This website is dedicated to the issue of whether yoga is just exercise, or a spiritual practice grounded in Hinduism.
My position on this issue has changed radically since I had an unsettling discovery in 2010. If you had asked me anytime during the decade of 2000-2010 when I was teaching and practicing yoga, I would have emphatically denied that yoga is Hindu religion and asserted that yoga is great exercise and whatever else you want to make it—a self-customized devotional practice, for instance. But in the year 2010 I had two disruptive metaphysical experiences that forever changed my view of far eastern healing arts and health practices. One was an encounter with a spiritual power and personality (yes, personality!) behind an Asian form of massage therapy—a Taoist spirit, and the other was an encounter with a spiritual power and personality behind yoga—a Hindu spirit. Since then, I have reversed my position one hundred percent. I now know—I do not just think—that the practice of yoga is Hindu religion even if it is not presented as Hinduism and even if it is commingled with other practices—such as gymnastics and bodybuilding or Christian liturgy—almost to the point of non-recognition.
This issue has become increasingly controversial in the United States as yoga has progressed from a mainstream cultural practice to a government funded and endorsed practice. If the practice of yoga is indeed Hindu religion in disguise, then those who engage in it, believing it to be a secular service, are doing so without understanding or agreeing to the spiritual implications and repercussions: they are exposing themselves to a spiritual force that will redirect their lives. Many yoga instructors are as much deceived about the nature of yoga as their students. The blind proffer and pursuit of yoga as mere exercise and not Hindu religion is a violation of religious voluntarism and informed consent. Moreover, government funding of research studies on yoga and official endorsement in the public sphere violate the First Amendment right to freedom of religion and the anti-establishment clause prohibiting the government from promoting one religion over another or discriminating against any particular religion.
This issue is not just a matter of tapas talk, a news bit for a tidbit to enliven your leisure. Case in point: Sedlock v. EUSD (2013) is a lawsuit that arose in the Encinitas, California school district over mandatory yoga classes in lieu of traditional P.E. in nine schools serving approximately 5,600 children, K-6. Funding for the program was provided by a private foundation (formerly Jois, now Sonima) dedicated to the legacy of Sri Patthabi Jois, the guru of Ashtanga yoga, and to the propagation of Ashtanga yoga through its yoga shalas (Sanskrit for “home, abode”) and through school programs such as the one in Encinitas, which is a pilot for a plan to go nationwide.1 Ashtanga yoga is the modern heir of classic yoga propounded in the sacred Hindu compendium The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali. Concerning yoga, the guru Jois has declared that it is indeed a metaphysical practice:
Yoga practice is the starting place for yoga philosophy.
The spiritual aspect, which is beyond the physical, is the purpose of yoga.
You can lecture, you can talk about God, but when you practice [yoga] correctly, you come to experience God inside. (brackets mine)
It [yoga] develops inside you and helps you to realize the inner light of the Self.
Jois reduces God to a force and collapses Creator and created into one:
Spirituality means energy and to meditate on that energy is spirituality. So developing and having faith in this energy is spirituality. The sacred [Hindu] scriptures are the whole foundation of our tradition. (brackets mine)
Yoga means knowing God inside you.2
Despite the obviously Hindu origin and purpose of the practice, the judge in the case, John S. Meyer, ruled that Ashtanga yoga in American schools is not the practice of Hindu religion but rather “a distinctly American cultural phenomenon,” quoting religious historian and expert witness for the defendant, Mark Singleton, who himself is an avid yoga practitioner and perhaps sympathetically inclined toward the agenda of the Jois Foundation.3
Ironically, Singleton’s well-researched book Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice traces the modern practice of yoga back to the cross-fertilization of western European physical culture and Hindu culture during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, which produced a hybrid of both counterparts.4 To say that modern yoga bears no resemblance to its Hindu forebear is either disingenuous or to be overly distracted by appearance alone. Rather, modern yoga displays the dynamic physicality of its European parent and reveals, by and by, the subtle spirituality of its Hindu parent. Just as a child may physically resemble one parent more than the other, but still have the genetic makeup of both, so, too, modern yoga is both Hindu and European in its constitution. Yet to the average observer, yoga looks more like a mélange of gymnastics, contortions, military fitness drills, and wrestling with oneself than one of several Hindu paths to Self-realization or enlightenment.
The judge’s decision aptly reflects the general consensus of Americans regarding yoga. With all due respect for the dignity of the bench and the judge’s earnest rumination in the matter, the judge is as spiritually blind as I was. His judicial opinion emerges out of a material and rational understanding of the world grounded in sense perception and reason: that which can be perceived by the senses and understood by the mind is the sum total of reality. There is no spiritual reality, no spiritual influence, no spirit realm; there are no spirits taking third party interest in human affairs. The judge’s world is flat. He cannot discern that yoga—its poses and flow sequences and breathing exercises—is a moving liturgy, an embodied form of worship, a physical offering to Hindu gods. Why? Because the judge is American; he has been imprinted with a western world view, and specifically, scientific empiricism, for America was born during the Age of Reason and the efflorescence of science; the judge is unversed in the far eastern world view and fails to apprehend the essentially spiritual nature of yogic practice.
In the West, religion has developed a rich doctrinal tradition centered on reading sacred texts, such as the Bible, thinking about what one has read, transcribing or reciting what is written, or writing and speaking interpretively about what is written. The average church service features verbal activities of preaching and teaching. The congregation is enlisted mainly to give the affirming “amen” (“so be it”) or to recite codified declarations of doctrine, such as the Nicene Creed, or to participate in call-and-response litanies, adoring God or invoking God’s help.
In the East, by contrast, religion has developed a rich tradition of praxis centered on being and doing. The average religious practice involves sitting in silence for a long time (for example, meditating in the lotus posture) or performing an activity with spiritual intent (for example, executing yoga poses with a mind to realize Brahman or the Universal Self). The eastern understanding and expectation is that the practice, however physical it may be, will eventually evolve into a spiritual experience.
The western model of religion emphasizes doctrine and prioritizes the study and exposition of religious texts over the doing of religious practices. By contrast, the eastern model of religion emphasizes experiential ways of knowing over intellectual ways of knowing. Experiential ways of knowing generally cannot be perceived by an outsider; they are an interior reality. Consequently, westerners who are accustomed to intellectual expressions of religion but not physical expressions of religion regard books as primary repositories of religion, not bodies (the body as an offering), nor even spiritual relationships (guru-disciple lineages). We westerners have a grid for creeds—for religious thoughts and words—but not a grid for religious action, for full-bodied expressions of religion that resemble health regimens or calisthenics or dance. We mistakenly suppose that if a practice involves all doing or being and no thinking, such as the study of sacred texts, nor any speaking, such as the recitation of creeds, praises, and prayers, then the practice is not inherently religious. This is a serious error that even a thoughtful judge can make.
Because yoga instructors in the Encinitas schools did not expound Hindu doctrine and the students were not indoctrinated in the western sense of intellectual appeals rather than in the eastern sense of subtle spiritual influence, the judge assumed that nothing Hindu was transpiring or being transmitted:
The court concludes that the district is not teaching any religious component in its health and welfare program, which is the cornerstone of […] Ashtanga yoga.5
The judge instead pointed to the physical activity, breath control, and wellness training as assurance that nothing Hindu was going on, not recognizing that in the Hindu view, physical activity, breath control, and wellness training are religious in nature and have the effect of summoning Hindu spirits. The very piece of evidence that the judge used to interpret yoga as non-religious is, in fact, religious, but he could not perceive it because his reason and sense perception are informed by a western world view:
[…] the court determines that based on this record, a reasonable student would not objectively perceive that EUSD [the school district’s] yoga either advances or inhibits religion.6
The reasonable person standard lays the burden of interpretation on the intellectual capacity of a person rather than the spiritual capacity. A man whose intellectual capacity is constrained by culture and whose spiritual capacity is undeveloped or underdeveloped, such as the judge’s, will not be able to discern what is spiritual in nature. Nor, for that matter, will the K-6 children in the Encinitas school district who are the putative judges of whether yoga advances or inhibits religion (a burden that is arguably beyond their developmental capacity and age-appropriate responsibility).
Indeed, throughout the case, the judge vacillated back and forth as he heard testimony and arguments from each side. Although he was inclined toward the plaintiffs through much of the trial and statement of decision, he abruptly reversed his position in the end. In delivering his opinion, which was laden with internal inconsistencies, he seemed flustered and fairly sure the case would be appealed7: “This has been for the court a very difficult challenge.”8 What could explain the judge’s agony? his indecisiveness and conflictedness? the gross contradictions in his own opinion? his lack of common sense?
“The court determines that yoga is religious,” the judge said, after listening to all the witnesses, including scholarly experts, and reviewing court cases and exhibits.9 Then he flipped 180 degrees and decided that yoga is not religious, after all, but “secular” because:
- the school district hoped, intended, and “purposed” it to be secular;
- paid school employees and private contractors avowed it to be secular after purportedly purging all “religious cultural trappings” (except the practice itself, of course)10;
- reasonable children ages 5-12 can’t tell if yoga advances or inhibits religion (though no children testified on this point, but adults imagined what children might testify, even though children’s capacity to decide this point and their ability to testify free of adult influence would be doubtful anyway)11;
- and a private foundation—dedicated to the legacy of a guru who promoted yoga as a traditional Hindu practice, whose yoga studios teach a traditional Hindu form of yoga, and whose mission is to propagate this traditional Hindu form worldwide—funded the teaching program and research study of children to the tune of $533,000:
“That has been a troublesome issue for the court, the most troublesome issue,” the judge admitted, but dismissed it anyway as no conflict of interest and no entanglement of government (school) with religion.12
Was the judge’s confusion and lack of acumen and common sense due to the fact that he himself practices yoga and has come under its spiritual influence? Was a spirit of yoga at work in him to confound his judicial prowess and promote its own agenda? Welcome to spirit world where invisible players meddle in human affairs.
The judge’s ruling does not settle the matter. His ruling was incorrect, and in any case, no spiritual contest can be decided with finality in any human court of law.
My story, “Epic Deliverance,” relays the landmark events that precipitated a U-turn in my understanding of yoga as embodied worship. May this provide a counterpoint for you to the material, rational, and flat world of the judge and many Americans.
To your freedom!
1. Jason Whitehead, “Yoga U: Is the Contemplative Sciences Center the Answer to UVA’s Reputation Gap or an Expensive New Age Side Show?” C-Ville (September 5, 2012), http://www.c-ville.com/yoga-u-is-the-contemplative-sciences-center-the-answer-to-uvas-reputation-gap-or-an-expensive-new-age-sideshow/#.VTraYEuzsV-.
2. The National Center for Law & Policy, News Release (October 22, 2012), http://www.nclplaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/NCLPPressRelease20FINAL1.pdf.
3. John S. Meyer, Statement of Intended Decision, Superior Court of the State of California in the County of San Diego, July 1, 2013, p. 36, http://www.nclplaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Statement-of-Intended-Decision-Meyer.pdf.
4. Mark Singleton, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
5. John S. Meyer, Statement of Intended Decision, Superior Court of the State of California in the County of San Diego, July 1, 2013, pp. 40-41, http://www.nclplaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Statement-of-Intended-Decision-Meyer.pdf.
6. ibid, p. 38.
7. Candy Gunther Brown, “Yoga Can Stay in Schools: Looking More Closely at the Encinitas Yoga Trial Decision,” Huffington Post, July 2, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/candy-gunther-brown-phd/what-made-the-encinitas-p_b_3522836.html.
Jennifer Sedlock [plaintiff in the case], in a telephone conversation with the author, April 14, 2015.
8. John S. Meyer, Statement of Intended Decision, Superior Court of the State of California in the County of San Diego, July 1, 2013, p. 1, line 28 – p. 2, line 1, http://www.nclplaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Statement-of-Intended-Decision-Meyer.pdf.
9. ibid, p. 19, lines 16-17; also, p. 17, lines 20-25; p. 18, lines 22-23.
10. ibid, p. 20, lines 18-23 (three-pronged Lemon test: first prong—whether the activity is religious or secular); p. 37, line 28 – p. 38, line 1.
11. ibid, p. 20, lines 24-25; p. 22, lines 1-8 (three pronged Lemon test: second prong—whether the activity advances or inhibits religion—as determined by a hypothetical child in this case).
12. ibid, p. 39 lines 7-8 and 26-27 (three pronged Lemon test: third prong—whether the activity entangles the government in religion).
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