Because of yoga’s Hindu roots, parents and community members in Massena, NY are opposing its inclusion in public schools. Though the teachers and school officials have been very clear that the yoga in the schools is a secular practice aimed at helping students alleviate stress, some parents and religious leaders feel that it violates the separation of church and state. Or perhaps more accurately, the parents and community members are concerned that the Hindu origins of yoga would improperly influence students.
Whether or not Yoga is part of the Hindu religion is a debate that has been ongoing in Western yoga for decades. The Vedas are the primary texts of both Hinduism and Yoga, and many would say that from there the two paths diverge. Though some Hindus express emphatically that true Yoga and Hinduism cannot be separated, many in the West feel that the practice of Yoga in its many forms has a depth of spirit that can be applied to any religion or theology. YogaPatanjali,who was a Hindu sage, cognized the most commonly referenced text for modern-day Yoga, but in none of the 196 aphorisms does he mentionthe Hindu religion in any form So we are back to the orginial question, is Yoga part of Hinduism?
In order to fully grasp the scope of this question, it is necessary to more specifically define yoga. Yoga takes a multitude of forms, of which only a part is the practice which is most popular in the West, asana. Patanjali himself gave only the most condensed definition of the practice of Yoga, “Yogas chitta vritti nirodhaha,” “yoga is the cessatiton of the fluctuations of the mind.” In other words, Yoga is the stilling of the brain, the absence of distraction. He does not describe yoga as worship or religion, and he does not require its practitioners to align with any dogma. In fact, Patanjali’s only statements referring to divinity proclaim the Divine as Ishvara which is defined as Supreme God.
Many people today, even Indian teachers, define the practice of yoga as anything, that brings about a state of Union. This union can be between the body, mind, and spirit, between the movement and the breath, or between your Self and the Divine. In a state of yoga, you are “one” with your task or activity without the distractions of reward or punishment, necessity or choice. The psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi described this experience as “flow,” or complete absorption in an activity or experience. This complete surrender to the task at hand, be it spiritual, mental, or physical, is one of the best ways to understand the Yogic experience. Not as a worship or religion or even influence, but as devotion to the present; however that is expressed to you. If this devotion is expressed through Christian prayer, it is Yoga; if it is expressed through Hindu ritual, it is yoga; if it is expressed through dance or asana or meditation, it is yoga.
Actually, when lived to the fullest, all life is yoga.
After teaching Yoga Asana to my daughter’s first-grade class once a month, I see these results firsthand and receive similar feedback from the teachers a students. But when I enter the space of the public school classroom, I don’t talk about Shiva,Krishna, or Kali, and I don’t even ask them to chant “OM.” I do teach them to see the beauty in everyone’s form, even if it is different from their own. I provide techniques to calm their bodies and minds using the tools that they carry with them everyday. I don’t compromise my personal beliefs or practices, but I conversely try hard not to compromise theirs. If the label of Yoga is scary to some then call it then call it by a different name, but don’t rule it out because it’s label is uncomfortable, unfamiliar, or different from your own. If yoga provides tools to enhance our children’s experiences of education and of life, then together let’s bring it out of the shadows of misunderstanding and into the light of experience.
So, until this veil of limitation is lifted from the practice of yoga, we have only a handful of options… First, no yoga in schools (not my favorite). Second, teach toleranceand understanding by providing healthful, helpful examples of many cultures and religions in a non-dogmatic way—like providing yoga classes and meditation instruction and moments of silence for prayer—to help improve focus, decrease stress, and enhance the life experience of our children. Third, do as so many in the world today are doing, present a “form” of asana free of any labels, call it “stretching for stress relief” or “life warm-up, and teach it as free from dogma and as full of intrinsic spirit as possible. Ultimately the ongoing debate of yoga and religion will only be settled when we are willing to understand our deepest issues of resistance and fear, and through awareness open ourselves to the endless possibilities that a life of unity can provide. And you know what, Yoga can teach that too.