Yoga for Teachers Rouses Ire of Croatian Bishops

Croatian elementary school teacher Marijana Ivanovic has taken up yoga to help her relax. Nothing controversial about that, or so she thought.

"Yoga really helps recharge one's batteries and eases my lower-back pain," said Ivanovic, who has taught for more than 30 years, during the first session of a state-supported yoga program for teachers.

But her ancient oriental exercise routine is at the center of a highly charged public debate because it has fallen foul of the powerful Roman Catholic church in this overwhelmingly Catholic country.

The education ministry introduced the program this year as part of efforts to help teachers work better.

The ministry awarded 50,000 kuna ($7,624) in annual support to a local group known as 'Yoga in Daily Life', which draws on the teachings of Hindu spiritual leader Paramhans Swami Maheshwarananda, known as Swamiji.

The yoga courses started in October. In addition to relaxation, the program aims to develop "a more efficient approach in communication with pupils," according to the official booklet.

"Easing stress and improving health were the main motivations for those who applied to attend," said Vedrana Josipovic, who is in charge of the program.

The sessions are held in the four largest Croatian cities -- Zagreb, Split, Rijeka and Pula and Josipovic insists they have nothing to do with the institutionalization of yoga in schools.


But Croatia's Catholic bishops are not impressed. In July they issued a statement protesting "an attempt to introduce yoga in the Croatian education system."

The Croatian Bishops' Conference said the program would "make an unacceptable favor to an organization and its founder who wants to introduce Hinduistic religious practice in Croatian schools." It said everything was being done under the guise of exercise.

"It is evident that teachers will apply yoga practice in their work with children," the Bishops' Conference said.

A Croatian yoga activist, who asked not to be named, said the bishops were "irritated by anything related to disciplines of oriental origin."

The bishops' statement appeared to have an immediate impact in a country where almost 90 percent of the people profess to be Catholic. Local media reported that interest in the yoga program had fallen sharply after the protest.

Josipovic said 370 teachers had expressed preliminary interest and "the first round of sessions was attended by 273 teachers."

Yoga ran into similar trouble in Slovakia in 2001 when a proposal to teach yoga in schools was eventually dropped in the face of fierce opposition from Slovakia's Catholic church and allies in the rightwing government.

Slovak critics called the yoga program "a path to total atheism" and the government shelved a vote on the proposal. The plan never made it to wider public debate.

"Croatian bishops reacted in the same way as Slovak bishops, but I think they misunderstood what exactly the program 'Yoga in Daily Life' meant," Swamiji told Reuters by telephone from his native India.

He said that physical and mental exercise was designed to give teachers "better concentration and good health" and meant to indoctrinate pupils.

"My work for world peace and tolerance in different cultures is above (any) particular religion and any dogma. It is exactly the context within which one should look at the 'Yoga in Daily Life' program," Swamiji said.