Guest Commentary

Guest commentary: Benedictine College’s yoga ban is a stretch

Guest columnist Janelle Lazzo writes that she learned to be open to what she might learn from other schools of thought when she was a student at Benedictine College predecessor Mount St. Scholastica College in the 1950s.
Guest columnist Janelle Lazzo writes that she learned to be open to what she might learn from other schools of thought when she was a student at Benedictine College predecessor Mount St. Scholastica College in the 1950s. NYT

Please do not count me among those alumni of Benedictine College (in my case, one of its predecessors, Mount St. Scholastica College) who object to use of the term “yoga” to identify both for-credit and recreational exercise classes on campus.

Yoga promotes personal peace as well as physical and spiritual well-being. The fact that the name “yoga” is identified with Hindu mysticism and Benedictine is a Catholic college is irrelevant.

I endorse the practice and teaching of yoga for many reasons, all mentioned in the Friday Star story “Catholic college in Kansas wipes ‘yoga’ from names of classes — it’s a Hindu thing,’” and am delighted that students at my alma mater are being exposed to its benefits, both to enhance their own health and to familiarize themselves with spiritual practices other than those specifically Catholic.

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But I am very concerned that in the present climate, Benedictine might use these classes to emphasize the differences between the way Catholics honor their creator and the way Hindus do. Isn’t the important truth that all these practices honor the master of the universe and benefit the human race, God’s finest masterpiece?

Pointing out differences is the first step in facilitating division, and at the moment we have enough of that coming from the top of the political spectrum in this country. We certainly don’t need a Catholic college joining in over something as mundane as what to call an exercise regimen that all agree enhances lives.

As I read about the yoga classes, I was reminded of my own college experience in a surprising way. I was a student in the 1950s, and with very few exceptions, our teachers were Benedictine sisters who never ventured far from their motherhouse except to attend university or to fill in for other sisters who had conflicting obligations from time to time.

They made no special effort to find out what we were thinking, at least not any of which we were aware, and yet they were interested in everything that was going on in a society that often presented concepts that, had the sisters not been so secure in their own sense of themselves, might have been worrisome.

Always, we were encouraged to follow up on new ideas, to accept the challenge of new trains of thought, to listen to one another. I came away from the Mount with a determination built on their example that insights offered by others, even those very different from myself, might yield wisdom that I would otherwise never have.

Once, in a conversation with a Benedictine abbot at the annual interfaith conference in Kansas City, I told him I had noticed that a Catholic artifact, an icon of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, was displayed on the Hindu table. He was pleased to remind me that it was totally appropriate for it to be there since Hindus honor God in many manifestations, and that devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is meaningful to many Catholics.

I thought then and think now how well this inclusive view serves Hindus and Catholics alike.

The petty observations about what yoga is and is not promote the idea of “the other” too prevalent in society today and serve the well-being of no one.

I hope Benedictine leaders will take a good look at the policy that caused them to substitute a word less apt than “yoga” to describe this beneficial program, especially if the reason for the change was the groundless fear of the “possible effects of eastern mysticism” cited by Benedictine President Stephen D. Minnis.

Janelle Lazzo is a retired teacher and social justice advocate. She lives in Roeland Park.

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