LONDON – The largest national network of Hindu organizations in the United Kingdom is considering whether a ban on yoga classes at St. James' Anglican Church and the Silver Street Baptist Church in Taunton, Somerset, breaches the Equality Act 2006.
Lawyers for the Hindu Council UK (HCUK) are exploring whether comments made by both St James' the Rev. Tim Jones and Silver Street's the Rev. Simon Farrar – who described yoga as a "sham," a "false philosophy" and "unchristian" – may indicate they have acted contrary to the "Religion and Belief" section of the 2006 legislation, which makes it unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of religion or belief in the provision of goods, facilities and services, the management of premises, education and exercise of public functions.
HCUK is also considering whether to ask the Commission for Equality and Human Rights to investigate whether the priests' comments amount to "instructing or causing discrimination."
"These priests might appear to be advising Christians not to practice yoga because they believe it is based on a 'sham' and a 'false philosophy' but what in effect they mean is that Hinduism is a false religion," said HCUK General Secretary Anil Bhanot.
Recently, St. James' Church and Silver Street Church rejected a children's exercise class because it teaches yoga, saying that it is "un-Christian."
Although the Baptist church originally granted Louise Woodcock's Yum Yum Yoga class for toddlers use of its hall for a children's group activity, Farrar withdrew his consent after discovering it was for yoga, according to London's The Times newspaper.
"We are a Christian organization and when we let rooms to people we want them to understand that they must be fully in line with our Christian ethos," Farrar explained.
"Clearly, yoga impinges on the spiritual life of people in a way which we as Christians don't believe is the same as our ethos," he added.
"If it was just a group of children singing nursery rhymes, there wouldn't be a problem but she (Woodcock)'s called it yoga and therefore there is a dividing line we're not prepared to cross."
Woodcock, however, has defended her classes, saying that they had no religious content at all, and only involved music and movement.
"I explained to the church that my yoga is a completely nonreligious activity. Some types of adult yoga are based on Hindu and Buddhist meditation but it's not a part of the religion and there is no dogma involved," she said.
"This is a class for mums and children, which has yoga-inspired moves – but as soon as I mentioned the word yoga the church staff completely changed their attitude. They have completely misunderstood and are being narrow minded."
HCUK's spokesperson on Yoga, Amarjeet-singh Bhamra said he found it "very disappointing that such medieval-like irrational prejudice is still allowed to flourish in the Christian Church in 21st Century multicultural Britain."
"Yoga is one of the oldest known medical systems enshrined in the Atharva Veda, the most ancient Hindu book on wisdom, and it is now at the forefront of holistic and integrated medicine in the West," Bhamra said.
HCUK's general secretary, Bhanot, similarly noted Hinduism as being "the source" of many different theologies, philosophies and sciences.
"Many Hindus believe the source of all music can be found within one of our most ancient scriptures, the Saam Veda," he added. "It will be interesting to see, now they have been apprised of this, whether those church leaders who reject yoga will now announce a ban on all music on their premises too."
Along with other faith bodies, HCUK had debated and contributed to the Equality Act 2006 before it became law. In these debates it was agreed unanimously from an interfaith perspective that the use of religious premises should not restrict multi-cultural events without good reason, and that faiths themselves should participate in such activities.
Amid the controversy, the Rev. Tim Jones, vicar of St James', has supported Silver Street's decision, saying: "Any alternative philosophies or beliefs are offering a sham – and at St. James's Church we want people to have the real thing.
"Yoga has its roots in Hinduism," he noted "and attempts to use exercises and relaxation techniques to put a person into a calm frame of mind – in touch with some kind of impersonal spiritual reality.
"The philosophy of yoga cannot be separated from the practice of it, and any teacher of yoga, even to toddlers, must subscribe to the philosophy," the Baptist priest asserted.
"Yoga may appear harmless or even beneficial, but it is encouraging people to think that there is a way to wholeness of body and mind through human techniques – whereas the only true way to wholeness is by faith in God through Jesus Christ."