IT is meant to be relaxing and work miracles for people’s peace of mind.

But the ancient discipline of yoga is at the centre of a rowafter it was banned from a Hampshire church hall.

A Roman Catholic priest has refused to allow yoga instructor Cori Withell to use his church’s hall for her weekly classes.

Father John Chandler, of St Edmund’s Church in Southampton , ruled out hosting the exercise class saying it was un-Christian.

Cori, who runs her own business CW Fitness, said she paid a £180 deposit and started signing up people for her classes back in August.

The 36-year-old was due to teach a Pilates class as well as a Unite class – a mixture of Pilates and yoga.

But after the church found out the exercises would include yoga she got a call from the church off The Avenue, in Southampton, saying the class was “against the church’s religion”.

Cori, who lives in Allbrook, Eastleigh , described the church’s position as “ridiculous”.

She said: “I was both flabbergasted and infuriated when I got the call. I tried to explain to the church that my yoga classes were not religious at all and I even offered to come and demonstrate the class.

“Yoga is not about religion at all. It is about calmness and relaxation. When you think of the issues we have with heart disease, obesity and stress we have in this country and you would think people should be promoting exercise – not preventing it taking place. The church has completely misunderstood this.”

Last night Father Chandler defended his decision, saying: “Because yoga is a Hindu spiritual discipline it is not compatible with Catholicism. The two just don’t mix.

“There are documents written by the church on yoga and it is not compatible with our faith, so no, Catholics should not be doing it, no more than Hindus should be doing something which is against their religion. If people are using the hall for keep fit that isn’t a problem but if you are putting a spiritual dimension with it, which yoga does do, you can’t have it in the church.”

A spokesman for the Diocese of Portsmouth said in 17 years it was the first time he was asked to comment on a yoga ban but it was up to individual priests.

He said: “What we don’t allow is anything that can be construed as non Christian worship and there is a dilemma with yoga, which could be seen as a form of relaxation – or a non-Christian possible Hindu meditation.

“On the other hand from the calls I have made there are some Catholic retreats which offer yoga.

“It may be this particular priest is erring on the side of caution, I don’t know. There isn’t a diocese or a national line but it would be inappropriate for non Christian religious activities to be taking place in the church halls.”

Yoga enthusiasts condemned the move as “ignorant” and even urged the priest to try a session.

Pierre Bibby, chief executive of the charity British Wheel of Yoga, said: “Yoga has got nothing to do with religion. This just shows the complete lack of understanding.

“There is research that demonstrates that yoga improves people’s health and wellbeing physically and mentally. Who could object to that?

“I am appalled by this knee-jerk reaction.”

What other churches say

THE decision to ban the yoga classes divided opinion among religious communities in Southampton.

Father David Sillince, of St Boniface Catholic Church in Freemantle and Shirley, said: “In my opinion yoga is no more religious than line dancing frankly. It is not as if people are coming to spread an alternative gospel. The yoga I have encountered is about unwinding and destressing
and I don’t believe there are any particular religious overtones.

“Most Catholic churches would regard it as a simple form of exercise but there are one or two who take it in its strictest sense.”

A Church of England spokesman said while there are some “cases of particular sensitivities to the background of yoga with its routes in the Hindu faith”, the general feeling is that yoga is
today used as a way to keep fit.

He said: “You can look at most church halls and there will be yoga classes held there because today it is seen as a way to keep fit and agile, not for its spiritual background.”

Meanwhile the city’s Hindu community said yoga resulted in better health.

A spokesman from the Vedic Temple in Southampton said: “In today’s hectic materialistic world doesn’t attending a yoga class fall in the same category as attending a gym? If one attains peace just by meditating will it be counted as a Hindu peace?

“Our temple proudly displays photographs of other religions, including Christianity. All I can request is a greater understanding of yoga, which will resolve this issue.”

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