Defending the Catholic brand: yoga, demonic possession, and fear

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Brand loyalty is a marketing term that describes customer behavior. It’s when you go to the grocery store and buy the same brand of laundry detergent every month without even considering another brand. You may believe your detergent cleans better, or maybe your mom used the same detergent. Whatever your reason, you (and millions of other customers) buy the same detergent month after month, year after year.

For big companies, brand loyalty is worth a lot, and they spend a great deal of money on marketing, to get and keep your loyalty. They spend lots more defending their brands, if, for example, another brand tries to copy too closely what makes them successful.

All businesses sell hope. For laundry detergents, that means hope that your clothes will be the cleanest, nicest-smelling clothes they can be. The Catholic church is a business too, and for the church, hope means eternal life (MUCH more impressive than clean clothes). The church also sells a ready-made community you can belong to, and a clergy that will guide you through difficult times.

But, because hope may not be enough to keep its customers, the church also uses fear. Yes, here it is the 21st century, and the Catholic church is still using fear to keep its members from trying other products.

One product the Catholic church doesn’t want its members trying? Yoga.

The Kansas City Star reported in April that at the prompting of the Kansas City archbishop, Benedictine College banned yoga because it is a Hindu practice that posed danger to Catholics. According to a statement from the archdiocese,

“Many people do not realize that yoga… is a mind and body practice developed under Hinduism, the goal of which is spiritual purification that will lead to a higher level of understanding and eventually union with the divine.

Although the Catholic Church teaches that much good can be found in other religions, Catholics believe it is only brought to fullness in Christ… It is for these reasons that Catholics are alerted to the dangers of the practice of yoga and are encouraged to look for other exercise alternatives that do not incorporate a spiritual dimension.”

The dangers of the practice of yoga. What could that mean?

Some in the church say yoga is dangerous because of its roots as a Hindu spiritual practice, and so it can lead Catholics astray. For example, retired Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln NE, says yoga is an important part of Hinduism, “a pagan religion based on heathen beliefs and false doctrine of revelation involving such things as transmigration of souls, and so forth.” When one practices yoga, that practice “eventually morphs into an acceptance of points of view, and even doctrinal and moral matters that are distant from Catholic truth, and from genuine and authentic Christian revelation.”

Others in the church hierarchy go much further. According to the church’s chief exorcist (yes, they have one of these), practicing yoga can lead to demonic possession, and the increasing popularity of yoga in recent years is a big reason why the church has had to bring in more exorcists. Yoga, along with Harry Potter.

And lest you think the chief exorcist's viewpoint is one that modern Catholics ignore, consider this blog article from Jenny Uebbing, whose blog Mamma Needs Coffee has more than 10,000 followers on Facebook. In her article, Uebbing describes being told by a priest during a prayer session that she had a spirit afflicting her, and the spirit that had laid a curse on her was associated with yoga. Uebbing recalled attending a yoga class in college, when the instructor was chanting. She recalled that there was a “malevolent element present in that class, and that when the instructor was calling out poses and chanting meditations, he was worshipping something. And it wasn’t God.”

She and the priest used special prayers and “broke any curse surrounding that encounter.” She felt “an immediate and perceptive lightness in the atmosphere of the church where we were praying.”

After their prayer session, the priest told Uebbing she would be in danger of a similar curse by malevolent spirits if she let her guard down, because “there is always a risk of becoming afflicted through some kind of opening, the enemy prowling about like a roaring lion and all that.”

Well, OK, you may be thinking. Interesting, maybe even strange. But what does all this have to do with women raised Catholic?

Picture a yoga class. It’s a group of women, because the overwhelming majority of yoga practitioners are women. There we are, working on the asanas (the poses), paying attention to our breathing, focusing on our bodies. Then, during shivasana (the meditation that ends each yoga class), we lie still and work to silence our thoughts and quiet our minds. Why? According to religious scholar Ravi Ravindra, the purpose is to discover our true self, without the distraction of our minds’ chatter. “The whole practice of yoga is to remind us who we are and why we are here,” said Ravindra*

Can you think of anything less appealing to the Catholic church than a room full of women raised Catholic, exploring who we are and why we are here, on our own, without a priest to tell us the church’s answers to these questions?  

“The more organized the religion, the less interested in self-study,” said Ravindra. “The less interested they are in you studying yourself.” This is especially true for the Catholic church. But why? Why does the Catholic church fear women looking inside ourselves and exploring Who am I? Why am I here?

Because the church is built on defining identity for its members. For women, the church provides our identity as ‘feminine genius,’ as Mary-like. From that identity flows our path: service, submission, and reproduction. Just like Mary, our role model, the most exalted woman in Catholicism. Silent, submissive, mother Mary.

It’s no wonder the Catholic church sees yoga as a threat, along with anything else that encourages us to explore our true selves, and to find our true paths – whatever they may be.

The challenge for Catholic women is to see the church’s stance on yoga for what it is: a brand loyalty tactic the church hopes will keep its members believing that Catholicism is the only brand that has what they need.


* Ravi Ravindra lecture on Yoga, October 2016, Dartmouth, NH