I heard about Father Joe Pereira through research and friends, and sought him out through email for a space in the Service and Activism issue. He responded that he could be interviewed, but the message got lost along the way and the issue was published. However the message was rediscovered and this interview is well worth publishing out of sequence, no question about it. Our exchanges have been through email. All one can say is, what an extraordinary human being…
Ivan Nahem, Yoga Teacher Magazine: Father Joe could you first please tell us about your background, where you grew up, and your personal background. Your name sounds Spanish to me, so right away there’s some mystery!
Father Joe Pereira: I hail from a Roman Catholic Family in a town sixty kilometers away from Bombay now Mumbai. We have Portuguese family names because Christianity came to the west coast of India, Goa, Bassien, Daman and Diu with the Portuguese Colonies. St Francis Xavier is one of such saints whose body is even today venerated in Goa. We are therefore four centuries old Catholics! Being in Maharashtra, I studied the language of the state, i.e Marathi, and got exposed to many Indian practices such as studying Sanskrit in school and even getting a yoga lesson at the age of 11 by a tuition master who used to come home to give us private tuition in Marathi since we spoke English in the home. My mother was a Physics graduate and my father too was working for a British firm and so all was done in English. My love for spirituality led me to the priesthood . It was my mother and father who inculcated the values of spirituality in me.
Nahem: You are known as The Singing Priest. How did that come about? (I have seen you sing on youtube and it is most impressive, by the way!… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8lpd-nLLC1M)
Fr. Joe: Of the many talents God gave me was my ability to sing and also conduct choirs. I used to conduct choral groups both in the seminary where I studied as well as in the early priesthood. Broadway musicals like Annie, Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar productions had my groups singing in the background. Hence I got to be known as Singing Priest. Music has been in our blood and my nephew presently is a concert violinist who has even played during the recent visit of Zubin Mehta as a member of the Bombay Chamber Orchestra.
Nahem: Can you talk a bit please about your regard for your yoga teachers. I believe you have a close friendship with Yogacharya B.K.S. Iyengar. It seems you sought him out after you attended a Yehudi Menuhin concert decades ago and learned that the great violinist was interested in studying with Mr. Iyengar.
Fr. Joe: My first encounter with Guruji was when I was in the final year of my priestly studies in the Papal Seminary, Pune. Guruji came to demonstrate at the Athenaeum and I was fascinated by his talk and demonstration. In the very same year, 1968, after the visit of Yehudi Menuhin, I got to meet him and asked him if he had classes in Bombay. He told me that he was having a problem with the priests where he had been hiring the hall. He asked me to come. As soon as the Jesuits saw me attending the yoga class, they stopped objecting to Guruji’s classes and even some of them joined the class! Since then, since 1968, I have been a regular student of Guruji. I can write volumes about my 46 year association with the Master. I am presently writing about this for the Yoga Rahashya Magazine of the Institute. And also for the Times of India, Speaking Tree (on the Spirituality of Iyengar).
Nahem: What do you feel is the strongest aspect of Mr. Iyengar’s legacy, having known him so closely; what are the most important aspects of his work that will live on, in your opinion?
At the funeral pyre for Guruji B.K.S. Iyengar
Fr. Joe: The legacy of Guruji is the SCIENCE OF YOG. He took over from Swami Rama; what Swami Rama did in the Meninger Foundation, Guruji did all through his life. He has given YOG credibility in the worlds of medicine and science. And along with this he has left a legacy of the SPIRITUALITY OF YOG ‒ without any reference to any particular religion. Tragically after the Hindu Fundamentalist Government gave him the Padma Bhushan, he began having all kinds of Pujas and rituals which were not at all in the Sixties, Seventies and even Eighties ‒ only the Patanjali Invocation used to be chanted, and when he did programmes in our Church halls out of respect to the Catholic Faith, he would not chant even that. So many such stories I could recall in my closeness to him. It was his secular attitude and explicit respect to students of other faiths that even made him edit my article on Good Friday, with the title “Jesus My Supreme Yogi” and always liked my reference to Mother Teresa and him… Formerly I used to say they were my Yin and Yang. Guruji told me, ‘Joe do not say that, say Ida and Pingala… so that Jesus, the God of your understanding, could be the Sushumna !!!’ Isn’t that beautiful? I even remember the time and place when he said that to me! Golden memories. See, this dimension of Guruji would need a whole different article… I am trying to put some of it in theYog –Rahasya, at the request of Dr. Rajvi Mehta.
At the funeral.
Nahem: What do you feel brought you to doing service for others, and how has that changed you? I know from your biography that your experiences with Mother Theresa were quite key for you.
Fr. Joe: The encounter with Mother during a crisis of faith in 1971 led me to work with the marginalized. Mother called me to assist her with the many cases of people who had gone into abject poverty as a result of addiction. The common denominator of Guruji and Mother was compassion. As Mother taught me to reach out to the poorest of the poor, so did Guruji help me to reach out to the poorest of the poor in health.
Nahem: Will you speak about your works of service, such as setting up the Kripa Foundation?
Fr. Joe: With Mother’s inspiration and even assistance I began Kripa in 1981. It was with the three inmates of her home Asha Daan and a few others on the streets that I began Kripa in the annex of the Church of Mt. Carmel’s, where I was appointed the new pastor.
Nahem: Have you encountered obstacles to your work and if so, what was the journey to overcoming these obstacles? I have read that you had some struggles to have the Church accept your usage of yoga, for example.
Fr. Joe: Many obstacles came my way from the Church as well as from others, but I was fortunate that the head of the Church in Bombay always stood by me. All the Cardinal Archbishops from 1981 to date encouraged me with my special work of Kripa. The present Archbishop Cardinal is both a patron and trustee of Kripa Foundation. The major objections keep coming from the born-again fundamentalist Pentecostal groups ‒ a continuous menace to my teaching of Yog. But the Catholic Church in India has constantly defended the Indianisation of the Church in India with stalwarts like the Benedictine Monk Bede Griffith, who used to collaborate with Kripa when addicts needed a long period of spiritual retreat at his ashram.
Nahem: Along these lines, do you have any trouble reconciling the more esoteric philosophical notions which are associated with yoga (e.g. union with the Divine in samadhi; or concepts such as the chakras, nadis, bandhas, koshas, etc.) with your Catholic faith? Is there any conflict for you?
Fr. Joe: There is no conflict in explaining the spirituality of the body especially with the acceptance of the Western behavioral medicine and mind body clinics. I read the saying of Jesus as that of a Supreme Yogi, who for example could say, “The Father and I are one.” That is what Yog means.
Nahem: There is much debate (even an ongoing court case) here in the U.S. about whether yoga should be taught in our public schools. As you may know we have a policy here of separation of “church and state” (rather similar to India in this regard, I believe) and public schools are funded by the government. The major question is whether yoga is a religion. What would you say?
Games with street children
Fr. Joe: Yoga has nothing to do with any religion, not even Hindu. The kind of yoga that we use for health and wellbeing and for wholeness and holiness is a combination of science and faith. It is definitely a spirituality, but a blend of the body, mind and soul. The kind of Yog Guruji taught was absolutely secular and had no reference to any form of religion. However, one was always free to integrate it within one’s faith. By the 2nd Vatican Council accepting the spiritual wisdom of world religions, the Church in India integrated many Indian spiritual practices within the teaching and practice of the Catholic Church in India.
Nahem: May I ask about your perspective on the growing popularity of yoga in the West, and how that has affected yoga in the East? My personal view is that there is a very useful cross pollination. There are charlatans and wise people in all cultures, and all cultures modify their practices. But others say the West has had a corrupting influence, or has taken yoga too far from its spiritual roots.
Teaching yoga and meditation to IT students
Fr. Joe: Absolutely, the kind of Yog that the West is making popular has reached ridiculous proportions. As Carl Gustav Jung had predicted this Science of Yog would never fit into a reductionistic , materialistic living. That is the conflict. Many have tried making of Yog an exercise, just acrobatics. Some vied with each other to bring in kinetic styles of doing asanas, calling it yoga with a flow …etc. This has reduced the practice to only body work, mainly the practice of Asanas… which belongs to the Bahiranga Sadhana. And in the East, we have saying, “When the wise man points a finger at the moon, the fool gets preoccupied with the finger.” That is mostly the Western Yoga. The masculine element in the exercise-oriented Yoga has caused many to suffer from high blood pressure and many ailments that come in as a result of bad practice. Guruji always used to say, “An asana that can heal can also hurt…if not done correctly.” The cross pollination is happening within the behavioral medicine schools, Mind body clinics and clinical and objective research in the field, such as the one I presented in the Cambridge University in 2001 and 2002 at the Dharma Hinduja Indic School of Spirituality.
Nahem: I understand you have had some serious physical ailments that yoga has helped you overcome. And if I’m not mistaken, you’re now over 70 years old and can remain in Urdhva Dhanurasana for seven minutes? This is extraordinary, but I understand you practice religiously (pun intended) ‒ in other words with a great deal of discipline. How have you nurtured this discipline?
Fr. Joe: Adherence is the common denominator in Western and Eastern medicine. I have been able to handle and even cure many challenges since my mid-age crises. A back injury after a motor bike accident. Guruji came to see me at the Bombay Hospital which made news since that time I was well known as a singing priest. My overcoming prostate crisis was the next, as well as not going on blood pressure meds and maintaining optimum standards . I’ve also been able to redress a childhood defect in the heart that led me to having a systolic prolapse. Finally even my macular degeneration was healed.
Nahem: It is my understanding that you believe that youth should take on more social responsibility, for example forming or joining groups like Friends of Kripa in order to help others. Do you see this happening these days?
With children living with AIDS
Fr. Joe: Since the average age of people afflicted with addiction has descended to the teens, I am getting more support from the youth to fight this menace.
Nahem: How would you characterize your work – would you say it is primarily the work of a therapist or a teacher or priest, or all in equal measure? Or something else?
Fr. Joe: I characterize my work as God’s gift to me, along with a charisma that got activated as the paths of Mother Teresa and Guruji touched mine.
Nahem: I know you use many modalities in your healing work. I was interested to read for example that you use Gestalt therapy, something I’ve experienced and found fascinating.
Fr. Joe: The most providential therapy that has now been adopted by Kripa is Jungian Analysis. We have regular e-conferences with the Jungian School of Analysis in Chicago and Dr. Ashok Bedi has been helping us in establishing a Bombay Jungian Institute within Kripa Foundation.
Nahem: What are your general protocols for working with addicts?
Fr. Joe: Our protocols are a blend of the Therapeutic Community Model with a Kripa Model of Recovery programme that is a blend of the self-help of AA and NA, along with the Iyengar Yoga. While the AA gives the psycho-spirituality and psycho-social dimensions, Kripa Foundation Iyengar Yoga brings in the psycho-somatic dimension and makes recovery more long lasting and authentic.
Nahem: How do you approach people who are in the midst of great suffering? What can you do and say to help them?
Fr. Joe: Mother has taught us the best way of helping is to care. Cara in Greek means “to suffer with,” so this is also beautiful for those in addiction. It is a principle that says, “Mutual vulnerability commonly shared empowers the human being.” That is what is happening in Kripa all over the world making it a global healing presence, as is our vision.