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!


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.


  1. When the Judge says....

    "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!"

    .....I just want to "roll my eyes and barf"! Really? Then we should stop calling these Programs "Yoga" and call them what they really are "Calisthenics". This really is a Pyrrhic Victory and won't be the last battle. Thanks for SHARING my friend.

    1. I'd love to read the entire opinion, but it's not available, at least yet. The dodgeball and Wikipedia references seem so odd, perhaps deliberately provocative. I had hoped that the Judge would take a more nuanced approach, carving out a more reasonable middle ground between the extremes of "just exercise" and "inherently religious." But alas . . . that seems to be too much to ask at this point in time :(

  2. Let the appeals process begin:

    I read one article (from the Times of India) whose author opined that the "trial by Wikipedia" comment came from the judge's assessment of the (lack of) depth of plaintiffs' knowledge of yoga.

    Bear in mind having yoga classes on offer in public schools has already been going on for some under the auspice of it being a "P.E. elective". It's just that in this case the combination of the funding source (Jois Foundation), ideologically-bent parents, ideologically-bent lawyers and ideologically-bent expert witnesses have turned this into a kind of show trial of national proportions.

    The result? Nothing really has changed. "Secular asana classes" can still be taught in public schools. Pending what the appeals process brings up. Most legal experts think the appeal won't go very far.

    All this criss-cross applesauce is making me hungry!

    1. Ha! You are right, of course, basically this decision supports the status quo - which, in that I'm in favor of having yoga available in schools, is a good thing. However, I was (obviously in retrospect, naively) hoping that this case might leverage a shift in an even more positive direction: causing the yoga community to reflect seriously on to what extent we're sensitively adapting the practice to different environments and what that means and requires; recognizing that a holistic, mind-body-spirit practice is really entirely in keeping with our best understandings of education in the American tradition; reconnecting with a much more meaningful understanding of "physical education"; unpacking the often conflicting meanings stuffed into the inadequate term, "spiritual," etc. etc. Clearly a pipe dream on my part! Oh, well.

  3. A nice, nuanced take on the ruling. Thank you for this. It is true, we risk boiling things down to asana, and perpetuating the American yoga trend that yoga is fitness, and that's it. But... if we can get kids into that state of reflectiveness that can come initially from proprioception and focus on the breath, it's definitely not a loss. Who knows - maybe when they grow a bit they'll take an Eastern Philosophy course and fall in love with the full spectrum of the path of eight limbs of yoga - mantra, chanting, pranayama, prayer, sutra study, etc. (These are not supposed to name the eight limbs, just some other aspects of practice that are ignored by most adults.)

    1. Yes, I agree . . . was just hoping that the case would succeed in carving out more of an officially recognized place for a broader understanding of yoga, as well as of physical education - but, alas, the time is not ripe . . .

  4. Hi, Carol! Back when you and I were in high school, there was an offering of yoga as a P.E. elective before school. I signed up and remember it fondly. Ms. Nanini included meditiation also, and when we concluded everyone was so calm and relaxed. We kind of hated to leave and get on with our school day!

    1. Interesting! I had NO idea about that whatsoever!

  5. Hey, I think some folk really need to go back to school to learn about such things as 'particular' vs. 'universal' and a few other distinctions such as 'type' vs. 'token' and the paradox of pluralism. They say the 'yoga' at Encinitas is not going to be religious - but that doesn't mean 'yoga' per se is non-religious. If you want to have a conversation about whatever state of yoga interests you most, you simply must see it is as polyvalent. This means it can have multiple values and properties - religious/non-religious/irreligious/anti-religious! On a final point I have no idea how anyone can claim to be provisioning yoga without offering any of the historical context, which is of course religious - whether we like that history lesson or not, it serves no one to make it obscurant other than those that wish to pursue an imperialist agenda of distaste for cultural difference.