Sunday, November 3, 2013

Is yoga religious?


This is a question that the Supreme Court of India is currently wrestling with when deciding whether schools can teach yoga.

This is also a question that has been raised in the past few years in the United States, most recently in July in California. In the Encinitas Union County School District, children are required to attend 2-30 minute sessions of yoga per week. Should the students wish not to participate in yoga, they do have alternatives that would fulfill the health and wellness school requirement instead. On top of this, yoga poses now have basic kid-friendly names like peacock pose or crisscross applesauce pose. Even with the offered alternative and the renamed poses, parents of two-children in the district decided that teaching yoga has a religious component and thus has no place in schools. They thus proceeded to sue the school district.

The parents’ attorney, Dean Broyles, apparently argued in court that yoga is inherently religious and thus teaching it in public schools violates the constitutional separation of church and state. While it is important to remember that “the separation of church and state” is not explicitly in the constitution, the argument that teaching yoga in schools helps to establish religion can be made.

In American culture today, one might laugh at the idea that yoga is a religious practice. Yoga classes are taught in most gyms and there are studios all over the country, teaching a variety of forms of yoga from vinyasa to bikram. In the past decade, the fitness world has even seen the creation of yoga hybrid classes, where yoga is combined with other exercise disciplines like kickboxing and pilates. The American College of Sports Medicine and many doctors even stand behind yoga as a form of exercise. Studies have found that yoga can lower stress and blood pressure, improve balance and flexibility, and provide an array of other health benefits. Most American people would agree that they view yoga as a form of exercise, one that around 20 million Americans practice.

But yoga still has religious affiliations. Yoga is practiced as a part of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Yoga appears in all three of these major world religions’ religious texts/associated works. The Hindu American Foundation even claims that yoga and Hindu philosophy cannot be separated and that yoga is "a Hindu way of life." Religious practice aside, few deny that there is a spiritual component to yoga, the word itself meaning basically “to unite” or “to join together,” and this component is definitely entwined with philosophical and theological thought of Asian religious traditions.

A prominent Southern Baptist Minister, Albert Mohler, particularly views yoga as a religious practice and even wrote an article in which he explained how yoga contradicts the Christian religion. In the article, Mohler says that, “when Christians practice yoga, they must either deny the reality of what yoga represents or fail to see the contradictions between their Christian commitment and their embrace of yoga.” The contradictions apparently rest in the spiritual goals of many poses. So are many Christians simply denying the reality of what yoga represents?

Going on the American Yoga Association website also yields very interesting results for the religious nature of yoga. The general information page claims that yoga does not have a creed and thus it is not a religion, but in the preceding paragraphs talks about how the first step of classical yoga, yama, entails refraining from violence, casual sex, hoarding etc. While obviously no one practices yoga as a religion, such beliefs could easily reflect a religious creed. Besides this, relevant to this case in particular is the author of this posts’ claim that yoga should not be practiced by children under 16.

Despite all the information that points to a definitive link between yoga and religion, I believe that because yoga is primarily strictly an exercise in America that it can be taught in public schools. I do agree that the alternatives and changes that the school district offered/made are necessary to protect the constitutionality of the yoga requirement, however. Should an alternative to yoga not have been made, then I think that an establishment case could have been made (although it still would have been difficult). On a separate note though, I do think that the school district should look into the safety of kids practicing yoga.

So what do you think? Is yoga religious in nature? Should it be taught in public schools? If it is taught, should there be alternatives and alterations made to its practice?

7 comments:

Gabby D. said...

I think this is an extremely interesting topic, and something I have never thought about before. I know yoga is considered "spiritual" but I guess I never really linked it to being explicitly religious. If there is no religious language being used, I do not think it is an infringement on the Establishment Clause to have it taught in public domains considering it is proved that yoga can have healing affects and serves other purposes rather than just religious. However, the issue of having it taught in public schools is tricky. Based of precedent, the Court usually handles these cases in public schools with a strict separationist attitude and takes all the necessary steps towards blocking any religion from schools. Therefore I would say it is okay to be taught in a public space, but maybe not in schools.

Dan W said...

I think that the school district has done well in its quest to provide the students with the experience of yoga while remaining neutral to religion. Yoga in the Hindu tradition is certainly a deeply religious practice but yoga in the non-Hindu American context is far from a religious experience. Furthermore, the school does well in allowing students the opportunity to participate in alternate activities instead if they are not comfortable with yoga. Yoga in this context seems far from religious thus I do not see it as a violation of the establishment clause.

Terry B said...

I would have to agree with everybody above on this post that I see no religious purpose in yoga in America. I can see the secular purpose of yoga on health and exercise. It is really a great way to release stress and yoga is also use for therapy as way to help build muscle memory and basic muscle back. I don't think it infringes on the Establishment Clause because I see more secular purpose than religious purpose for yoga. In this case the school is not forcing the students to do yoga there are clearly providing other alternatives to fulfill a certain credit. I think the school does good in dealing with this issue of considering yoga as strictly an exercise.

Blair said...

As someone who enjoys yoga, I also find this topic to be really interesting! Personally, I believe that there is a definite spiritual practice involved but it is religiously neutral. I dont think the Establishment Clause has been violated because there are other options for students to choose from and names were changed from their original sanskrit meaning. Moreover, I don't think there is enough evidence that yoga is establishing religion as this school especially since it is not being promoted by a professional Hindu teacher and appears to have no praising of Hindu either.

Benjamin S said...

I participated in yoga classes during high school while having no understanding that it was related to any religious practice. In no way is there any sort of indoctrination of religion while practicing yoga in a "gym" setting. I believe it is purely secular at that point. I do not see it as an establishment of religion and I commend the school in their efforts to promote yoga's benefits while attempting to remain as neutral as possible.

SC said...

I think yoga is one of those things that is severely divorced from its religious connotations. I've taken yoga classes before, and they've always taken place in a dance studio or gym of some sort, rather than a place of worship. In addition, they've always used the english name for the poses as opposed to the traditional sanskrit names. I've always been taught it strictly as a form of exercise. Therefore, as long as the school teaches it as such, there is no problem with teaching yoga in schools.

Sayeh B said...

I've never really thought about this before because (like many comments above have already mentioned) my high school taught yoga and I never really thought about it as a very religious exercise. I can understand how an Establishment case could be made if the public school teacher was facilitating a very spiritual version of yoga twice a week, but clearly the school made a conscious effort to avoid religious entanglement by changing the names of the poses and making them kid-friendly and strictly secular. Additionally, one could argue that even if yoga was explicitly religious, it is a practice that teaches secular ideals (fitness, well-being, peacefulness, etc.) with a religious spin or viewpoint. If in that case yoga was not allowed to be taught in schools, one could argue that the school was unconstitutionally discriminating against the yoga classes based on that particular viewpoint.