Is yoga incompatible with Christianity? Conservative Christians in Europe and the US have been posing this question with growing fervour in the past few months, accusing India’s biggest export to the West of propagating Hinduism and leading Christians down the path of evil.

The controversy was in the news again again last week, when an appeals court in California ruled that yoga is secular, “devoid of religious or mystical trappings” and can be taught in schools without violating students’ religious freedoms. The ruling was in response to a 2013 lawsuit filed by worried Christian parents of Encinitas town, who claimed that yoga classes introduced in a local elementary school were promoting Hinduism and Buddhism amongst their children.

But an Indian Catholic priest from Mumbai has a thing or two to say to the Christian groups in the West whipping up fears against yoga in the West.

Joseph Pereira, a Catholic clergyman and proponent of Iyengar yoga, wears both his hats with perfect ease as he teaches yoga around the world. He studied the practice directly from BKS Iyengar, the legendary founder of Iyengar yoga, and his students include everyone from Christian priests to Singapore’s first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. Through his 34-year-old organisation Kripa Foundation, he uses yoga to rehabilitate people with alcohol addiction problems.

Father Joseph Pereira with BKS Iyengar. Photo courtesy Kripa Foundation

Anti-yoga propaganda, says Pereira, is the work of a specific lobby of fundamentalist, “born-again” Christians who he describes as “God addicts”. This may sound strange coming from a Catholic priest, but Father Joe – as most people know him – has chosen his words for a reason.

Opium for the masses

“Jesus, for me, is the supreme yogi, because he spoke about being one with God,” said Pereira, who emphasises that Iyengar yoga transcends all ideologies and philosophies with its ability to unite people. Just this year, Pereira published a book called Yoga for the Practice of Christian Meditation, connecting the practice of various yoga asanas to teachings from the Bible.

The Catholic church, he says, has actually been open to the idea of opening up to practices like yoga since the Second Vatican Council of 1962, when the church issued two documents – one about the church in the modern world and the other on its relationship with non-Christian religions.

“In both documents, we have been encouraged to imbibe spirituality from world religions,” said Pereira. It is in this spirit that Bede Griffith, a British Benedictine monk living in India, began to promote Hindu-Christian dialogue, wrote a Christian reading of the Bhagwad Gita and came to be called a yogi.

“How many people in the West know about all of this?” said Pereira. The anti-yoga propagandists, he said, not only fail to see the spiritual aspects of yoga, they also fail to delve deeper into the meaning of their own religion.

“So many people who come to church every day are lost in religion – they make a fetish out of their idea of God but don’t know what it really means,” said Pereira. “Marx was right when he said that religion can be like opium for people.”

Christian denominations like the Pentecostals, the Southern Baptist churches in the US and various television evangelists – the groups that routinely oppose the practice of yoga – are highly fundamentalist “God addicts” who Pereira likens to the Hindutva Bajrang Dal or the Islamist Al-Queda. “All these groups preach the prosperity gospel – the idea that if you follow the gospel, you will prosper,” said Pereira. “They are only in it for the money and power.”

Acrobatics versus yoga

To Pereira, yogic spirituality is primarily about healthy living, and he plans to promote the idea this year on June 23, which Kripa Foundation will mark as an International Yoga for Addiction Recovery Day. Representatives from de-addiction centres from at least 25 countries will participate, including the US.

Pereira emphasises, however, that it is mainly Iyengar yoga that he chooses to defend from opposition in the West. “All kinds of yoga are being popularised in Western countries these days, and some of them do present yoga through a Hindu religious lens,” he said. “Most, however, have just reduced yoga to acrobatics. But yoga is not just a work out – it is a work in.”