In Kerala, yoga finds unlikely mascots in CPM, Christian religious leaders

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Kerala, with a large population of minorities and atheists, has been wary of accepting yoga because of the religious tag attached to the ancient Indian practice.

However, some groups are trying to make it acceptable to different sections of people in the state by developing their own versions of yoga. While the Communist Party of India (Marxist) that heads the ruling Left Democratic Front has fashioned a Marxist version for its cadres, a Catholic priest and a nun are developing a Christian version.

The Kerala State Yoga Association (KSYA) has been promoting yoga since 1986, when it started functioning as an affiliate of the Yoga Federation of India. The KSYA has viewed both the moves with skepticism. Association general secretary KP Bhaskara Menon said yoga will benefit people only if it is practiced in its pure form.

“Non-Hindus and atheists have been keeping yoga at bay because of the shlokas and mantras associated with the Hindu religion. But the incantations have important roles to play in yoga. The mantras unite the body and mind, and breath and soul. Those who practice without chanting these mantras will not get the manifold benefits that yoga offers,” he said.

Menon told Firstpost that attempts being made by certain groups to develop their own versions of yoga may lead to the dilution of yoga. This could be similar to Ayurveda, which has lost its essence due to commercialisation in the wake of globalisation. He said that people who are now trying to promote yoga are doing it with vested interests.

CPM cadres practicing yoga in Kerala. Image credit: K Sasi

Interestingly, the CPM jumped on to the bandwagon after the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre started promoting yoga in a big way. The party kicked off its yoga programme by organizing a mass session in Kannur on 4 June, 2016.

The customized version omitted ‘surya namaskar,’ in which the practitioner has to invoke Lord Surya. The participants at the session performed 30 asanas with the accompaniment of music instead of mantras. The CPM called it a secular version of yoga.

However, some have described it as a political exercise. They believe that the selection of Kannur for holding the mass programme itself was pregnant with a political message since the northern district has been a hotbed of political clashes between the CPM and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The clashes between the cadres of the two has claimed about 300 lives in the past three decades.

The yoga association general secretary also views the CPM’s decision to entrust the promotion of yoga to the party-backed Indian Martial Arts Academy as a message to its political opponents. Even though the organization was rechristened as Indian Martial Arts Academy and Yoga Study Centre after the CPM decided to develop the Marxist version of yoga, the basic characteristic of the parent organization, which includes armed training, does not change, says Menon.

Office bearers of the CPM-backed academy denied any political motive behind their yoga programme. Academy president and state coordinator of the programme E Rajeevan claimed that their aim was to create an interest in the minds of people about healthy living and the need to ward off lifestyle diseases.

However, the party’s Kannur district secretary EP Jayarajan has no such pretensions. He said that the party had developed the programme to counter the attempt by the Sangh Parivar to hijack yoga for their political gains. This isn’t the first time that the CPM has taken the cultural route to checkmate the Sangh Parivar. The party has been celebrating Krishna Jayanthi in Kannur for the last three years in an attempt to retain its control over various sections of the Hindu community.

The Christian version of yoga being developed by Fr Saiju Thuruthiyil and Sister Infant Treesa has no such political motives. However, it has helped them in overcoming the objections of the Church to yoga. While former Vatican ‘exorcist’ Father Gabriel Amroth termed yoga devil’s work, Pope Francis maintained that yoga wasn’t capable of opening people’s hearts to God.

The Syro-Malabar Church says yoga is not a medium to attain divine experience. The Oriental Church’s Synod of the Bishops, which discussed the role of yoga in their faith last year, said divine experience could not be experienced through a particular posture though it may help physical and mental health.

However, Fr Saiju and Treesa disagreed with the stand. They claimed that they found yoga as a medium to communicate with God.

While the priest has developed a Christian version christened ‘’Christuanubhava yoga’ by integrating yoga with Christian spirituality, the nun, who belongs to the Franciscan Clarist congregation, is trying to make it acceptable to the Christians by replacing the Sanskrit shlokas and mantras with Christian verses.

Fr Saiju has evolved a retreat based on the Christuanubhava yoga on the lines of retreats being conducted by various church organisations. He conducts the retreat for five days every month at the Catholic Yoga Retreat Centre at Thannippuzha in Ernakulam district and in various parishes across the state.

The priest has conducted more than 1,000 such retreats so far. He told Firstpost that the retreats have been attracting Christians, who account for about 18 per cent of the state population, in large numbers. He has also been conducting classes for school and college students.

“When I started practicing yoga 14 years ago, many in my community questioned me. But they were convinced when I told them about its benefits. Yoga cannot be viewed as a religious or a physical exercise. It is good for the purification of life, and should be looked at positively,” he said.

Saiju said practicing yoga could leave a remarkable impact on individuals. He claimed that it had changed the lives of many youngsters who were leading a frustrated life. After practicing yoga, many students stopped the excessive use of mobile phones, while some turned into vegetarians, he added.

Sister Infant Treesa other nuns practicing yoga. Image credit: TK Devasia

Sister Infant Treesa practicing yoga with other members of the Christian community. Image credit: TK Devasia

Sr. Treesa took to yoga after it helped in curing the acute back pain and wheezing she developed while studying nursing in 1976. However, the 66-year-old nun claimed that she found herself getting close to God as she continued practicing yoga. Soon, she opened two yoga centres at Muvattupuzha in Ernakulam district and Thodupuzha in Idukki district to promote yoga among her fellow believers.

Apart from teaching yoga, the centres also run a yoga teacher training course, which has been approved by the Tamil Nadu Physical Education and Sports University. Four batches have already passed out and admission for the fifth batch will begin next month.

“People are attaching religion to yoga because it was developed by Hindu seers. This is not correct. Yoga has no religion. It is a union of physical, mental, intellectual, spiritual, and emotional elements. It is a discipline and holistic science. It touches all aspects of human life,” says the nun.

She told Firstpost that her fellow nuns also could elevate their spiritual life by practicing yoga. “Many misunderstand yoga because of the Sanskrit mantras associated with the physical motions involved in yoga. This problem can be solved by replacing them with verses from other religions. I have been reciting Christian prayers instead of the Sanskrit mantras while practicing yoga,” she added.

The nun claimed that this has drawn many Christians to yoga and that the practice may one day be accepted as part of the Christian spiritual life.



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