Religious leaders have been accused of a lack of flexibility after evicting a yoga class from a church hall – because of its links to “alternative spiritualities”.
Teacher Naomi Hayama, 39, has been helping students stretch and relax with twice-weekly classes for the last nine years.
But church chiefs have now decided the sessions are too “spiritual” – despite apparently never observing a class, which students claim has no religious content.
Devastated Naomi has until the end of the month to find a new home for her classes after the priest and the council at the church refused to back down.
She said: “They are trying to say it is a spiritual practise but my classes are not.
“I respect people who are religious but I am not. That’s what attracted me to yoga – you don’t have to be religious to teach it.
“My students are puzzled and outraged as well.
“My class is a physical exercise which is about relaxation and breathing and it’s a healthy thing to do.”
Professional Naomi teaches around 600 students at classes all over her home city of Bristol.
But she has been told she is no longer welcome at St Michael and All Angels Church in the Bishopston, where she teaches around 30 pupils.
After hearing she was to be booted out, she collected more than 500 signatures pleading with the church council to change its decision.
But priest Reverend James Stevenson and the Parish of Bishopston and St Andrew’s decided the buildings should be used for Christian acts of worship and nothing of a spiritual nature “outside of Christ”.
Naomi added: “The students enjoyed coming to the church and now being told they are not really welcome.
“Many of them have written in to the church to try and change their minds but they are being really stubborn about it.
“The decision was made without seeing my class, which is what I have a real problem with.
“Seeing it and deciding it’s not appropriate is one thing but to do no investigation and just talk about yoga‘s background is another.”
Rev Stevenson, who claims half the UK’s churches would prohibit yoga, said: “We understand yoga is practised as a physical exercise and discipline but it’s definitely a spiritual act whose roots are not Christ centred.
“We are confident we have acted legally and fairly in handling this matter but we understand why the students are upset.
“One student of the class said everyone he had spoken to had viewed it as a ridiculous decision but every church leader I’ve spoken to completely understands this decision.
“It is a beautiful building with under-floor heating – it’s the perfect place for a yoga class and we understand that people are upset.”
He added that Naomi is a member of the British Wheel of Yoga – an organisation the priest says calls on followers to be taught the spiritual philosophy of yoga.
He said that message was not “discredited” on Naomi’s website and added: “We think there will be lots of people who think we are not making a very nice decision but we are trying to make the decision in the nicest way possible.”
But locals are still upset, and took to the petition to voice their upset.
Susan Blair, from Bristol wrote: “It is ridiculous! Yoga is yoga, it has nothing to do with religion! Let them continue to have their yoga lessons in your church. Why would you drive people away from God’s home??”
Ursula Dunne from Glastonbury added: “This is such a tragedy. Isn’t it time for understanding and tolerance?
“In terms of alternative spirituality it seems to me there are many paths to God not one only and most people attending a yoga class will go for the physical exercise and well-being. Saddest of all that an offer to observe a class was declined.”