Yoga does not constitute a religious practice as it is taught in the Encinitas Union School District (EUSD), ruled California Judge John Meyer. Although Judge Meyer acknowledged yoga’s roots as religious, he agreed with the district that the yoga program is a secular means to increase strength, flexibility, and balance. Plaintiff attorney Dean Broyles plans to appeal the ruling, conveying “I think it reveals a double-standard. If it were Christian-based and other parents complained, it would be out of schools. There is a consistent anti-Christian bias in cases like this that involve schools.”
Most news outlets have portrayed the parents objecting the yoga program as rigid fundamentalists with their panties in a bunch. According to Robin Abcarian in the Los Angeles Times, “Yoga, as it’s often practiced in this country, has long since shed its religion in favor of a watered-down Eastern vibe that sometimes has a cartoonish aspect. To claim that the yoga being taught in Encinitas schools is a form of religious instruction springs from the same impulse that finds ‘Harry Potter’ books primers on witchcraft, or ‘Heather Has Two Mommies’ a pamphlet promoting lesbianism.”
Candy Gunther Brown, the plaintiff expert witness, wrote an op-ed in the HuffPost expressing stringent dismay at Judge Meyer’s ruling. “The astounding thing is that the judge found that yoga, and especially Ashtanga yoga is based … in Hinduism and IS religious! He also found it ‘troublesome’ that the EUSD program was funded by the overtly Hindu Jois foundation [and] that the pose sequences taught by EUSD resemble the religiously-motivated Ashtanga series taught by Jois,” Gunther Brown observed. “All but the last 15 minutes of his lengthy decision pointed toward a finding that yoga is religious and therefore does not belong in public schools. Instead, the judge found that yoga is religious, and should be taught to public school children anyway.” Perhaps Judge Meyer’s self-acknowledged status as a secular yoga practitioner ultimately swayed his decision.
Defense attorneys portrayed Brown as a biased witness, contending that her view of chiropractic and acupuncture as forms of religion undermines her credibility. However, Brown had a number of valid points in her trial brief, for example, her observation that yoga and mindfulness experts deliberately “camouflage” Hindu practices to render them more palatable to secular of Christian audiences.
Gunther Brown also highlighted the belief of Manju Jois, son of Ashtanga yoga progenitor Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, who contends that doing asanas automatically draws practitioners into the Hindu spiritual path. Because “Hinduism is very, very hard to understand,” Jois explained, “the yoga asanas are important—you just do. Don’t talk about the philosophy—99% practice and 1% philosophy…You just keep doing it…then slowly it will start opening up inside of you, to automatically…draw you into the spiritual path.” There is even some scientific evidence to support this. In a recent survey of yoga practitioners and instructors presented at the Symposium on Yoga Research, researcher Crystal Park and colleagues found that while many people start practicing yoga for physical health and stress management, the most commonly cited benefit for continued practice was spiritual.
A recent Pew Research Center survey highlights the issue’s complexity. Among religiously non-affiliated Americans (including, but not limited to, atheists and agnostics), about 28% reported that yoga was a spiritual practice, relative to 23% of the broader public.
In other news, a Hindu spokesperson recently praised the increased introduction of yoga rooms at a number of global airports, highlighting the disconnect between secular American narratives of modern yoga versus Hindu conceptualizations of all yoga as inherently spiritual/religious.
Do you think yoga is secular, spiritual, religious, or something else entirely?