small minded".

"People from all religious backgrounds practise yoga. It teaches you to be tolerant and to treat people as you would hope to be treated yourself.

"There is nothing in it that goes against Christian principles and I have known vicars who take yoga classes.

"It is no wonder so many churches are empty when some vicars can be so small-minded," she says.

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