Monday, February 25, 2013

Taking Encinitas Seriously: The Conservative Attack on Teaching Yoga in Public Schools is No Joke

The time for hand waving dismissals of the conservative attack on teaching yoga in public schools is past.   

On February 20th, a well-established conservative activist organization, The National Center for Law & Policy (NCLP) slapped the Encinitas Union School District (EUSD) with a civil rights suit, claiming that their yoga curriculum violates the California state constitution's freedom of religion clause.

If you imagine that no one could possibly take the claims of some right wingnuts who think doing Down Dog puts you on a slippery slope to Hindu indoctrination seriously, I disagree. I've studied the history of conservative legal activism and know just how stunningly (and, for many holding a more liberal perspective, unexpectedly) successful it can be. 

This is a serious case with far-reaching implications. As such, it requires a solidly researched, intellectually sophisticated, and legally compelling response from those who believe that the option of teaching yoga in publicly funded institutions should remain open. And while I'm sure that the EUSD is working on it, so far I haven't seen any public evidence that such a well-crafted rebuttal to the NCLP's charges exists. 

It's time to develop one. And, I believe that doing so is best seen as an opportunity, rather than simply a hassle or a threat. Coming up with a solid response to the NCLP's legal attack will require thinking more deeply into what contemporary yoga is really about. Given that American yoga culture harbors a certain anti-intellectual bias, the need for more rigorous thinking about the history and development of modern yoga could, in fact, turn out to be a good thing.

Yoga, Spirituality, and Religion

This is no frivolous lawsuit. NCLP has done its research and recruited some big guns. These most prominently include one Professor Candy Gunther Brown, who recently filed a 36-page expert witness brief supporting the claim that the "practices taught by the EUSD yoga curriculum promote and advance religion, including Hinduism - whether or not these practices are taught using Hindu or religious language."

Professor Brown is no slouch. After graduating summa cum laude from Harvard, she went on to earn her M.A. and Ph.D. in History of American Civilization there. Currently an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University, she is the author of three books and editor of two more, all published by top university presses. She's won numerous grants, awards, and fellowships. In short, her academic credentials are sterling.

Brown argues that the term "'religion' should be defined to include 'sacred' bodily practices and 'spirituality':
Although “religion” has been defined in many ways . . . there is agreement among many of today’s scholars that religion should be defined broadly enough to account for the diversity of human experience and the variety of ways people set apart that which seems sacred from that which seems profane . . . 'religion' by definition includes not only theistic beliefs - like those found in Christianity - but also bodily practices perceived as connecting individuals with suprahuman energies, beings, or transcendent realities, or as inducing heightened spiritual awareness or virtues. I include “spirituality” within my definition of religion - rather than distinguishing the two - because both religion and spirituality (derived from the Latin “spiritus”) make metaphysical - that is, more than physical (including suprahuman or supernatural) - assumptions about the nature of reality.
She goes on to point out that "in the religious origins of yoga, body and spirit are not separable categories (as presupposed by Cartesian mind-body dualism), but aspects of each other, and bodily practices are spiritual as well as physical." Further, she argues, this spirituality is rooted in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain religious traditions.

She also notes that the yoga program in question is sponsored by a $533,000 grant from the Jois Foundation, whose website "includes Hindu religious content." Having checked out the Jois Yoga website (which houses the Jois Foundation site) myself, I can only conclude that an impartial jury would say this is true - see, for example, the notes on the Sharath Jois lectures under "Philosophy."

Not Wild-Eyed Fanaticism

Could Professor Brown's claims be considered true by a fair-minded observer? In all honesty, I think that the answer here has to be "yes."

Brown's brief is serious, solid, and well-researched. It's not wild-eyed right-wing fanaticism. On the contrary, it demonstrates an exceptional degree of familiarity both with the history of yoga and some of its relevant cultural dynamics today. (For example, she quite accurately notes that many yoga teachers tone down the more spiritual dimensions of the practice to make it more accessible to beginning students. Rather than seeing this as reasonable, however, she attacks it as "camouflaging" its essential religiosity.)

Does this mean that I think Professor Brown and the NCLP have made any sort of definitive or unassailable statement about why yoga is inherently religious, and therefore unconstitutional to teach in public schools? Not at all. I do think, however, that those of us who would like to see yoga remain available to public school students need to seriously step up our game if we're going to make a convincing case to the contrary.

This is particularly true when you consider that this case now has to be argued in terms that will hold up in court. I don't know all the relevant legal precedent (hopefully, the EUSD legal team is busily finding that out). But as the NCLP points out, the 1979 case Malnak v. Yogi supports their position.

Fascinatingly, Malnak v. Yogi was about the popular Transcendental Meditation (TIM) technique developed by none other than the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (yes, he of the Beatles and "Sexy Sadie" fame) himself. (As a side note, I'm also fascinated by the fact that TM is now being championed by none other than David Lynch of Eraserhead, Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet, etc. fame, who is propagating it worldwide through his "Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace." As the New York Times noted this past Sunday, Lynch's "babbling dwarfs, ominous red curtains and just-around-the-corner episodes of hideous violence have become shorthand for a generation of art-house filmmaking" . . . yet, he's now invested $7 billion in his belief that teaching TM will bring about world peace. Is that delightfully weird or what? Anyway . . . )

Malnak v. Yogi ruled in favor of plaintiffs who argued that teaching TM in public high schools in New Jersey violated the First Amendment's prohibition of state establishment of religion. This was held true notwithstanding the fact that those teaching TM to students claimed it was entirely secular in nature. 

The parallels with Encinitas are obvious.

And as the movement to bring yoga into non-traditional settings such as public schools, VA hospitals, homeless shelters and so on is growing, the ruling in the Encinitas case stands to have far-reaching repercussions. If the courts rule in the NCLP's favor, then any institution with any public funding (which means many, if not most working with underserved populations today) will have to think hard about whether they want to risk offering yoga or not. 

Finally, don't forget that the conservative legal movement has been working assiduously - and often successfully - to establish a right-leaning judiciary for decades now. (Remember Bush v. Gore in 2000?) And California, despite its well-deserved crunchy reputation, is also a powerful and well-established bastion of right-wing politics. So, don't assume that a bunch of Bay Area liberals are going to be deciding this case - it could just as well be Orange County conservatives

An Alternative Perspective

While I think that Professor Brown's NCLP brief denouncing contemporary yoga as an inherently religious (and essentially Hindu) is well-done, I also believe that it's wrong. 

In over 15 years of involvement in the American yoga scene, which has included studying numerous methods and becoming certified as a teacher, I've never met anyone in person who has indicated in any way that practicing yoga led them to embrace Hindu beliefs. (I have, I admit, encountered a tiny handful of people who fit this description online.)

Of course, given the breadth of Brown's definition of religion, this doesn't necessarily matter. Presumably, one could be indoctrinated into a Hindu belief framework without ever realizing this is the case, simply by accepting views such as "yoga connects me to my True Self" - which are, of course, common in the yoga community. 

Does this mean that she's right? Again, I'd say "no." Even given the most generous interpretation of her position - e.g., that believing in something called the "True Self" makes you some sort of de facto Hindu - her basic understanding of the nature of modern yoga is nonetheless simply wrong. 

There are several key reasons for this: 

1. She doesn't recognize the integrity of modern yoga as a distinct cultural formation in the longer history of yoga. 

2. She doesn't acknowledge that the American tradition of physical education is rooted the same historical movement that produced modern yoga. 

3. She doesn't allow for the fact that both modern yoga, physical education, progressive education, and contemporary science share a belief in the reality and importance of the mind/body connection. Further, none of these traditions - which are infinitely more relevant to the case at hand than ancient or medieval yoga - has ever understood this valuation of the mind/body connection to be in any sense inherently "religious." 

Given that this post is already pretty long, I'll hold off on expanding these points for the moment. Some of my argument regarding point #1 is provided in my previous post, which is an excerpt from my new book, Yoga Ph.D. I'll say more about this claim, as well as how it relates to points #2-3, in my next post. 

In the meantime, if you have any thoughts to share, please leave them in the comments. If I can, I'll follow up before writing up the rest of my current thoughts on the Encinitas case.


  1. They should hire you to help them with their brief!!

    1. That would be nice! I'd love it :) thanks.

  2. I've been following the Encinitas situation for a few months now, and it definitely is heating up what with the filing of the lawsuit by the "aggrieved parents". It's highly ironic that the Jois Foundation is providing the funding, as anyone who has taken an Ashtanga class knows, there is a Sanksrit Hindu chant that takes place at the beginning of class (as there are also in Iyengar and Sivananda classes as well). And despite the "secularization" of yoga as presented in the Encinitas classes, the wingnut lawyers are looking at "provenance" here.

    Would the situation be any different if the Encinitas school yoga program was funded by a collective of YMCA or gym yoga teachers?

    When I was in elementary school, I was required to be present for the daily recital of the Pledge of Allegiance and the singing of a standard patriotic song first thing every morning.

    Since 9/11, the 7th inning stretch at major league baseball games now usually includes the obligatory singing of God Bless America.

    And for those who make the distinction between the definitions "spiritual" and "religious", then no claims of even psychological well-being, or extolling the benefits of a mindful asana practice, or becoming sensitive to and making use of subtle energies may be made either. Such things are equally an anathema to those bringing the lawsuit.

    I'm somehow strangely reminded of the "generation gap" in the '60s between parents and kids (I'm one of them) who would take psychedelics or participate in mind-expanding activities of varying sorts. Behind it all is that the parents are afraid that they're going to "lose control" of their kids, that their kids might wind up thinking for themselves and turn out to be more intelligent and happier than them. And that just can't be tolerated!

    My nephew took a yoga class at his public high school, but there it's offered as a P.E. elective. In Encinitas, it's offered every day with an opt-out clause for those kids with reactionary parents. And that ain't enough of them!

    Anyway, I'm totally with you on this issue. I sincerely hope they lose this lawsuit rejected by whatever court it winds up at...

    1. I think that the Jois Foundation makes this a relatively easy target - as, like you point out, Ashtanga yoga is definitely one of the more devotional and intense methods around. But, it's also true that they are not teaching Ashtanga per se in the schools. They have adapted the yoga to fit that setting, and taken out the chanting, etc. It seems like they are very willing to be flexible in terms of adapting the practice to the students and the environment - as yoga teachers are in general, I believe.

      The point you make about what you lose when you have the category of "religious" take over everything else (e.g., can't teach psychological well-being because it's actually religion in disguise) is very important and something that I want to develop further in my next post. Thanks!

    2. Looking forward to your further extrapolation on the "spiritual/religious" divide.

      To amplify from my own experience a bit, due to scheduling changes at my usual yoga studio, I wound up taking 1 year of led Ashtanga classes. I would say I "fell backwards" into this, because I had no prior attraction to the Ashtanga approach whatsoever. But thanks to a great teacher, I found much value in this class. In fact, my conclusion (the class has since been cancelled) is that generally speaking, you definitely get more "bang for your buck" than your average vinyasa class in terms of visceral and intangible benefits.

      However, having said that, I was constantly annoyed at being subject to the call-and-response Sanskrit invocation at the beginning of each class, the literal translation having something to do with the "jungle doctor" delivering the aspirant from samsara and something about "1000 white heads" and offering thanks to Patanjali. I found this element of the class to be pure Hindu religiosity and would just stand there like a stone with my mouth closed during this opening phase of the class.

      But since Ashtanga is a system dictated by its founder Jois, and promulaged by his by-the-letter followers, you will never find an Ashtanga class without this, so I put up with it and frankly I'm glad I did. But an "ashtangi" I am not. My western secular sensibilities are offended by this kind of stuff, but not enough to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  3. Carol,
    As you know I wrote my own paper discussing the question of yoga as religion several years ago and had to conclude,yes it is by definition,religion.

    In that light, the parent's argument against it in schools is correct.

    In a country where armed with money and power,the few will decide great matters for the whole it may be futile to continue to fight this. It brings too much negative energy that will succeed in raising the ire of the uninformed.

    There is a choice for the foundation to grant money to rec centers or willing studios to host the kids in free after school programs. Some will not attend as not all parents will have the time or interest in getting them there but that's how it is.

    When California voted down the GMO bill, it fell to the non-GMO folks to label their products. The majority voted against something intelligent and the few have to work harder to define themselves.

    However, this may be how change comes about. Fight for your cause but where you can't win, win anyway by doing something positive that counters it. When people see that GMOs are making them sick there will be enough proof. When people see school kids benefitting from yoga,that may be enough proof.

    I taught yoga in the public schools when my kids were growing up when there was no such thing as yoga for children. The teachers let me in, there were no parents, the parents I heard from when I'd run into them at school were thrilled to report that their kids were meditating or doing postures at home. The teachers reported that their kids were calmer and focused after yoga so they loved it too yet I don't see yoga for kids advertised in this city now that it's become so popular. Who knows why?

    Now I teach children privately. It is an honor to teach children and I do believe that yoga will make a profound difference in a person's life when they begin so young. I believe it would be a service to the individuals and country if every child learned yoga in school.

    But it may not be that way. I think it will be easier to implement programs in prisons, shelters, hospitals, if there is not a screaming match about yoga's spiritualism. It is a spiritual practice. Whether that will make someone a Hindu or not is a specious argument because it doesn't even get to that point. The naysayers just don't want it because it's a religion.

    Relgion is still a hair trigger word. Folks don't need much more than that to shut down. An ongoing and more publicized fight may just be enough to incite the under informed masses to lift torches.Despite the many folks practicing yoga, it is still a small percentage of the whole.

    However,I respect your choice to take up this fight which is already begun as you may shed light on it that might effect positive change. I will be the first one to say that the spiritualism, the Hindu deification, the chanting, the archetypes, the philosophy, the practice of yoga is far beyond the constraints of one's other spiritual practices and not necessarily going to take those away. Although I know many people who have physically left their church or temple practices to "practice spirituality" without dogma, they retain their religion in their hearts.

    1. Hi Hilary - If you have a link to your writing on why yoga is a religion, could you put it up? It would be nice to have that view articulated and available from the perspective of someone who is pro-yoga and not a conservative Christian.

      That said, I don't agree with you. I honestly do not think that yoga is a religion. I will develop this case further in my next post.

      As far as taking up the fight - since the suit is filed, the ball is now in the school district's court. They can back down, return the money, and dismantle the yoga program or fight back legally. So far the indications are that they want to do the latter. However, who knows if they have any money to finance a court case and as you point out, it may not be worth it.

      In terms of the broader discussion of whether yoga is inherently religious, "just exercise," or something else entirely (which would be my position), I think that's a topic well worth exploring irrespective of this case. Also, that is really where my interest lies. This case is, however, a good lever to show why having that discussion may be important beyond our own intellectual curiosity. If nothing else, I think that there is a lot of confusion within the yoga community itself about these issues, as they haven't been discussed very widely or thoroughly yet.

      But I agree with you that it's important to be strategic and pick your battles carefully.

  4. I agree with Amy. Yoga gets taxed in CT. Eddie in NYC was able to provide Yoga to public schools through Bent On Learning but He teaches from The Broome Street Temple. Maybe he and others involved in that project can be a source of information for the defendants. No use crying over spilt milk, but I will remind the people who spearheaded this yoga in the schools project of their lack of tact. As an academic you probably have a sense of how turf is protected and blown out of proportion. Well, in a public school environment, turf wars are crraazzy. ask any teacher (or parent). Thanks for including me Carol. I have to say that I have no interest in yoga being promoted as not spiritual, in order for it to have an extra curricular presence in a school district. I would walk away before the wing nuts start their drama. This comment was copied from a thread on FB.

    1. Thanks, great comment. It would be interesting to know if anyone has developed a good rationale for why it's OK to teach in public schools as in the case you describe - or did it just move forward without much hassle because there was no organized to oppose it?

      Also, the NCLP I'm sure wanted to take on a strong case as a wedge into this larger issue, and as discussed in the comments above, the Jois Foundation makes a relatively easy target.

      I agree with you that promoting yoga by arguing that it's "just exercise" is not the way to go. I also agree that it may be better to walk away then stir up a hornet's nest in some cases (and who knows, this may be one. I don't know enough to say.)

      I do think however that it's a good discussion to have regardless - the vast majority of yoga practitioners, I'm sure, see yoga as neither religion nor "just exercise." But what then is it? It's nice to stay very fuzzy on this question, as that avoids controversy. But maybe it's time to try and find a response that works better for more people? Maybe that's impossible, but I find it fascinating and would like to at least try :)

  5. Great analysis, Carol. You mentioned it above, but I think it deserves even more emphasis that Hinduism is beside the point here. If you equate "religion" to "spirituality" and to "increasing sense of well-being, then almost all psychological and philosophical self-development techniques would also be outlawed in the schools.

    In a way, Yoga is just the easiest target because of it's particular history. But under Brown's definition, there is no such thing as "Spiritual but not Religious". Any sort of mindfulness meditation, even something as obviously secular as Jon Kabat-Zinn, would be considered religion. It's really a radical redefining of the very word "religion" itself.


    1. Agree completely, Bob. And, in fact, a dissenting opinion in the Malnak v. Yogi case made precisely that point. I'll try and work in a reference to that in my next post.

      The question of how to define religion is at the heart of the matter here, and it's a really interesting matter to parse out in the context of our society today.

    2. There was no dissenting opinion in the Malnak case. There was a concurrence, which is very different. In a "concurring" opinion, the judge agrees with the result, but usually has some additional points surrounding the reasoning underlying the opinion. In a "dissenting" opinion, the judge disagrees with both the result and the reasoning. Also, I am not sure that Malnak supports the parents' position. It appears that the curriculum offered in ECSD has had all references to religiosity or spirituality scrubbed out, whereas the TM class in Malnak "devoted a majority of class time to teaching the theory of the Science of Creative Intelligence, characteristics of which are parallel to those attributable to a supreme being, and, in addition, students wishing to learn TM techniques were compelled to attend a religious ceremony, the Puja." It appears, based on a cursory reading of Malnak, that it can be distinguished by the ECSD and therefore does not overwhelmingly support the parents' position.

    3. Thanks for the clarification on the concurring opinion. Re Encinitas, my prediction is that the Judge will rule in favor of the school district, making the differentiation from Malnak that you state here. And I think that will be the right decision (assuming I'm right). To be fair to the plaintiffs, however, I'd add that 1) the Jois Foundation did an exceptionally lousy job of differentiating their grant from the religious aspects of Ashtanga yoga in general, and 2) it seems like the "scrubbing," was very much a work in progress - that is, the school board changed things in response to parental complaints, but didn't go through the process that they should of in terms of properly thinking through and vetting the curriculum from the outset.

  6. Carol, Matthew Remski asked me to say some more about my comment regarding not being interested in yoga being promoted as not spiritual in order to be offered in a public school setting. Matthew, I am probably the only person on this thread that is not a yoga instructor, and my answer will reflect that. I practice Ashtanga yoga. This yoga got in my way back in 2008, disrupted my lifestyle and many relationships. Even though it is one of the best things that has ever happened to me, I had to give up and change many things that are mainstream and normal to most of my family and acquaintances. I understand the yoga that is being taught in Encinitas has some relationship to Ashtanga because of the Jois Studio connection. As a student, I do not see how you can gloss over in a courtroom the likely changes in behavior that occur when you start liking yoga. I don't have my heart set on calling them spiritual changes, but yoga affects consciousness. I'll leave it to the drama lovers to decide whether it is a good thing or a bad thing. As practitioners we should own up to the fact that our practice changed our lives in a way that a parent or guardian might object to. Potent, powerful yoga is not as mainstream as the commercials make it out to be. My next statement is strictly anecdotal, but I'm on the yoga finds you team.

    1. I appreciate your honesty and don't in any way question your report of your own experience. However, if you take an empirical look at yoga as a contemporary social phenomenon in the U.S., I think that it is safe to say that your experience is by no means the most common one out there. In fact, I would guess that it is relatively rare. For most people, I believe that the benefits of yoga stay confined to better physical health, stress relief, and some greater sense of well being. I don't think that we have solid data on this, and it would be hard to guess. But it seems true that, for better or worse, the majority of people who study yoga in this country are not radically transformed by their experience.

      That said, I think that many of us would identify even a vague "sense of well being" as somehow "spiritual." The question is whether that is "religious" in the legal sense of the term. In my mind, the answer is "no." I believe that we can learn to work with our mind, body, and breath in ways that cultivate a variety of states of being. One could just as easily explain this from a scientific perspective (regulating the nervous system, activating the right side of the brain, etc.) as a religious one. Certainly, I don't think that it's a Trojan Horse for Hinduism, which is what Prof. Brown's brief essentially argues.

      I'd also contend that exposure to good education in general can and does change students and their religious beliefs. That's why so many conservative Christians are against teaching science. In fact, I think that you could say that right-wing opposition to yoga as a workable science of self-regulation is perfectly in keeping with their opposition to teaching evolution.

    2. I agree with every point you make about openly analyzing the body mind connection from a scientific perspective in a school environment. What happens when bodies do certain breathing exercises while stretching and moving can be described and spoken about in that language. I am sure that framed in the assurance that no knowledge of mythology or folklore will be added to the physiological aspects of instruction regarding correct alignment and execution of movement, will challenge professor Brown in ways that she does not anticipate, but is sure to relish. This legal joust in my eyes has very little to do with improving cultural perspectives or physical well being and a lot to do with punishing the providers of the service for a perceived disrespect.I am fully aware that the very conservative Christian community of southern California is going to take full advantage of this legal circus for culture war propaganda and it is not in their interest right now to turn the volume down a notch.

    3. I would love to know what the larger conservative game plan is. My suspicion is that the NCLP would not take on this case unless they had a bigger agenda than punishing one yoga program in one district. Cases are pursued strategically for the precedent they set and the momentum they generate. I think that the Jois Foundation is in their cross-hairs because they have the money to matter. Also they make a juicy target because there is a lot of religiosity in their approach, which you wouldn't find with most other yoga outreach programs. However, if their goal is rolling back the cultural expansion and acceptance of yoga more generally - which I would imagine it is - then this is a strategic place for them to start.

      That said, I think that this is a battle they would lose in the court of public opinion. Most Americans think of yoga as stretching and good, healthy exercise and stress relief. They probably have no idea there was ever any connection with Hinduism at all. So the average person, I think, would find this silly.

      However, it could win in the context of a court case, which would then affect other yoga service providers regardless of the state of public opinion. The best outcome from a pro-yoga perspective would of course be for them to lose the battle of public opinion (which I think could easily happen) and the court case as well (which I see as more iffy, but I could be completely wrong).

    4. Yoga images are now a a powerful source of revenue for commerce, just like the smiley face, the peace sign, and the words organic, natural, and recycle. The "market" is not going to allow any group to cut the flow of cash that an Om symbol brings in. Horrible but true.

    5. Agreed but when we're talking about yoga outreach to organizations that may receive public funding, we're talking about the nonprofit sector.

  7. First of all, I would like to thank you for writing this incisive and insightful post, Carol. It's definitely a breath of fresh air on this case, considering that so much of the exchange on the blogosphere on this matter so far has consisted of people talking past each other, i.e. people on one side (the NCLP and their supporters) claiming that yoga is religious, and people on the other side adamantly stressing yoga's health benefits while ignoring the NCLP's concerns. Frankly, this kind of talking past each other annoys me to no end; it's really no wonder that we yogis are sometimes portrayed in the wider media as Ommed-out, brain-washed people who don't think for ourselves, or who simply don't bother to litsen to what our detractors have to say.

    But I'm not just writing this to vent my feelings. I also want to say that although your three key points are very well-argued, they are ultimately not going to hold any water in the eyes of Professor Brown and her peers. Here's why:

    In Point #1, you write, "She doesn't recognize the integrity of modern yoga as a distinct cultural formation in the longer history of yoga."

    But even if modern yoga is a distinct cultural formation (which it may well be, if everything you say in "Yoga PhD" is correct), it is still a set of practices that is distinctly spiritual in nature (unlike, say, zumba or step aerobics). And since everything that is spiritual is religious, on Brown's definition, modern yoga would be just as religious as its pre-modern predecessors.

    In Point #2, you write, "She doesn't acknowledge that the American tradition of physical education is rooted the same historical movement that produced modern yoga."

    This may be so. But as far as I know, contemporary American physical education has disavowed and disconnected itself from any elements of spirituality that may have been present in its history. Unless the yoga community is also willing to do likewise, and proclaim that what we are doing is "just stretching" or "only exercise", what we are doing will remain spiritual and therefore religious, in the eyes of Brown and her peers.

    In Point #3, you write, "She doesn't allow for the fact that both modern yoga, physical education, progressive education, and contemporary science share a belief in the reality and importance of the mind/body connection."

    Insofar as contemporary science and physical education acknowledge the existence of mind, they acknowledge only the existence of those aspects of mind that are physically quantifiable or empirically reproducible (readings on an EEG, consistent feelings of well-being resulting from doing this or that set of exercises, etc.). In other words, the only aspects of mind that contemporary science and physical education acknowledge are those aspects that fit within a mechanistic view of the universe. But I take it that the yoga community is not content to work only with these aspects of mind. For instance, many yoga teachers talk about prana or "life energy", which is not physically measurable or quantifiable. And prana has a spiritual (and thus "religious") component that contemporary science or physical education does not.

    What I'm getting at is this: The only way to credibly challenge Brown's claims is to challenge her view that there is no difference between "spiritual" and "religious". I believe that it is possible to mount such a challenge, on a commonsense everyday level: For example, I believe that listening to or making music is a spiritual experience for many people, but I think it would be a stretch to say that listening to music or making music is therefore a religious experience.

    Of course, I have no idea how or whether such a challenge would hold up in court. But then again, I'm not a lawyer...

    1. Nothing like a good rebuttal from a philosophy professor! Thanks for your comment.

      I agree that the heart of the matter is the definition of "spiritual," "religious," and the relationship between them. In my mind, mainstream yoga is a form of mind/body/spirit education - and, in that sense, very much in line with the tradition of progressive education, which was also about the "whole person." Hence, you would include music and art in the academic curriculum. These are important not for their instrumental value (e.g., you'll be able to command a higher salary if you studied art in high school), but rather because they help awaken and cultivate our multifaceted capacities as human beings.

      Yoga is similar. Just because PE has lost its cultural connection as being part of the education of the whole person doesn't mean that wasn't originally part of our secular, humanistic tradition of education - which, while very battered and ragged today, still exists. I see yoga in schools as much more in line with this well-established way of thinking about education (which I'd like to see revived in general - I believe we need to teach art and music, and they've generally been cut) than as a Trojan Horse for Hinduism.

  8. Carol, here is the post you requested.

    As for yoga not being a religion, I am not averse to seeing a refutation. I know I never considered it a religion when I began practicing or even when I was simply a student. It is not overtly religious although some might count the photos of students with bowed heads and hands to heart evocative of devotion which may and does translate to religion.

    Also, I said that I didn't know why yoga for kids hadn't caught on here but actually I do know something about it. The kids are overscheduled and yoga is not a priority to the parents, the classes are not offered in a popular space and the teachers who have attempted this have found dealing with the parents frustrating.

    This is a good argument for offering it in an even playing field of public education and I don't refute that. The reason the parents don't want yoga that they consider a conflicting religion is that they want control over their kids. They want the kids to think like they do. Think how much fear there is around that.

    1. Great post, Hilary - thoughtful and nuanced and powerful as always. Definitely food for thought. This isn't a simple issue . . . yoga opens up a space of experience that some people and and do understand as religious. Others, however, don't. Yet there's so much pressure to have a simple either/or position. The problem is that keeping that space of interpretive meaning open is vital and worth protecting - or at least, that's how I see it.

      Re keeping control of kids - again, as mentioned above, I see the same dynamics at play in right-wing opposition to science education. Does that mean that we shouldn't teach evolution? No, it doesn't.

      If religious parents want their children to have a certain type of religious education, they are free to do that through private schools or home schooling. It is not the job of the public schools to teach only what will keep kids from questioning their family's religious beliefs.

      So, yes, yoga may cause some kids to question certain religious beliefs. It may also cause other kids to become *more* interested in religion. And it will probably not have that great an impact on most. But they could all use some physical education and techniques for stress relief and emotional self-regulation.

    2. bitchinyoga are you still around? i realize this is an old thread but im new here. yoga is a spiritual program for attaining enlightenment or samadhi. if you want to call that a "religion" i've got no problem with it. i now lots of people have hang up around the word "religion". i'm not one of them. people who are not into spirituality or religion are therefore correct to not want yoga taught to their children. but what passes for "yoga" in the west is nothing more than asana, which is NOT a program for enlightenment. so i think this should be made clear before attempting to teach yoga in public schools.

      asana can be taught to those who want to learn it and seek its benefits. yoga can be taught to those who want to attain samadhi (very few people).

  9. Thanks for using your clarity of mind to parse out the dangerous slippery slope this case represents, Carol.

    I first want to say that we all now know one exceedingly important case study to examine for the next edition of 21st Century Yoga!

    Second, what struck me most…well, I need to back track and say that finally, more than two years after it was published, I have finally had a chance to start reading Stefanie Syman's The Subtle Body, so this is still quite fresh in my mind. The book notes: "One thing, though, is clear: when Americans first learned about yoga in the 19th century, they learned that it required 'annihilating . . . the body and the world' and that it perverted one's moral sense. They learned that yoga corrupted body and soul." Starting with Emerson and Thoreau, and tracking swamis, gurus and larger-than life characters like Pierre Bernard, the book does back up the argument that "the biggest stumbling block has always been the difficulty of defining yoga. Is it religion? A religious practice that might be severed from the whole the way you can take a battery out of a clock and use it to power a blow-dryer? Is it exercise?"

    While these aren't new questions in this country, I agree that the particular nexus of the politics should at least raise serious concern about what impact this could have on future school-based programs around the country, because as with so much that gets on the radar of conservative right-wing factions, this will require a fight -- a long, entrenched fight. And as you point out, trying to get agreement from the yoga community would be like herding cats (which is not a bad thing by any means).

    Looking forward to your next post!

    1. Thanks, Rose! Really great to hear from you here. I love your reference to "The Subtle Body" - the history of yoga, even in this country alone, is so fascinating and complex. And I think that we can say with these sorts of issues heating up, it's moving into yet another iteration. Yet, in some ways, replaying the same conundrums as always.

  10. Fascinating discussion. Some disconnected thoughts on the matter:

    Most of the yoga taught in my neck of the woods would easily be seen as engaging in religious thinking and certainly self-defined as spiritual. They may not be a religious organization it the ways we usually think of religious organizations, but many of their ideas and processes are identical.

    Yoga very frequently includes mention of ideas such as chakras, prana,reincarnation, karma and even astrology which are all clearly examples of religious thinking. I believe that intent of the 1st amendment went beyond the ban on creating a national religious organization. The central idea of the first amendment was freedom of thought and the free expression thereof. So, I can certainly see where parents could object to having any of these religious ideas expressed by authority figures associated with a government run institution. Furthermore, even if they completely stripped the yoga being taught of all mention of religious ideas (who will police that?), just calling it Yoga would predispose those who enjoyed it to associate with religious organizations and practitioners who call what they do the same thing. This kind of government influence is exactly what the separation between church and state is supposed to prevent.

    The tenuous associations modern yoga has with Hinduism do not mean that it has tenuous associations with religiosity. In my experience, the opposite is true.

    The bitter irony of conservative groups who have attempted to undercut the 1st amendment in service of their own religions now using it to attack another point of view is not lost on me. They are the worst kind of hypocrite. We should be careful in taking them as our enemy that we do not become like them.

    1. Hi Scott - Thanks for your very incisive comment. You raise crucial points.

      For me, the key issue here is how to define the scope of the "religious." If anything that could lead a student to get interested in religious/spiritual/etc. ideas ranging from prana to God is off limits as essentially within the sphere of "religion," then I'd agree that yoga in public schools makes no sense. If a student gets interested in the bigger picture of yoga history, philosophy, then of course they will be exposed to these sorts of ideas (and many more) if they are curious enough.

      But is this a bad thing? In my mind, it's not. Also, how many subjects could one teach in the humanities and social sciences that don't lead to thinking about this sphere of human experience at all? My middle schooler is studying Chinese history, which includes a lot on Confucious, and Greek and Roman mythology, which of course raises all sorts of questions about how conceptions of "God" have changed for the curious student. Isn't this part of a holistic, well-rounded education?

      Of course, the difference with yoga is that it's rooted in physical experience. Yet intellectual experience is powerful too. People kill and die for ideas. So I don't see that the cases can be separated when it comes to a really robust conception of education.

  11. I find it disappointing and concerning, but not surprising, that the suit focuses on a school in Encinitas -- a wealthy beach town on SoCal -- as opposed to a poor, largely Black and African American school in Baltimore or the Bronx where nonprofit community organizers are teaching yoga and finding it is really changing children's trajectories. It's cynical and disturbing that the positive impacts of yoga in schools would be completely taken out of the picture to advantage the viewpoints of wealthy white conservative parents.

    1. Cristina -- this is a great point. Do you have references/links for the programmes you describe?

    2. Hi Cristina - You raise an excellent point. This is particularly true as I suspect this case is the driving wedge of a larger agenda to get quasi-"Eastern" practices such as yoga out of all publicly funded institutions (and put conservative Christian ones in instead). There was a very disturbing news report on the larger legal agenda of the group that the NCLP is part of published yesterday, which supports my suspicion. Here's the link:

    3. Matthew (and anyone else who's interested) - the Give Back Yoga Foundation has a great Yoga Service Resource Guide on their website (which you can download for free) that lists lots of programs.

  12. Dearest Carol,
    I am came across your blog post as a shared post on Facebook by Karma Carpenter, founder of International Association for School Yoga & Mindfulness. Tuesday 2.26.13 a panelist of Kids' Yoga Experts dialogued on Religion and Yoga in Schools. Here is the link

    I am on two-sides of the coin here. I teach Kids' Holy Yoga, which is a Christ- centered practice teaching Bible stories through yoga poses, breath exercises, and meditation. I am also a partner at Kids' Yoga Journey, which is a yoga company that creates innovative ways to connect kids to movement, music and art through great stories and groundbreaking technology. I have the honor to teach yoga that enhances the Christian faith and public school yoga with the understanding that yoga is not religion; it is an art, philosophy and science. No religion can claim yoga as their own. Yoga predates Hinduism, however, Hinduism was the first religion to adapt yoga as part of their spiritual practices, much like prayer, fasting, and meditation. Most religions pray, meditate, and fast, and so any religion can practice yoga. Now as far as teaching children yoga in the public school it is essential that the yoga teacher is mindful to the concerns of parents and creating a safe environment for kids to move, breathe, and relax. Prayer has been taken out of school and replaced with a moment of silence, for any faith and background to pray or just be silent. A moment of silence honors all people without the confusion of praying to everything and anything. It is an unfortunate case because here are the FAQ stated and approved by the Encinitas School District upholding the to Constitution, following public-school standards, and addressing the concerns of faith, religion, and mysticism.

    1. Hi Rachel - Thanks for your message and the great link. I will definitely listen to that discussion.

      I known that the "moment of silence" has been viewed suspiciously by liberals as a subterfuge for prayer in schools under another name. However, if it were linked to secular mindfulness techniques, this would address those concerns, I think. So perhaps there is a way in which this issue could be reframed as a win/win for people of all faiths, or none - as I think you suggest.

      I wasn't able to link to the FAQ via the link you provided (thanks), but will Google it and see if I can come up with another one.


  13. Here is the link and PDF to the FAQ by Encinitas Union School District
    Yoga FAQ - EUSD

    1. Thanks! This didn't work for me, perhaps as it was cut off - but I Googled it and easily found the doc. The full link is posted above.

  14. Hi Carol, thank you for this very thoughtful post. I am an Ashtanga practitioner and an AYC participant last year (thank you for that as well). I am also an attorney. Although I am not a First Amendment specialist I have many contacts with specialists in the field. I think we as a community need to be really pragmatic and responsive to this law suit. We need to make sure we file a brief with Encinitas's response. If you have any details about who/which law firm is responsible for defending the suit I would be very happy to get involved.

    1. Hi Katherine - I don't have any details on that at this point. Nor have I tried to contact the school district directly. I may do so after my next post, however. Will keep you posted (so to speak, ha ha).

  15. Dear Carol,

    Although I disagree with your central thesis about "modern yoga," I think you're moving the Encinitas discussion forward. I'd like to add a couple of legal cases. United States v. Seeger is an eloquent Supreme Court decision which helped usher in the modern, pluralistic era in legal thinking about religion or "ultimate concerns." It still makes good reading today, particularly the sections on Hinduism:

    While I personally recognize a distinction between religion and spirituality (and think it's an important one), the legal category of "ultimate concerns" tends to subsume both religion and spirituality without necessarily distinguishing between them.

    Brown v. Hot, Sexy and Safer Productions is an interesting decision because it demonstrates that the nature of public education is such that kids will sometimes be exposed to ideas they or their parents may disagree with as part of a larger effort to promote their health:

    Finally, since conservative Christian groups tend to see Yoga and Hinduism as linked, it helps to be aware of attacks by *some* Christians on Hinduism, whether recent or less so. See this 1995 Hinduism Today article concerning attacks by Pat Robertson, with comments from numerous scholars:

    In between the extremes of keeping Yoga 100% Indian and Hindu or turning it into a soul-less American gym exercise, there's the possibility of borrowing and adapting, but doing so with respect and love, never failing to acknowledge the source, and never denying that there are millions of people for whom Yoga is something deeply spiritual connected to Hinduism.

    The situation is aggravated by those conservative groups who are absolutist in their interpretation of church-state separation (except when it comes to Christianity), and who therefore will not permit government educators to try out helpful programs which use Yoga postures or meditation, but which have virtually no religious content. Such conservative activists place Hatha Yoga teachers in the unfortunate position of having to deny that Yoga has any spiritual purpose or connection to Hinduism if they want to teach it in public schools. It is a devil's bargain which is difficult to resist. Please resist it. :-)

    Michael from World Harmony Mix

    1. What an informed and helpful comment! thanks so much for the information and links. I will check them out.

      It seems to me that the courts should be able to carve out a middle ground as you suggest, unless of course they are ideologically pre- committed to a rigid position. Not easy, as yoga is complex, but certainly doable.

  16. Carol - Apropos to this conflict (spirituality vs. closedminded world of "Us vs. Them"..) - I very much enjoyed reading the recent article about Rob Bell in the New Yorker. He (as a Christian minister) who came to take on this dynamic when confronted with the dualistic realities of those with who want things cut and dry, (ex: well, of course, Gandhi isn't going to Heaven, not being a Christian - but will burn in Hell.." I won't do the article justice - so take a look at:

    In case it doesn't go through here - I'll try to send via email... Interesting read on Christianity (and its revolutionaries) today.

    1. Thanks much - we subscribe to the New Yorker, but I don't remember reading this one. I'll check it out. I am definitely interested in (and supportive of) inclusive, progressive-minded, modernity-accepting, love-centered varieties of Christianity today (and have been involved with such churches myself). My view is that it's fundamentalists of all stripes that are the problem today - not any particular faith tradition, as all can be and are interpreted in a huge variety of ways.