JAMES BEHRENS: Nothing unusual about yoga retreat at the monastery

Nothing unusual about a yoga retreat at the monastery

This past weekend was a busy one for me. On Saturday, I said Mass for the workers at Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus and from there went to a parish in Atlanta to preach at all the Sunday Masses for financial assistance for the monastery.

Both experiences were very rewarding -- I was given a free pass to the circus, took a lot of pictures, had a great time. And the parish was wonderful, too. I was a parish priest for 20 years before coming here and so I suppose I learned to feel somewhat at home in a pulpit.

The people -- at the circus and at the parish -- were very warm and welcoming. But, like all human ventures, there was one little glitch. After one of the Masses, a man came up to me and fired off a few accusations about what we offer here at the monastery. Specifically, he was very upset about what he called the yoga retreat.

He did not give me much, if any time, to absorb what he was saying. He repeated several times that we -- the monks -- would not receive God's blessings if we continued to promote unorthodox practices.

I have never been too adept at thinking on my feet. I usually fume for hours, coming up with marvelous comebacks which, of course, are always too late and never effective to begin with.

Arguing with people never gets anywhere. People have opinions, for better or worse, and it is the very, very rare individual who is willing to change his or her mind during the heat of an argument.

So, I told the man I disagreed with him. He kept on ranting. Then I told him I felt uncomfortable and did not want to listen to him anymore. He finally backed off, with a last warning about the evils of yoga and the loss of divine grace by the monastery.

So I have been thinking about him, about what he said. I do not think there is anything religious about yoga. It is not an exercise in evil. It is an exercise, period. There is no beckoning of any deity, no bowing before strange idols.

As I understand it, it helps people calm their insides, slows them down so as to better focus or meditate. It is a way to ease one's heart, soul and body.

It is a popular retreat here. Men and women bring their mats and notebooks and tell me that yoga does wonders for them. And I think that is good. The instructor is a nice guy, very easy going. Some of the monks participate in the weekend.

Maybe having just said Mass at the circus made me think, too. The workers are from so many different places on this Earth -- Brazil, Hungary, Argentina, Cuba, Russia -- and they are in great physical shape. They do more than a fair share of exercises.

By comparison, the man who had the difficulties with yoga seemed, well, angry and uptight. If I ever see him again, maybe I will tell him that he might benefit from a yoga retreat. He can twist and turn, sit quietly, bend and stretch and feel the wonders of a calmed mind, a toned body, a tranquil soul.

That is pretty orthodox stuff, right?

But first he might have to stretch his head a bit, and make room for other possibilities that are open to him in this life. That might be a bit of a stretch for him. But so is yoga -- for believers and non-believers alike.

People who come here from all different roads of life -- different orthodoxies, agendas and the like, all learning something new and wondrous as they gather on the same floor with their different mats.

Father James Stephen (Jeff) Behrens, O.C.S.O., serves at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, 2625 Ga. Highway 212 SW, Conyers. His e-mail address is james@trappist.net.