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Slovakia: Churches Say 'No' To Yoga In Schools

For a number of years, Slovak politician Milan Ftacnik has enjoyed the health benefits of yoga posture and breathing exercises. So much so that he wants Slovak school children to enjoy them too. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill says Ftacnik's plan to send yoga to school has aroused objections among church leaders, who say that yoga is not just physical exercise, it is a spiritual program as well.

Prague, 31 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Yoga migrated to the West from India in the 20th century, and since then hundreds of thousands of people have taken it up as a system of physical exercises for supple bodies and calm minds.

Slovak Education Minister Milan Ftacnik has practiced yoga for years. He has enjoyed it so much that since he took charge of the Education Ministry in 1998 he has sought to introduce yoga into Slovak schools' physical education curriculum.

But church leaders in Slovakia say yoga is more than just good exercise for the body. They say it is based on a philosophy aimed at refreshing the soul. As such, it is a spiritual program and has no legitimate place in general education.

This week, Minister Ftacnik yielded to the advice of a commission he had appointed and to church leaders' objections and suspended his program, perhaps permanently.

"I confirm the decision of not beginning yoga as part of the [schools'] physical education programs. Based on the statements of the commission and our analysis, I decided not to go ahead with the program in elementary and secondary schools in Slovakia."

The Slovak education minister, a member of the post-communist Slovak Party of Democratic Left, has never been regarded as a friend of organized religion. And church leaders in Slovakia tend to have a lingering mistrust of politicians who once were communist.

But Ftacnik says he doesn't consider the decision on yoga a defeat. He says now that he will create a new commission to determine how to introduce yoga-like exercises into the schools, perhaps without calling them yoga, and without making reference to the Slovak association Yoga in Everyday Life.

Even yoga masters themselves might have trouble declaring whether any one person's practice of yoga is spiritual or physical

Yoga is one of the six orthodox darshans -- that is, virtues -- of Indian philosophy. Its basic text, "Yoga Sutra," dates to the second century B.C. Its eight stages begin with ethical preparation, and lead through posture and breath control exercises to deep meditation. Yoga believers may then go on to concentrated meditation until the self -- what Westerners might call the ego -- disappears.

But to many Western practitioners, yoga means "Hatha Yoga." That's yoga in which the posture and breathing exercises are ends in themselves. The exercises often are taught in completely non-sectarian classes.

Roman Catholic Bishop Frantisek Tondra says it is not the exercise the church objects to. It is the underlying philosophy.

"We are not opposed to relaxation and rehabilitation exercises. Of course, we support the health of our youth. But we are against a program with yoga as its background -- or Christianity, for that matter. Our monks also have developed relaxation and meditation exercises. We're not pushing them in the schools to use in the name of Christianity."

Yoga advocates have succeeded in doing something that Christian ecumenicalists have been pursuing for years with varying degrees of success: to unify Roman Catholics and Protestants. Slovak Lutheran Bishop Julius Filo firmly agrees with the Roman Catholic bishops on this issue.

"We take a negative stance on introducing [this] program -- as an application of yoga -- in our schools."

Members of the Slovak Evangelical Church also have registered opposition. They point out that Czech and Austrian authorities also considered -- and rejected -- yoga in the schools.

(Daniel Butora of RFE/RL's Slovak Service contributed to this feature.)