The Conservative Christian Attack on Yoga

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.


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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.