On February 20, a conservative Christian group, the National Center for Law & Policy (NCLP), filed a lawsuit against the Encinitas School Board for teaching yoga in public schools. The suit’s claim that yoga promotes Hinduism shines a spotlight on nearly two centuries of ignorance regarding yoga’s benefits and relevance to modern American culture.
In June, 1910, William Randolph Hearst went on a personal vendetta against these strange yoga rites; his New York American ran with a headline, ‘Police Break in on Weird Hindu Rites: Girls and Men Mystics Cease Strange Dance as 'Priest' Is Arrested.’ A decade later, yoga was predominantly relegated to ‘love cult’ status at the same time Indian nationalists were reinventing the physical practice to help fortify their will in fighting British occupation. By the 1950’s, Eleanor Roosevelt had to deny reports she was practicing yoga in the White House due to her love of headstands—a far cry from today, where yoga is taught every Easter on the White House lawn.
Yet the yoga of today, for a large percentage of practitioners, has less to do about spirituality than physicality, stress reduction and quiet time away from a hectic life (which, to some, is fairly regarded as spiritual).Yoga is generally removed from its metaphysical, predominantly body-denying origins; if anything, modern yoga is a celebration of the body.
Like many, I simply brushed aside the lawsuit when I first heard about it in December. But this article by Carol Horton reminded me both what’s at stake in such a case, as well as the vicious negligence being promoted by the right wing group. While the NCLP is advertising this suit as an attempt to keep religion out of schools, the organization’s actual intent is to push theirs inside, as evidenced in their description of protecting and promoting the ‘sanctity of life’ and ‘traditional marriage,’ both extremely religious platforms.
While Carol’s article succinctly touches upon the finer aspects of legality (and needed activism), I’d like to offer two reasons why this lawsuit is important, both to the children as well as the larger cultural relevance of yoga and spirituality in general.
America has seen a drastic reduction in physical education programs in public schools over the last decade. This mind-body dualist approach promotes the idea that children are mental containers for information with no need of exercising the body carrying the brain. Pumping children full of sugar with the ‘nutrition’ available in most schools and forcing them to sit in uncomfortable, hard plastic and wood chairs all day is a recipe for disaster.
Yoga and meditation have been finding their way into numerous physical and mental health programs across the country, most notably helping veterans deal with PTSD and assisting prisoners navigate life behind bars. While long-term double-blind studies are still lacking, early research on yoga’s benefits are promising. In terms of helping combat serious problems that our youth face, such as an inability to focus and obesity, yoga has the potential to make a major impact.
In order for that to occur, yoga teacher training programs must be regulated by the same governmental agencies that oversee other physical education systems. This gets tricky, as many yoga instructors like to claim that physicality is not the most important part while making money from teaching postures.
To become a certified teacher under Yoga Alliance standards, one needs to study anatomy and physiology for 20 hours, up to 15 of which can be devoted to 'energy anatomy and physiology (chakras, nadis, etc.).' Knowing where a metaphorical chakra exists is not going to help a teacher deal with injuries. This, specifically, will need to be addressed and overseen by a more comprehensive agency, especially if it's going to be included in schools. It’s tragic (and unsafe) that yoga instructors and schools offer two-week ‘immersion’ trainings that churn out teachers unprepared to teach a well-informed physical education practice.
Not a Religion
This will be more challenging, given yoga’s longtime association with Hinduism, as well as the American conservative sect’s disdain for anything foreign. For this initiative to be successful, yoga will need to be understood and implemented differently, and religion as a construct must be redefined.
This gets especially murky when dealing with metaphysics. People generally recognize that a blue-skinned god named Shiva did not behead his son and cut off the head of a baby elephant to replace it at the behest of his wife. Most understand this as a symbolic gesture, even if they believe in sympathetic magic—that praying to Ganesha removes obstacles in your life.
When yoga is treated as a metaphorical system of understanding reality—again, the chakras are a great example—it helps you deal with existence in a very structured, psychologically sound manner. One need not invoke deities to comprehend this, which is diametrically opposed to the Western religious traditions, which demand obedience or submission to their own god.
That is to say, yoga and philosophies such as Buddhism rely heavily on your actions in the world, while the Western model focuses on beliefs about the world. This ideological rift is what the NCLP is attempting to protect. When one ‘clears their mind’ in meditation, there is no need for supernatural musings. You are utilizing a tool to help you not be overwhelmed by thoughts; in a multitasking culture attempting to do everything at once, there is real value in this.
Yet the NCLP is pushing forward a false reading of our ‘constitutional’ founding—one in which their creator launched this country into its purported manifest destiny—to wage this lawsuit. They don’t care about the real health benefits children can derive from a yoga practice. What they are concerned with is retaining a very open-minded audience filled with the notion that this is a Christian nation. What they are pretending to fight is really the foundation of their own agenda.
The conservative sect is laser-focused on legislation battling marriage equality and abortion rights; yoga similarly offends their fundamental aesthetic. If one’s mind is freed from the burden of irrational magic disguised in religious lingo, they may question the nature of existence—a dangerous endeavor to a community whose brain maps have wired together in the belief of one specific take on reality. Both the world, and our minds, are bigger than this nearsighted outlook.
In answer to Carol’s plea about the yoga community stepping forward when such legal battles are waged, point #1 must be addressed and communicated to keep yoga’s benefits active in our country. As stated, #2 will take a lot more work. In the end it too can offer tremendous benefit in creating a more unified and physically and mentally healthy culture.