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.

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 /

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 /

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.
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.

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.

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.   


  1. Judge in Encinitas case recently started practicing Bikram yoga. Ironies abound...on multiple fronts:

  2. Trial started yesterday. No jury, just the Bikram-practicing judge as the sole arbiter. Candy Brown on the stand says "The purpose of Ashtanga yoga is to become one with Brahma,” she said, referring to a Hindu deity.

    More here: