Thursday, December 12, 2013

This Blog Has Moved!

To consolidate my online work, I've shifted my blog location to my personal website. Please join me there! The URL is: carolhortonphd.com/blog.

I published my first post on that site, "The Bikram Scandal and the Shadow Side of Yoga," yesterday. Hope you'll click over and join the conversation there.

Email subscribers to Think Body Electric please note: In order to keep receiving notifications of new blog posts, you'll need to go to the new blog spot and sign up there - the mailing list won't be automatically transferred. My apologies for the inconvenience.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Reconnecting with Real Yoga: Teaching in Cook County Jail


Cook County Jail, Chicago, Illinois
As soon as I came to the first indoor check-in point, it was clear that things were a little off that day. The guard at the front desk was filling in temporarily and had no clue what the normal procedures were supposed to be. The gym where yoga classes are held was still being used for something else when I arrived. The guard at check-in point #2 told me that I couldn't go in and had to wait in the hallway.

The woman who normally handles the yoga class set-up was gone. Her replacement was annoyed by the general level of confusion and disorganization. I hung out next to him in the hall while he complained to me about incompetence, reduced benefits, and worsening working conditions in between exasperated exchanges on a crackling walkie-talkie.

I waited around an extra 15 minutes before they got it together to let me into the gym. I took in what felt like a higher level of agitation in the air than I'd experienced in the past. 

My sense that something was indeed off was confirmed when the first group of women was finally let into the gym for class. As we set up the mats, I asked them how they were feeling and if there was anything in particular they'd like to work on today.

Several women stopped laying out mats, turned around, and looked at me quite intently. Gazing straight into my eyes, a young looking blonde spoke first. "There's a lot of confusion and anger in the unit today," she said. Her voice was firm, clear, almost deadly serious.

Several other women nodded assent and murmured some comments I couldn't hear. "We really need to use this time to get to some inner peace," she continued.

By now, almost everyone was standing still and looking at me.

"Yeah, I had the sense that maybe something was going on when I came in," I replied. "We'll focus getting centered, calm, and grounded today."

"Can we do some of that meditation?" a young Black woman with braided hair asked.

"OK, sure."

The blonde spoke up again. "I was also wondering if you could give us some handouts or something so that we can practice on our own. I want to do Suns in my cell, but can never quite remember how it goes."

By happy coincidence, the group I'm working with, Yoga for Recovery, had just received word from James Fox of the Prison Yoga Project that he'd donate 50 of his yoga instruction books, so that we could give them to our more dedicated students. Talk about serendipity. I'd just received the email about that a day or two before.

I explained that we were working on it. The women looked pleased.

Then we had class. And it was totally great. Just like any good yoga class anywhere. The cavernous, grimy gym filled with metal cots and stacks of thin mattresses stored to handle the overflow of inmates faded away. The harsh whirr of the industrial-strength fans softened into the background. I felt temporarily transported into a very different, much safer and more intimate time and space.

Class ended and most of the women thanked me for coming. As they walked out, I heard three  exclaiming to each other, "I feel so relaxed now! Don't you feel more relaxed now?" One pretty young Hispanic woman who looked like she could still be in high school came up and shyly gave me a hug.

Warnings of how we're not supposed to get too close to the prisoners, how we shouldn't touch them, jumped into my mind. I made a split-second assessment that it would be OK this one time. A mirco-moment exception to the rule that touched me quite deeply.

I left the jail shaking my head in wonder, thinking of how rare it would be to have a studio class in which so many students were so intent about the opportunity to practice. Not to mention knowledgeable about and interested in the potential of yoga to be much more than a workout, and eager to learn how to make it their own.

The fact that they could so clearly identify what they needed to work on that day on such a deep and meaningful level kind of stunned me.

Plus, it was one of those classes that left me feeling really good the rest of the day. My anxieties, which had been revving up, melted away. They just didn't feel that pressing anymore.

"no mud, no lotus"

I'm still thinking about how remarkable I found my experience that day. And how I wish that I could convey to people that despite the endless bullshit, there really is some incredibly powerful yoga going on in the U.S. today. You may need to travel outside of your comfort zone to find it. But it's definitely there. I'm grateful to know and believe that through these sorts of experiences, which imprint me in a powerful way.

To be clear, the experience of teaching yoga is jail is most certainly not "all good." I mean, let's get real: it's a fucking jail.

But: it can be authentically good in its own way, nonetheless.

This, to me, is the true meaning of yoga. It's also why I'm still passionate about the practice, despite the mountains of disillusioning bullshit that have been created in the name of yoga as well.

I hope that more yoga practitioners will be inspired to get real, cut through the crap, and practice in ways that really do open your heart and mind. I'm not suggesting that this requires teaching yoga in jail. There are as many ways to have a meaningful practice as there are individuals.

That said, I believe that by far the most vital yoga teaching and learning going on in America today is happening in the yoga service world. So if you're looking for something more meaningful than you're finding elsewhere, I strongly suggest checking it out.

 *************************************

For more of my writing on the yoga service movement, see:

"Gritty Inspiration: Chicago Welcomes the Prison Yoga Project" Yoga Chicago July/August 2013

 "Integrating Science, Service, Spirituality, and Healing: The Second Annual Yoga Service Council    Conference" Think Body Electric July 2013

"Socially Engaged Yoga: Healing a World in Crisis" prAna life May 2013

"Street Smart Karma Yoga: Terri Cooper and Miami's Yoga Gangsters" Yoga U Online May 2013

"Sweet Delight and Endless Night: Teaching Yoga in Jail - Year 2" Think Body Electric Feb. 2013 

"The Art of Yoga and the Sacred Feminine" elephant journal July 2012

"Yoga Beyond Asana: Launching a Mindfulness Revolution at the Yoga Service Council Conference" elephant journal May 2012 

"Socially Engaged Yoga: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?" Yoga Modern Oct. 2011

"Teaching Yoga in Jail: Bittersweet Magic Behind the Barbed Wire Fence" Yoga Modern Sept. 2011

 *************************************

Finally, I'm pleased to announce that the Socially Engaged Yoga Network (SEYN), a organization I'm co-founding with Yoli Maya Yeh, Greg Van Hyfte, Marty Clemons, and Julia Pedersen, is launching  on October 11th. Our mission is to support yoga teachers, community organizations, and other stakeholders committed to sharing the benefits of yoga with underserved communities in the Chicagoland area. Our vision is to build partnerships in the fields of community health, social services, environmental sustainability, and education that improve health, empower communities, and leverage resources for positive social change. If you live in the Chicago area and are engaged in yoga service work, you're invited!


Monday, July 29, 2013

Integrating Science, Service, Spirituality, and Healing: The Second Annual Yoga Service Council Conference

Omega cabins (photo via SJ Times)
Leaving the leafy green grounds of the Omega Institute to catch the train to New York after Yoga Service Council conference, I couldn’t help thinking that I’d just participated in the most promising new wave of yoga in our time. 

Of course, I know that’s grandiose: The yoga world is hugely diverse, and there’s undoubtedly lots of other important work happening. Nonetheless, for someone with my particular combination of interests – integrating yoga with cutting-edge scientific research, sharing it with underserved communities, and adapting the practice to work in public institutions including prisons, hospitals, and schools – the Yoga Service Council (YSC) conference is as good as it gets.

Having attended the inaugural YSC conference last year, it was exciting to see its growing capacity and momentum. Both the 2012 and 2013 conferences featured impressive keynote speakers, a variety of excellent workshops, and evening “meet and greet” sessions. This year’s gathering additionally included 30 YSC scholars who had been awarded scholarships to attend the conference, a mostly youthful group whose inclusion benefitted the entire event by increasing its demographic and cultural diversity. 

American yoga service organizations work with an estimated 150,000-200,000 people annually, including abused women, prisoners, at-risk children and teens, veterans, cancer patients, and the homeless. The Yoga Service Council serves as the organizational hub for this growing movement, with the annual conference sharing the work of some of the most visionary leaders in the field. With conference goers split more or less evenly between full-time yoga teachers and a variety of professionals including nurses, social and mental health workers, teachers, and researchers, it’s an exceptionally interesting and well-informed group. They’re also fun to hang out with, as the shared commitment to yoga service creates an easy sense of camaraderie and community.

YSC conference, June 2013 (photo courtesy of Omega Institute, eOmega.org)

“From Inspired to Effective”

Yoga service work is inspiring, and attracts energetic, passionate people. As a new field that's generally underfunded, however, workers run the risk of burnout. As the conference program brochure explained:
We’ve seen it many times before: a yoga teacher, after a year of volunteer service, finds she and her boyfriend are $1,800 behind in mortgage payments and she needs to give up the all-important Seva opportunity. Or, personally and professionally, the effort of an Executive Director to manage a nonprofit outreach organization brings about compassionate burnout. To be effective, engagement and service must happen in a way that is sustainable.
Sustainability requires both supporting individual practitioners and building solid organizations. This means that yoga service providers should take time for self-care, a need that’s often neglected among people who feel driven to help others. It also requires organizational capacity building, most notably raising revenue to support teachers and staff members, access appropriate training, and secure needed equipment.

This year’s YSC conference was designed to support individuals and organizations by providing a experience of community that was both nurturing and educational. The schedule unfolded at a nice pace, opening with a relaxed evening address by Beryl Bender Birch on “Awakening to Spiritual Revolution: The Convergence of Practice and of Activism.” The following morning kicked off with an excellent asana practice led by "Yoga for 12-Step Recovery" founder Nikki Myers. After this, there was ample time to enjoy a healthy, sustaining breakfast in Omega’s beautiful dining hall before reconvening for the Saturday morning keynote.

Asana at YSC conference (photo courtesy of Omega Institute, eOmega.org)

“Strengthening Compassion”

If you think that listening to a lecture on a sunny Saturday morning sounds unappealing, please reconsider. Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., delivered a 90-minute talk on “Strengthening Compassion” that was not only fascinating, but also genuinely enlightening. Based on an 8-week training program developed at Stanford University where she serves as a lecturer, Kelly gave us a powerful briefing on the nature of compassion based on Buddhist meditation practices and spiritual philosophies, as well as neuroscience, social psychology, and evolutionary biology.

Kelly described compassion as having four key elements:
  1. recognition of suffering,
  2. feelings of concern and connection,
  3. a desire to relieve suffering, and
  4. the willingness and ability to respond. 
If we’re in situations in which we feel unsafe or under-resourced, she explained, we’re unlikely to experience compassion. While we may feel disturbed at seeing another’s suffering, our reaction will likely be to go into “fight or flight” mode, rather than compassionate connection. Understandably, we want to protect ourselves from the possible “contagion” of another’s distress by avoiding, escaping, shutting down, or dismissing their feelings. This, Kelly observed, is a “natural, but unskillful” response.

Kelly presented specific techniques we can use to strengthen our ability to be in the presence of suffering without falling into reactive feelings of threat and overwhelm. “Compassion,” she emphasized, “is a set of skills that can be trained.” We should not expect compassion to be an unlimited resource that we can continually draw out of ourselves without taking time to replenish it. Continuing the conference’s theme of connecting self-care to caring for others, she urged yoga service providers not to romanticize compassion, but rather understand the concrete practices that help it grow, as well as the everyday scenarios that restrict it.  

Dr. Kelly McGonigal (photo courtesy of Omega Institute, eOmega.org)

An Abundance of Offerings

After the Saturday morning keynote, conference participants were offered a choice of five workshops  including yoga and recovery from addiction, working with high-risk youth, building a wellness toolkit, asana sequencing, and conducting research. I attended Nikki Myer’s presentation on addiction recovery, which was excellent.

After the workshops, it was time for lunch. Meals at Omega are really nice, featuring an old-fashioned buffet and communal tables both inside the spacious dining hall, outside on the porch, and down the hill on the grass. The YSC conference also set up tables where people could discuss topics including diversity, nonprofit development, and international service work. After lunch, Sharon Salzberg, a renowned Buddhist meditation teachers, led a practice dedicated to deepening our capacities for concentration, connection, fearlessness, and genuine happiness. 

Afternoon workshops included “Yoga for Cancer Survivors,” “Mindfulness-Based Elder Care,” “Sustainable Yoga Service,” “Individual Practices to Support Yoga Service,” and “Yoga-Based Mindfulness Programs for Women Trauma Survivors.” Saturday evening featured the “poster session,” which provided a much-appreciated opportunity to learn about the yoga service organizations represented at the conference, and make connections with interesting, passionate, and friendly practitioners from all over the country.

The next morning, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, M.D., a leading expert on trauma, presented a fascinating lecture on “Yoga, Neurobiology, and Trauma," which  expertly synthesized information from  yoga, history, neuroscience, and psychology. Following his presentation, the conference segued into a panel discussion on “Diversity and Cultural Awareness” in the yoga service movement. While an important addition to the program, the one hour provided wasn't enough to adequately address the complex issues this topic inevitably invokes. Hopefully, more time will be allotted to continue this discussion next year.

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk (photo courtesy of Omega Institute, eOmega.org)

 Non-Dualism for Our Times

In one action-packed, yet restful and energizing weekend, I experienced the integration of self-care and organization building, neuroscience research and meditation practice, the Yoga Sutras and addiction recovery, and asana practice and social outreach – to name just a few examples. Such creative couplings, I believe, represent invaluable new ways of realizing traditional yogic practices of non-dualism in the real-world context of life today.

Whether you’re involved with yoga service or not, I’d encourage anyone interested in deepening their practice to consider attending next year’s conference. After all, there's ultimately no division between serving our selves and serving others. Yoga service simply means becoming more deliberate about the natural process of progressively realizing our interconnectedness through mindful practice.

In sum, the Yoga Service Council conference is generating an exceptionally promising new wave of yoga in the West. I hope that more and more practitioners will be inspired to join the movement, and help build its momentum. If you're looking for an opportunity to make your practice more informed, intelligent, socially relevant, and personally meaningful, consider joining like-minded friends out at Omega next year.

Omega lakeshore sculpture  (photo credit: Ken Wieland)

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Celebrating Yoga in America

Saluting American Yoga! with thanks to YogaDawg (July 4, 2013)

[Note: This post was originally entitled "In Praise of American Yoga." I decided to change it in response to comments from several people who feel that the term "American yoga" is inherently offensive and objectionable. I see it as simply descriptive, and interchangeable with "yoga in America." However, titles form first impressions, which are important. So, I've changed that, but left the rest of the wording alone.]


I like to think of myself as a cultural critic. Flag-waving patriotism turns me off. Nonetheless, when it comes to the subject of American yoga, at the moment I’m feeling oddly cheerleader-prone. Why? Because while I’m all in favor of critiquing the commercialism, narcissism, and cultural shallowness that runs so rampant in American yoga culture, I’m also opposed to caricaturing the entire endeavor as the hopelessly corrupt offspring of an otherwise pristine yoga tradition.

Of course, it’s certainly true that the American yoga boom of the past 15 years has generated its own peculiar set of problems. Critical issues of commercialism, cultural appropriation, and cheapening a rich tradition absolutely need to be raised. From my perspective, the issue isn’t whether critiques of American yoga are warranted: they are. The question, rather, is how to levy those critiques constructively.

Trying to neatly separate “corrupt” American yoga from some supposedly “pure” alternative (whether Indian, Hindu, Tantric, traditional, countercultural, old school, 1990s, or whatever) is not constructive for two key reasons. First, it’s inaccurate and misleading. Real life is messy. This has always been true, both within the yoga tradition and beyond it. Second, splitting the complexities of life into all-good and all-bad categories is unnecessarily divisive, and generates unintended negativity.


Looking for Shangri-La?


Ironically, dichotomies of “pure” versus “corrupt” yoga encourage well meaning Westerners wishing to honor the yoga tradition to unwittingly reinscribe colonialist stereotypes of the “mystic East,” imagining India as a timeless, mystic land beyond the reach of modernity and even history itself. Even in the 21st century, the iconic image of Shangri-La continues to loom large in the American yoga imaginary. (A "mystical, harmonious valley, gently guided from a lamasery” featured in the 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, “Shangri-La has become synonymous with any earthly paradise, and particularly a mythical Himalayan utopia — a permanently happy land, isolated from the outside world.”)

For example, xoJane recently published an earnest article entitled "Like It Or Not, Western Yoga Is A Textbook Example Of Cultural Appropriation."  The author, s.e. smith (a self-described white atheist who rejects normal gender pronouns such as “she” in favor of the gender-neutral term “ou”) shares her (or rather, ous) reservations about practicing yoga, which ou describes as “an aspect of the Hindu faith with origins that are thousands of years past.”
until very recently . . . I did asanas and pranayama myself as a way of focusing, centering, and strengthening myself. I liked how these practices made my body and mind feel, but I also felt deeply troubled by my use of some of the eight limbs of yoga in a way that didn’t feel in accordance with the practice’s roots, and by my practice of yoga as an atheist.

If I wouldn’t dream of taking Communion at a Catholic Church if I was attending as a guest, why would I practice yoga? Aren’t there lots of explicitly fitness-oriented options for me to choose from that don’t require me to appropriate religious practices from former colonies?
This line of reasoning ignores the fact that the term “Hinduism” was a Western invention that lumped the disparate religious traditions of India into a single category modeled after our own monotheistic faiths. True, Indians quickly appropriated the term and used it means of building a unified national identity and fighting British colonialism. That shift, however, soon birthed a new, deliberately modernized variant of Hinduism – which, in turn, provided the cultural context for the development of modern yoga.

Given that modern yoga was intentionally crafted to speak to people of all faiths, nationalities, and cultures, ou’s feeling that ou should not practice it since ou is not Hindu is, in fact, a rejection of Indian tradition, not an affirmation of it! However, as long as India is implicitly assumed to be a land beyond history, it's impossible to imagine such a possibility, as it's based on a recognition that Indian spiritual practices (including yoga and Hinduism) evolve over time, just as they do in the West.

Image via Decolonizing Yoga (excerpt from Yoga PhD)

Similarly, in a recent Huff Post article, Yogi Cameron Alborzian denounces contemporary asana-based yoga on the grounds that “postures were never supposed to become the centerpiece of the entire practice, and it was only through the ego that people started to focus on them. As a result, more postures have been invented in the last few centuries.”

Again, while well intentioned, the assertion that the development of modern asana practice was solely driven by “ego” isn’t supported by historical fact. (The larger point of the article, that it’s good to move beyond a simple fixation on the body, is a good one, and particularly notable coming from an ex-supermodel who once worked with Madonna.) T.K.V. Desikachar, for example, once explained that his father, Sri T. Krishnamacharya (the most influential figure in the development of yoga as we know it today), “evolved very important principles in the practice of asana,” developing so many new postures and techniques so quickly that he was “unable to keep track of his new discoveries.”

Modern asana-based practice, in other words, was not a corruption of an otherwise pure yoga tradition produced by out-of-control modern egos. Rather, it was a deliberate reformulation of what has always been a vast and diverse tradition, re-crafting yoga in ways designed to meets the needs of the modern world.


The Pure and the Impure?


In "Stepping into the Yoga Time Machine: Before the Yogamagedon,” Chris Courtney attempts to cut the yogic wheat from the chaff in a new way. Rather than rejecting modern or even American yoga as a whole, he limits the corruption of yoga to what’s happened with it during the past 15 years in the U.S.:
Imagine a time before ex-cheerleader mean girls and lecherous douchebags had taken over yoga studios. Imagine a time when classes were harder to find, but were also less likely to suck . . . Imagine a time before yoga became an 'industry.' When there was a genuine sense of community and collaboration, rather than competition. The time you’re imagining is the late 1990s in America.

 . . . When I think of what we’ve allowed yoga in America to become, it seems that instead of holding steady in our practice to consciously navigate our way through the Kali Yuga, we’ve doubled down on its worst aspects. With every new yoga fad, gimmick, or distraction from the practice, we’re moving farther from the divine and speeding our own degeneration.
While I appreciate the desire to lambaste the slavish commercialism that’s become more and more present in American yoga culture, neatly dividing recent history into the “good” yoga of the 1990s versus the “bad” yoga of today is absurd. I’ve heard enough stories about L.A. yoga culture in the 1990s to believe that this idyllic time of “community and collaboration, rather than competition” didn’t exist. My best guess would be that then, like now, the yoga world contained pockets both of cut-throat competition and inspiring cooperation. In most cases, however, I suspect that people found themselves spending a lot of time in that big, grey area in between.

Similarly, the idea that we’re speeding away from “the divine” and toward “our own degeneration” is a bit much. It's worth noting that there have been some positive developments that didn’t exist in the 1990s: the yoga service movement, the expansion of yoga into prisons and other major social institutions, the explosion of the yoga blogosphere, the development modern yoga studies, the integration of yoga with somatic psychology, the development of trauma-sensitive yoga, and the expansion of female leadership, to name a few.

Back cover image: 21st Century Yoga c. Sarit Z. Rogers / Sarit Photography

Problems of Polarization

Since I'm sympathetic to the critical project, I wouldn’t be harping on the need to be more balanced if I wasn’t concerned that the public conversation about yoga has started to become overly polarized. Not long ago, we had the opposite problem: except for a few lone bloggers, yoga discourse seemed firmly sealed in a big, pastel-colored bubble, in which no negative observations were allowed. Now, the bubble has clearly burst – and that’s a good thing. The question, however, is how to build an inclusive conversation that balances honesty and critique with respect for diverse experiences, commitments, and points of view.

While it takes a variety of forms, there’s a recurring tendency to try and divide the sprawling, vast, diverse world of yoga into fixed camps with clear boundaries separating the good from the bad, the commercial from the authentic, and the pure from the corrupt. I believe that it’s important to resist these tendencies toward neat categorization, which present an inaccurately simplified view of reality, and promote interpersonal division.

Of course, it’s tempting to pit “commercial yoga” against “authentic yoga" (or whatever) to dramatize a valid critique. Yet setting up such hard-and-fast categories carries a cost. Dividing the yoga community into a good “us” versus a bad “them” encourages self-righteousness on the “us” side by creating a stereotyped “Other” to measure one’s superiority against. At the same time, it tends to generate hurt, anger, resentment, and/or alienation among “them.” Once such dynamics are in play, the negative blowback overshadows whatever good may have been intended by the critique.

For Americans in particular, there are also big problems with the social ethics of such “corrupt vs. pure” paradigms. Writing off contemporary American yoga as hopelessly tainted provides an excellent rationale for immersing oneself in a yoga subculture that’s uninterested, if not actively resistant to connecting with others in our society. At the same time, it undermines faith in our ability to confront with the enormous challenges of our particular time and place.

Given the sorry state of our country at this time, I personally feel that those of us lucky enough to have received the gifts of an effective yoga practice would be better off seeking ways to share this knowledge with others. Doing this, however, requires accepting the realities of American yoga and the society it’s part of in all of its maddening messiness and contradictory complexity. This doesn’t mean dropping critique or embracing the lazy apathy of “it’s all good." It does, however, require tempering criticism with concern for others who may not share our perspectives or commitments, yet still in their own way love yoga as much as we do.


Wednesday, July 3, 2013

"Yoga Wins" in Encinitas: A Pyrrhic Victory?

Here's how the Los Angeles Times - one of the best papers still standing in the U.S. - reported on the outcome of the just-concluded trial challenging the constitutionality of teaching yoga in public schools:
(Lawyer Dean) Broyles said having yoga in the schools '"represents a serious breach of the public trust" and is a violation of state law that prohibits religious instruction in public schools.

But (Judge John) Meyer said that he agreed with the school district's explanation that it has taken out any references to Hinduism or Sanskrit from the program.

Yoga, the judge said, is similar to other exercise programs like dodgeball. He also said some opponents of the yoga program seem to have gotten their information from inaccurate sources on the Internet.


"It's almost like a trial by Wikipedia, which isn't what this court does," said Meyer. 
So, yoga fans, "we won" the Encinitas case contesting the constitutionality of teaching yoga in the public schools . . . and can now rest assured that, as Judge Meyer explained, "yoga as it has developed in the last 20 years is rooted in American culture" and therefore as wholesomely innocuous as a good 'ole game of grade school dodgeball!

Yay?

I don't know about you, but back when I had to play dodgeball in my grade school P.E. program, a clique of tough, athletic girls always took it as an opportunity to terrorize their less socially and physically aggressive classmates by expertly whipping the balls straight at our heads. It was not fun, and most certainly not a wholesome learning experience.

Now, that is not to denigrate dodgeball - both of my sons always loved it (although, it should be noted, they attended much better schools with infinitely better social supervision than I did.) No, the point of my dodgeball digression is simply to illustrate that despite being happy that the Court ruled that it's indeed OK to teach yoga in public schools, I'm nonetheless dismayed about the way in which  the case was argued and decided.

From start to finish, the two sides squared off in a battle to determine whether yoga is "inherently religious" or "only exercise."And in a contest like that, my understanding of yoga as a mind/body/spirit practice with much to offer our super-stressed, dis-ease ridden, and spiritually sick society was bound to lose.


A Pyrrihic Victory?
Given that expert witness for the plaintiffs, Professor Candy Gunther Brown, demonstrated that she knows infinitely more about the history of yoga than the defendants (or, for that matter, most yoga practitioners), I'm not sure where Judge Meyer's insulting remark about "trial by Wikipedia" came from. Nonetheless, in keeping with the absurdity of the whole thing, I offer this explanation of a "Pyrrihic victory" from that source for those of us who need a little brush-up on our ancient Greek history:
A Pyrrhic victory is a victory with such a devastating cost that it carries the implication that another such victory will ultimately lead to defeat. Someone who wins a Pyrrhic victory has been victorious in some way; however, the heavy toll negates any sense of achievement or profit.

The phrase Pyrrhic victory is named after Greek King Pyrrhus of Epirus, whose army suffered irreplaceable casualties in defeating the Romans at Heraclea in 280 BC and Asculum in 279 BC during the Pyrrhic War. After the latter battle, Plutarch relates in a report by Dionysius, "The armies separated; and, it is said, Pyrrhus replied to one that gave him joy of his victory that one more such victory would utterly undo him."
Of course, I understand that the fact that this case was argued and decided as it was doesn't mean that everyone is automatically going to adapt the yoga-is-either-religious-or-it's-exericse framing. Still, I'm concerned about the cultural precedents it sets.

This is particularly true because other than some under-the-radar comments on scattered blogs and Facebook posts by dissident yoga practitioners (as well as this excellent, but under-read post by Yogadork), by and large what I see is an uncritical celebration of the fact that "yoga won" (accompanied by much overt or covert sneering at the conservative Christians who lost the case) on one side, and stoic determination to hold the line against the rising tide of a corrupt secular culture that's reflexively hostile to Christianity, on the other.

Where's the Ahimsa in this? The Satya? The Svadhyaya?


Honesty is the Best Policy
If yoga is going to get dragged into the American culture wars, it should at least be on honest terms.

Everyone who's even semi-seriously involved in yoga in this country today recognizes that the reason they're so pumped about the practice is precisely because they believe that it is, in fact, more than "just exercise." Certainly, I find it very hard to believe that any yoga teacher motivated to work with kids in public schools is doing so because she feels it's a nice alternative to dodgeball.

If that's the case, why should the yoga community happily embrace a victory that tells that world that teaching yoga to school kids is OK because that's all it is? 

I suspect that the answer is in part the "by any means necessary" rationale - if that's what it takes to make yoga in schools kosher, then that's fine, because anything that exposes more people to yoga is good ultimately all good, no matter what.

This is the same reasoning that's used to legitimate the no-holds-barred commercialization of yoga. And it's deeply problematic. Yoga is not some magic "thing" that automatically produces "good," no matter what. To believe this flies in the face of mountains of evidence, both contemporary and historical. (As David Gordon White showed us in Sinister Yogis, even the much vaunted "ancient tradition" included a lot of ethically troubling practices.)

Yoga is simply an incredibly rich, evolving, and multifacted mind-body-spirit practice that human begins do in conjunction with many other things in our lives. "Yoga" doesn't automatically purify us. It's our actions - what we concretely do and don't do - that actually matter.


Yoga and Education
Personally, I believe that it's possible to construct a compelling legal case regarding why it's OK to teach yoga in public schools that offers an alternative to the "yoga is either religion or exercise" dichotomy. Certainly, this would be more challenging to do than falsely claiming that yoga is like dodgeball. But it would also be honest.

And, it would contribute something to our society that it desperately needs: an understanding of education that insists on the importance of educating the whole person - body, mind, and spirit.

Despite my troubles in grade-school P.E., when I was growing up, this perspective was still pretty common. No one thought that kids needed to start doing homework in kindergarten in order to prove they're working hard enough. It was commonly accepted that art, music, and drama contribute something irreplaceable to children's education. No one thought that standardized testing should be the be-all, end-all of educational assessment. It was taken for granted that school was supposed to be about more than simply preparing kids for the job market. Even if the ideal was seldom realized in practice, the culture of progressive education was still strong enough that most educators accepted that, as John Dewey put it
Education is not preparation for life - education is life itself.
Way back when, I worked at the Spencer Foundation under that able leadership of historian of education Lawrence Cremin. We were jazzed about improving the quality of education in all walks of life - recognizing that the process of education involves not simply schools, but also families, the media, libraries, afterschool programs, sports clubs, civic organizations, and so on.

Yoga is now well-established enough in American society that yoga teachers and practitioners could serve as much-needed educators about how to improve the quality of physical, psychological, and spiritual health in our communities, our country, and the world at large. However, that's not going to happen if we're content to celebrate "yoga as dodgeball." Instead, we need to embrace the challenge of  honestly explaining why we care about this practice, what we believe it offers, and how we can adapt it as necessary to work in any setting in our diverse, multicultural society.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Yoga Train Wreck in Encinitas: Or, What's Up with the Jois Foundation??

Please bear with me for a few caveats and disclaimers before I begin my rant. 

1. Although I don't practice Ashtanga, I'm attracted to the culture it generates insofar as I know it. I tend to connect intellectually with Ashtangis more than any other identifiable group of practitioners. I feel that the method attracts a relatively high percentage of smart, independently-minded people. From my outsider's perspective, it seems that the Ashtanga community has an exceptionally interesting, serious, engaged culture. I like that. 

2. I'm strongly in favor of making yoga more available in institutions such as schools, hospitals, and prisons, as well as in underserved and socially marginalized communities. As a teacher, I find yoga outreach meaningful and regenerating. I'm an unashamed booster of the not particularly popular notion of socially engaged yoga

Soooooo . . . you'd think I'd not only be super-supportive of the fact that the Jois Foundation gave a $500,000 grant to the Encinitas schools to fund a district-wide yoga program, but also stand staunchly by them as the maddening lawsuit that grant generated drags on. And this would be true, except for the fact that . . .

3. I believe strongly not only in the values of multiculturalism, but in the need to actively engage them in practice if we're to have any hope at all of healing some of the divisions in our frighteningly polarized society.

Although multiculturalism is rightfully associated with left-of-center political values, I've always believed that it's got to be applied evenly across the board. And when it comes to the current lawsuit over the constitutionality of teaching yoga in public schools, that means treating the conservative Christians involved with equal consideration and respect, whether one agrees with them or not.

And that's why - despite being being strongly opposed to the conservative Christian political agenda - I'm nonetheless moved to say that I think the plaintiffs in Encinitas have raised some legitimate questions about the Jois Foundation grant. 

In fact, the more that I read through the Jois Yoga website, and search in vain for some sort of statement they may have made about the many important issues raised in this case, the more frustrated I feel. At this point, I'm simply wondering: 

What the hell is up with the Jois Foundation??
 

"Inherently Religious"? 

Let me explain. The Encinitas lawsuit boils down to an argument over whether yoga is "inherently religious" or not. Framed in such broad terms, it's easy to refute the claim that it is. After all, how could anyone seriously think that the practice that produced this video qualifies as having religious stature? 

But this litigation is much more tricky than that. Because the case was not, of course, filed to judge  "yoga" in the abstract: it was filed against the Encinitas program in particular. But now that it's up and running, there's a (most likely calculated) slipperiness between the attack on "yoga" writ large and the specific program in Encinitas.

And that slipperiness bodes ill both for the reputation of yoga in more religiously conservative communities (which, after all, is a good bit of the U.S.) as well as its status in publicly funded institutions such as schools, hospitals, prisons and so on. 

When I first researched the Encinitas case I was not surprised to learn that the plaintiffs were associated with a conservative Christian activist group and represented by a conservative Christian legal advocacy group. I've studied the American conservative movement in depth, and have a good understanding of how its interlinked network of right-wing think tanks, foundations, law firms, and activist groups operates - and how powerful it is. 

Though expected, this discovery revved up my righteous indignation. I'm profoundly dismayed and certainly somewhat alarmed to see yoga dragged into the juggernaut of litigious culture wars that's been churning on now for decades.


Yoga teacher Jennifer Brown demonstrating Lotus at the Encinitas trial

Still, ever the obsessive researcher, I started looking for information on the Jois Foundation online. I expected to find material explaining precisely how and why the Foundation's grant-making program differed from Jois Yoga's overall commitment to Ashtanga. After all, I understood the argument being made in court was that the Encinitas program doesn't represent Ashtanga per se. Instead, it's an exercise-oriented program developed under the authority of the school district to support children's health and well-being. 

I believe this to be the case. I certainly don't think that the Encinitas program is really designed to indoctrinate kids into Hinduism. On many levels, I find that claim completely absurd. 

But.

The fact of the matter is that if you read the Jois Yoga website, it's full of what can only be described as religiously-inflected spiritual language. And of course, that would be fine, except for the fact that there's virtually nothing on the Jois Foundation side of fence to balance it out. 


"Our Website is Underway"

While the plaintiffs are being ridiculed in court and across the internet as irrational fanatics who refuse to accept the obvious fact that yoga is exercise, the Jois Yoga website describes the Ashtanga method as “an ancient system that can lead to liberation and greater awareness of our spiritual potential.”
  
While I'd quibble with the "ancient system" claim, that's fine as far as it goes within its appropriate context. But it does raise some legitimate questions regarding precisely how this understanding of yoga is being translated into a program that's appropriate for children from diverse backgrounds attending a public school.

These questions intensify dramatically once you start perusing the "Philosophy" page of the website, which presents a series of "Conference Notes with Sharath Jois" from 2011-12. These notes not only contains a lot of religious-sounding language, but buttress some of the plaintiff’s more seemingly outlandish claims as well.

For example, many commentators have derided the plaintiffs as idiots for charging that Sun Salutations could be in any way connected to worshiping a “sun god.” Yet, the Jois Yoga website explains that Ashtanga founder Pattahbi Jois taught Sun Salutations “for two reasons”:

To pray to the sun god each morning would insure good health . . . Also, the Sūrya Namaskāra is used in our practice . . . to create heat in the body and help us do other postures.
Now, this is the first time in 15 years of practice that I’ve ever heard of “praying to the sun god” in any context connected with yoga. Regardless of this statement, I don't believe that 99.9% of American yoga practitioners have any clue that such a linkage has ever been made - and if they did, they'd either dismiss it as fanciful metaphor, or disapprove. Nonetheless, the fact that it’s stated on the Jois Yoga website is obviously relevant to the Encinitas case.



Again, this wouldn't be so bad if there was robust and compelling information available explaining precisely how the Foundation's grant-making program differentiates itself in terms of both philosophy and practice. Unfortunately, I've looked a good bit for such information, and as far as I can tell, it isn't there. 

Instead, there is a single web page on the Jois Yoga site that only explains the Foundation's program very briefly and vaguely: 
Our Health and Wellness Program for Children . . . uses the techniques of yoga, meditation, and proper nutrition to create a positive lifestyle change.
There's a bit more, but not much. Most of the font on the page is too small and hard to read. One sentence stands out in bolded caps at the bottom, however:

OUR WEBSITE IS UNDERWAY.

Whaaaaaaatttt??? The Jois Foundation has given over half a million in funding to the Encinitas school district, produced a slick promo video, sparked a lawsuit that could have a seriously negative impact on the evolution of yoga in American society and . . . their website is underway??


AARRRRRGGGGH

To be sure, the fact that the Jois Foundation funded the Encinitas program isn’t by itself enough to discredit it. The EUSD insists that it had complete control over the curriculum, and no interest in or knowledge of yoga as anything other than exercise. To bar the program simply because of the beliefs of its funders would be discriminatory. That said, one really has to wonder just what the Jois Foundation was thinking when it launched this initiative without more adequately addressing the obvious legal, educational, cultural, and religious issues involved. 

Our website is underway?! How about a robust website that explains the philosophy behind the yoga in public schools grant-making program in depth? How about some appropriately useful resources, such as a study of best practices in that field? How about consultations with experts who have been successfully implementing yoga in schools programs for years? How about a resource page of studies assessing the positive benefits of yoga for kids? How about a stated commitment to respecting the diverse religious commitments of a multicultural society, along with a detailed account of why yoga is well-suited to being adapted to all faith traditions - and none? 

If the Jois Foundation were a strapped, struggling effort of politically naive, but well-meaning yoga aficionados who had no way of putting all that together, that would be one thing. But that's not the case. Jois Yoga has a lot of money. If they didn't, you can bet that the National Center for Law and Policy wouldn't have bothered to take on the case. 

Contemplative Sciences Center website: uvacontemplation.org

What's even more galling to me is that beyond their financial resources, Jois Yoga is already connected with an academic research center, the Contemplative Sciences Center at the University of Virginia. This Center was established in 2012 thanks to a $12 million grant from "billionaire alum Paul Tudor Jones and his wife Sonia," the same couple that funded and created Jois Yoga.

The mission of the Center sounds wonderfully multidisciplinary and innovative: 
to foster dynamic partnerships of unusual depth and breadth towards exploring the transformative impact of contemplation in a variety of social sectors. Binding together the humanities and sciences, we are pursuing serious programs of learning, research, and engagement across the liberal arts, sciences, health sciences, medicine and nursing, education, architecture, business research, policy making, contemplative practice, and more.
A quick glance through the website confirms that there's a lot of interesting work going on there. Yet . . . when you search "Encinitas" on the site, nothing comes up. Search "yoga" and six listings come up. Further fueling my frustration with the entire situation is the fact that one of them is titled, "Gurus on Grounds" ("Please join an extraordinary opportunity for contemplative experience and learning under expert guidance as world-renowned master teachers Sharath and Saraswathi Jois teach Ashtanga Yoga practice to a large public gathering.") Arrrrgghhhh.


What. The.

On the one hand, I really do feel rather churlish complaining about the Tudor Jones charitable work. After all, they've contributed millions of dollars to visionary endeavors I strongly support, such as furthering contemplative studies and bringing yoga into the public schools. Such public-minded use of private wealth is all too rare today, and (political concerns about the destructively unequal distribution of wealth in the U.S. aside), I certainly appreciate it.  

On the other hand, I feel enormously frustrated that with all these resources, the Encinitas case seems to have been handled in an embarrassingly inept and potentially destructive way. The level of disconnect between the reality of the culture wars on the ground in American society and the lofty vision of expanding the reach of yoga and contemplative practices in the U.S. strikes me as stunning - not to mention discouraging. 

Threading through the Encinitas case is a vagueness about the relationship between Ashtanga yoga (as understood and promulgated by Jois Yoga) and American yoga as a much bigger, and highly diversified phenomenon. The Jois Foundation has simply not, as far as I can see, drawn a bright line between their school-based yoga programs and their commitment to the Ashtanga method. 


This fuzziness raises legitimate concerns among conservative Christian parents who are sincerely concerned about the spiritual development of their children. Honestly, I were a conservative Christian who knew nothing about yoga other than what was happening in Encinitas, it would be entirely possible to read the Jois Yoga website and freak out about a possible “Hindu invasion.”

Potentially, some of these unnecessary concerns could have been alleviated with better program development and implementation procedures. For starters, a clear and thorough separation between the Ashtanga and school-based methods needed to be made internally, and stated publicly. Then, community outreach and parent-teacher conversations could have built bridges between the yoga program and worried parents. 

Of course, some of the opposition would never have been won over regardless. I wouldn't expect the Encinitas parent on the staff of truthXchange (a very strange-sounding conservative Christian activist group committed to combating the supposedly rising tide of global paganism) to accept yoga (in schools or otherwise) as OK no matter what. 

In my experience, however, most conservative-leaning Christians who are not hardcore activists are very open to accepting yoga if they felt that their concerns are heard and addressed. Given yoga is not inherently religious, and is in fact intended to be open to supporting all faith traditions (or none), this is not difficult to do. 

If we keep steamrolling forward as we have been, however, we'll never have the chance to find out. The lack of clarity about the Jois Foundation's grant-making program has provided a prime opportunity for zealous conservative Christian activists to reframe the understanding of yoga in schools, both culturally, politically, and legally. And with some smart, seasoned, and committed leadership in place, they know how to leverage the opening that Encinitas has provided. 


It wasn't an accident that the first lawsuit to challenge yoga in the public schools didn't involve on of the many school yoga nonprofits run by experienced educators who understand the school system from the inside out. No, this case was selected for solid political reasons. And it frustrates me no end that the side I'm backing seems to be ignoring the mountains of evidence showing that we have a problem here, Houston. Instead, they keep insisting over and over that anyone with any intelligence understands that "yoga is exercise." 

Sigh. 

Hopefully the judge will render a smart, incisive, balanced, and original position that reframes the many important issues involved in this case in more constructive ways. Because right now, I'm not liking the direction it's going, at all.



Please also check out my recent post on Yoga U Online: "Yoga on Trial: Encinitas and the Need for a New Paradigm."

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Encinitas Revisited: Yoga, Education, and Sparking the Human Spirit


While I haven’t seen any public opinion polls on the Encinitas lawsuit over teaching yoga in the public schools, my best guess is that the vast majority of Americans would agree with attorney David Peck that the anti-yoga position is "ridiculous" because yoga is "simply stretching by another name."
 
“Stopping kids from yoga stretching . . . makes about as much sense as banning kids from shaving their heads simply because it reminds you of Buddhism,” wrote Katherine Stewart dismissively in an otherwise excellent piece of investigative reporting on the right-wing machinery operating behind the scenes in this case. More crankily, a retired television reporter now into opinionated rabble-rousing scoffed that “some people in Encinitas have way too much time on their hands, and not nearly enough functioning brain cells. It's an exercise program, for god's sake.”

It's understandable that people with no strong pre-existing opinions about yoga would feel this way. From the outside, yoga does indeed look like "nothing but stretching." And from that perspective, it's mind-bendingly absurd to imagine that asking kids to touch their toes puts them on a slippery slope toward religious indoctrination, as the parents filing the lawsuit claim.

But it's disingenuous for those of us who are more informed about yoga to pretend that it's that simple. To the contrary, it's stunningly obvious that for many practitioners, yoga is much more than "just stretching." Quite simply, when those of us who are seriously into yoga say it's a "mind-body-spirit" practice (or something along those lines), we actually mean it. 


http://us.macmillan.com/yogamindbodyspirit/DonnaFarhi

The Mind-Body Connection

This is hardly a revelation. Yoga Journal, which claims an audience of almost 2 million and is sold in supermarket checkout lines across the country, regularly features aspirational headlines such as “Soften Your Heart With Devotional Practice,” “Moving Meditation to Calm a Reactive Mind,” and “Stress Free Body, Happy Soul: 6 Poses to Reconnect with Yourself.” Such popular claims that yoga is more than "just stretching" aren't at all hard to find. 

Skeptics, of course, easily dismiss such statements as empty marketing slogans or fuzzy-minded "woo woo" nonsense. But if that's really all it is, then why are  the Marines and the V.A. using yoga to treat PTSD? Why are staid outlets such as Forbes reporting that "there’s something powerful and fundamental about syncing the mind and body as yoga does" and that researchers "are beginning to grasp the depths of the mind-body connection"?

The answer is obvious: yoga really does work with the mind as well as the body. Inconvenient as it may be for school district lawyers in this case, it really isn't "simply stretching by another name."

In fact, as anyone who's involved with the growing movement to bring yoga into settings such as schools, prisons, and hospitals knows perfectly well, that's precisely why we feel so passionately about it. We're all in favor of exercise, of course. But what gets us yoga teachers really fired up is our conviction that yoga offers significantly more than that.


c. Sabriya Simon Photography / sabriyasimonphotography.tumblr.com

Difficulties of Defining "Yoga"

We don't believe this because of ideology or religious doctrine. Rather, we've got a gut-level conviction it's true because we've experienced it ourselves. Personally, I've met more people than I can count who've told me that yoga's changed their lives. And I don't doubt them: after all, it changed mine.

Yet as I wrote in my recent book, Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body, the seemingly simple question of what contemporary yoga is and why so many find it so powerful is maddeningly difficult to unpack, let alone answer and explain:
I started talking to fellow practitioners willing to share their stories. This opened my eyes to just how different the experience of yoga can be for different people . . . I was even more struck by how truly difficult, if not impossible it was for people to explain their own experiences, even in terms that made sense to themselves. If everyone could identify ways in which yoga had positively impacted their lives, no one could even begin to say how or why.
All of which made me wonder: What is yoga, anyway? Why is it having such a profound effect on so many people’s lives? The most common explanation I’d hear vaguely invoked by teachers or in yoga magazines was that yoga works because it’s an unchanging spiritual practice developed thousands of years ago by all-knowing seers in India and handed down to us through the ages.
 Personally, however, I found this fuzzy belief that we’d somehow been initiated into a timeless yet ancient lineage utterly unconvincing. It seemed self-evident that yoga was far too in synch with contemporary culture to have been directly imported from such a radically different time and place. Besides, years of studying social theory had convinced me that this is simply not how traditions work – ever. All of them, yogic or otherwise, necessarily change over time.
The lack of a commonly shared understanding of the nature of contemporary yoga means that those of us who'd like to see the opportunity to practice it extended to as many people as possible have a hard time countering the passionate anti-yoga convictions expressed in the Encinitas case. We believe they're wrong, but have no solid explanation why. As a result, there's a tendency to cede the pro-yoga side of the debate to those who scoff that the suit's ridiculous because yoga is "just stretching." 

This is problematic. Even beyond the exigencies of this case, it'd be good if the North American yoga community were able to offer a coherent explanation of why, if yoga is indeed a mind-body-spirit practice, it's nonetheless OK to teach it in the public schools. Because, after all, in that context the "mind" and "spirit" parts of the equation do indeed raise legitimate questions regarding the separation of church and state.



Yoga Isn't "Just Stretching" - But it is Flexible

I don't pretend to have a definitive answer (and know the yoga community well enough to suspect that we'd never agree on one in any event). But I do think it's a fascinating and important topic. So, I offer the following ideas in the hope of sparking further discussion and debate.


1) There is not, and never has been any single, unified, or unchanging method or definition of yoga.

Scholars are unanimous on this point.
David Gordon White notes that "'Yoga' has a wider range of meanings than nearly any other words in the entire Sanskrit lexicon." Mark Singleton emphasizes that both pre-modern and modern yoga exhibit tremendous "plurality and mutability," as well as "fragmentation, accretion, and innovation." Joseph Alter writes that "Yoga philosophy has never existed as a fixed, primordial entity."


This simple, but important point belies Professor Candy Gunther Brown's suggestion (presented in her brief on behalf on the plantiffs in the Encinitas case) that yoga is an essentially religious practice. If yoga has no such irreducible cultural essence, then we must look carefully at how it's actually practiced and understood in our own particular time and place.

c Sarit Z. Rogers / sartphotography.com

2) Modern yoga represents a distinct phase in the longer history of yoga

If yoga has always been a diverse tradition, scholars also recognize certain basic historical and/or cultural patterns within it (medieval yoga, Tibetan yoga, etc.). Of these, the development of a distinctively modern form of yoga during the late 19th-mid 20th centuries is by far the most relevant here. As I explain in Yoga Ph.D.: 
The classical yoga of ancient India was singularly devoted to scaling the ultimate heights of Samadhi – merging Atman with Brahman, the self with the Source, the one with the All. Dedicated to (capital “E”) Enlightenment, yoga was a tool for transcending the cycle of death and rebirth, attaining complete liberation from the strictures of human existence.
 By and large, the type of yoga that we’re practicing today is quite different. It’s akin to an instrument that can be played in multiple keys. Some are dedicated to improving physical health, others to psychological healing, and still others to spiritual exploration . . . yoga, paradoxically, connects to postmodern North American culture at points ranging from the crass to the pragmatic to the visionary. 
If we focus on yoga as it actually exists in North America today (rather than muddying the waters with extensive discussions of medieval Indian practices), it's evident that it's part of a modern tradition that has always included a wide variety of pragmatic, secular aims. 


3) Modern yoga has always been committed to working in harmony with modern science, and the relationship between them is stronger than ever today.

Professor Brown dismisses claims concerning the compatibility of yoga and science as "camouflage" for a fundamentally religious sensibility: "Labeling a practice 'science' does not make the practice non-religious," she charges.

http://moby.to/dio2zk
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) disagrees. "Yoga is a mind and body practice with historical origins in ancient Indian philosophy," their website explains. "Many people who practice yoga do so to maintain their health and well-being, improve physical fitness, relieve stress, and enhance quality of life."

Similarly, Dr. Timothy McCall's Yoga as Medicine (2007) provides detailed scientific support for claims that yoga can improve physical health functions such as balance, strength, and flexibility, and serve mental health needs such as calming the nervous system, improving brain function, and lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol. 


4) Because yoga works with the mind, it's more likely to connect to the realm of experience described as "spiritual" than ordinary physical exercise.  

This, of course, is where things get tricky in terms of church/state issues. Before getting into that, however, let's take a moment to think into what it means in our culture to say that something has a "spiritual" dimension. 

As I discuss in Yoga Ph.D., the word "spiritual" is "both useful and frustrating in its all-inclusive vagueness":
To a certain extent, the open-endedness of describing yoga as “spiritual” is wonderful in that it quite properly holds an infinite variety of more precise meanings under its umbrella. For some, yoga is spiritual in that it connects to religious faith. For others, of course, religion has nothing to do with it. For yoga traditionalists, “spirituality” is meaningless unless it denotes liberation from rebirth. For most Western practitioners, who have little if any familiarity with such beliefs, the term can and does encompass a huge range of meanings.
. . . I’ve often thought that there should be as many nuanced variations on the word “spiritual” as there are Eskimo words for “snow” . . . Yet there aren’t. We have only such grossly over-simplistic, over-homogenizing categories as “spirituality” and “religion” to work with. And to make matters even more difficult, the more we’re attempting to describe ineffable inner experiences, the more we’re trying to use this ridiculously limited number of words to explain something that goes beyond language.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/pgoyette/195361446/

Professor Brown, however, insists that religion and spirituality are synonymous because both "make metaphysical—that is, more than physical (including suprahuman or supernatural)—assumptions about the nature of reality." This, however, ignores mountains of evidence which show that for many Americans, "spirituality" doesn't necessarily involve any "metaphysical, suprahuman, or supernatural" claims at all. 

For example, Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor's popular book and TED Talk (currently at over 10 million views), A Stroke of Insight (2006), analyzes why having a stroke connected her to an experience of "deep inner peace" in profoundly secular, scientific terms:
I whole-heartedly believe that the feeling of deep inner peace is neurological circuitry located in our right brain . .  . Once you learn to recognize the subtle feelings (and physiology) running through your body when you are connected to the circuitry of the present moment, you can then train yourself to reactivate that circuitry on demand. 
Expanding the term "religious" to subsume all such expressions of the "spiritual" makes no sense in a culture in which many people explain the mysteries of life to themselves in profoundly secular, scientific terms. 


5) Modern yoga has always been equally open to all religious and/or spiritual commitments and beliefs.

In Health, Healing, and Beyond (1998), T. K.V. Desikachar describes how his father, Sri T. Krishnamacharya - a man who was indisputably one the most important figures in the development of modern yoga - reshaped Indian tradition to serve the needs to the modern world: 
Krishnamacharya's knowledge was legendary. It included languages, scriptures, theological commentaries, astrology, literature, rhetoric, logic, law, medicine, Vedic chanting, ritual, meditation, music, and much more. He had earned the equivalent of seven Ph.D.’s. . . . Yet, the purpose of my father’s erudition was not to preserve the past, but to serve the present and the future.
The astonishing range and variety of his studies all combined toward a single end. This was to place the promise of Yoga at the service of humanity, without regard to age, sex, race, nationality, culture, station in life, belief, or non-belief.

http://www.nikolasschiller.com/blog/index.php/archives/2007/05/29/1056/

6). Historically, modern yoga is rooted in the same philosophy of education "through the body" that informed the American tradition of physical education. 

Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body (2010) explains that modern Hatha yoga represented an uniquely Indian adaptation of the transnational physical culture movement of the late 19th-early 20th centuries. In the U.S., this same movement produced the “new physical education,” which understood itself as a holistic process that worked through the body, rather than as an isolated training of the body. As Professor Catherine Ennis explains:
the New Physical Education focused on educating the complete human being through an emphasis on mind and body. Rather than a program of mindless exercise, the New Physical Education proposed students be educated 'through the physical' such that the mind, emotions, and human body formed a complete action. 
Given that this belief in the potential of working "through" the body to cultivate the whole person is common to the traditions of both physical education and modern yoga, nothing could be more appropriate than to incorporate yoga into contemporary P.E. programs, as is being done in Encinitas and many other schools across the country. 
 

University of California, Berkeley, late 1930s


7) Quality education itself has a spiritual dimension, sparking the human spirit by facilitating creativity, imagination, exploration, and a love of learning.

Quality education will naturally prompt inquiring minds to question certain previously taken-for-granted convictions. Consequently, even if Professor Brown's claim that participation in "yoga, meditation, and other forms of CAM" causes practitioners to modify their religious views is true, this is hardly an educational black mark against them. 

Today, we have scientific explanations of why yoga helps calm the nervous system, regulate emotion, and improve concentration. The claim that children shouldn't be exposed to such knowledge because it might generate experiences that could cause them to question certain religious beliefs may be a valid objection under that particular belief system. But it doesn't hold water from a secular perspective. After all, one could equally well argue that you shouldn't teach kids about evolution because it might challenge their religious beliefs (ahem) - or, for that matter, literature, history, poetry, philosophy, or any such subject.




"True education frees the human spirit," wrote progressive education pioneer Francis W. Parker in 1894. Today, many of us feel the same way about yoga. If yoga classes are tailored to respect the needs and concerns of the school environment, they are perfectly congruent with the traditional aspirations of a well-rounded, high quality public school education.