Sunday, October 16, 2011

To "om" or Not to "om"

When one pictures the classic yoga positions or environment of a yoga class, it is not uncommon to think of someone closing their eyes, making the “om” sound and ultimately meditating. Not much more goes into this picture because it seems to be a universally accepted form of exercise and physical and mental discipline. However, is this seemingly secular practice, in fact, entwined with religion? Yoga program directors, specialized in placing teachers in public schools and develop their classes, try to avoid having a religious/non-religious debate that would be based off of individual opinions and perceptions. In the New York Times article, “In Schools, Yoga Without the Spiritual”, different interpretations of how yoga should be taught and practiced are presented. The article focuses in on a program called Bent on Learning which teaches 3,300 students a week in 16 different public schools. This program focuses on a “Namaste-free zone” where you won’t find anyone uttering the word “Namaste” or “om” or any positioning of the hands which might imply praying. In short, it avoids all of the typical characteristics of yoga.
On the other hand, another program called Karma Kids, which works with 1,200 students in 16 different schools, doesn’t try to limit their curriculum to more secular positions or actions. Still, in order to avoid conflict the Karma Kids teacher checks with school administration before teaching it in such a way. Little Flower Yoga approaches the teaching of their yoga in the same way, allowing the school administration to decide whether they will allow yoga to be taught in such a way.  The Bent on Learning program keeps their strict policy in effect by having a 100-hour Bent on Learning teacher training. The teachers who come to work for the program might have engraved motions or ideas on how to practice yoga, but they must be trained otherwise.
In my opinion, this issue has more to do with the Establishment Clause than it does with Free Exercise because yoga taught in schools isn’t meant to be religious. I think that by weeding out any ambiguous positions or actions in yoga that could possibly be implied as practicing or establishing a religion is a good idea. This way, the program is trying to avoid controversies from the start rather than getting involved in any criticism or worse, a law suit.
So far during the studies in this class we have learned that it always comes down to the impressionable children. In this case, I think the seriousness of such a seemingly silly and miniscule problem, stems from the fact that they are children that could possibly equate praying with the “oms” or meditation. Yoga can be treated as a religious practice but for the sake of the children, it should be kept as a secular exercise with the primary focus of becoming relaxed and having fun.
Another issue that relates to this article that we have discussed in class with cases like Marsh vs. Chambers, is the use of tax-payers money. In the Marsh case, the court ruled that the use of a Chaplin reciting an opening prayer before legislative sessions was unconstitutional only on the grounds that the public is funding it. In this article, it states that generally speaking, the money to support yoga programs comes from parent-teacher associations, grants, fund-raising and school budgets. I think there is a thin line then of whether is it okay to possibly suggest religion through yoga. If the money is coming from these sources of people of many different religious (including no religion) it’s safer to omit actions that possibly imply religious characteristics. With all of the religious controversies ranging from candy canes, posters in classrooms and religion-focused assemblies as well as other things we have discussed through blog articles, I think it’s only a matter of time until someone attacks yoga as favoring religion in general or a specific religion. 


Harry R. said...

While I am not knowledgeable about the specific religious aspects of yoga, I feel that "om" does not directly relate to religion. If the yoga program is held to maintain the health, both physical and mental, of the students, I feel that any specific practices within the yoga exercises are appropriate. As long as they are not presented to students as religious actions, I feel that establishment is not an issue. Unless there is a specified religious meaning, I feel that the Lemon Test would support any practices contained within a yoga exercise.

Jean A said...

I disagree with Annie in that I don't believe specific yoga positions and/or phrases to be at all religious. In my opinion, if yoga were to violate the establishment clause, typical phrases such as "amen," etc would have to be said at the end of each pose in order to classify as religious. Placing your hands together while uttering the words "om" do not have direct religious undertones, thus the school is being overly cautious about teaching yoga and taking away the true meaning of why yoga is even practiced in the first place.