Yoga and the University

Not into Yoga

Not into Yoga (Photo: Ottawa Magazine)

Earlier this month, controversy broke out when a Canadian university canceled a beginners’ yoga class it had offered for years. The reason for the class cancellation at the University of Ottawa is a bit murky, but a student government representative evidently told the instructor that the class showed insufficient sensitivity to foreign cultures. Yoga, after all, comes from India—a country, the concerned student explained, that had suffered oppression and “cultural genocide” as a result of “colonialism and Western supremacy.” The yoga class could be perceived as a slight to Canadians of Indian ancestry and to Indian civilization, and had best be shut down.

Many conservative commentators expressed disbelief. Here’s another example, they complained, of political correctness gone crazy. What could possibly be wrong with a yoga class? It’s just stretching. Moreover, there’s nothing unusual about appropriating positive aspects of other cultures. Aren’t we all supposed to be multiculturalists now? A yoga class is a tribute to Indian culture. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Etc.

We have seen a number of silly episodes on college campuses this fall, and I appreciate that people have grown exasperated. But even a broken clock is right twice a day. In this case, it seems to me, the students who object to the University of Ottawa’s yoga class have a point – though perhaps not the one they think.

The problem is not that a yoga class wrongly appropriates a foreign culture. As critics of the university’s decision rightly point out, there’s nothing necessarily offensive in that. And there’s no indication that the teacher or students in this particular class did anything to mock Indian culture. I imagine most of the students didn’t think about yoga’s cultural roots at all. Probably some of them assumed yoga was a Western invention. American tourists in Italy frequently tell Italians that we invented pizza.

The problem is that yoga, in its essence, is a religious exercise. (In America, in fact, some groups have objected to public school yoga classes as violations of the Establishment Clause). For pious Hindus, yoga is not simply mindful stretching, but a form of worship, as much so as Christian prayer. It’s understandable, then, that many Hindus find it deeply offensive to treat yoga merely as part of a good exercise regime. Indeed, an organization called the Hindu American Foundation has started a campaign, “Take Back Yoga,” which seeks to end the commercialization of yoga and restore the tradition “as a lifelong practice dedicated to achieving moksha, or liberation/union with God.” Think of it as akin to keeping Christ in Christmas.

Of course, the fact that Hindus see yoga as a spiritual practice doesn’t mean that others must do so as well. In a pluralistic society, believers must learn to tolerate many things. Perhaps a Hindu has no more right to object to secular yoga classes than a Christian has to object to SantaCon. (Word to the wise: avoid New York City bars on December 12). To each his own. Still, to my mind, there is something very admirable about fighting to preserve an ancient religious tradition from commercialization, misappropriation and dilution – something very conservative, in fact. Maybe the University of Ottawa should just offer a calisthenics class.

More on Yoga in the Public Schools

Yoga Class at Encinitas School (NYT)

Last month, a California state court ruled that including yoga in an elementary school phys ed program does not violate the Establishment Clause. The program was funded by a half-million dollar grant from the Jois Foundation, a private organization that promotes the form of yoga known as Ashtanga. The court ruled that the Encinitas Union School District had scrubbed religious references from the classes, so that what remained was simply a fitness and stress reduction program for kids. To use the language of the so-called “endorsement test,” the court concluded that a reasonable observer would not believe the school district had impermissibly endorsed a religion–in this case, Hinduism.

This week, the Oxford University Press blog published an interesting interview with Candy Gunther Brown, an Indiana University religious studies professor who served as an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the case. Brown argues convincingly that Ashtanga yoga is in fact deeply religious. “Ashtanga,” she says, “emphasizes postures and breathing on the premise that these practices will ‘automatically’ lead practitioners to …  ‘become one with God’… ‘whether they want it or not'”:

Although EUSD officials reacted to parent complaints by modifying some practices, EUSD classes still always begin with “Opening Sequence” (Surya Namaskara) [a prayer to the sun god] and end with “lotuses” and “resting” (aka shavasana or “corpse”—which encourages reflection on one’s death to inspire virtuous living), and teach symbolic gestures such as “praying hands” (anjalimudra) and “wisdom gesture” (jnanamudra), which in Ashtanga yoga symbolize union with the divine and instill religious feelings.

It’s quite possible for people, especially kids, to be influenced by these religious messages, she says:

Scientific research shows that practicing yoga can lead to religious transformations. For example, Kristin is a Catholic who started Ashtanga for the stretching; she now prefers Ashtanga’s “eight limbs” to the “Ten Commandments.” Kids who learn yoga in public schools may also be learning religion.

Perhaps Brown overstates the difficulty of separating religious and non-religious elements in yoga, I don’t know. After reading her interview, though, the question I have is this. How could anyone not think Ashtanga yoga is religious, and that by sponsoring this class–especially with funding from an organization that promotes Ashtanga’s religious message–the school district has endorsed religion in a manner that current law forbids?

Perhaps, with our deeply Protestant religious culture, Americans simply dismiss the notion that physical practices can be genuinely “religious.” Religion is a matter of mind and spirit, not body; stretching is purely physical, just a nice way to relax. Stretching isn’t prayer, after all. Brown’s point, however–and it is a very important one–is that these practices are a kind of prayer. Ashtanga yoga purports to instill religious feelings and lead one to God, whether one intends it or not. (In fact, Hindus might find the claim that yoga is just a stretching exercise rather insulting). And the school district has students participate in these prayers, not just learn about them from a book. The Supreme Court has said the Constitution forbids even displaying the Ten Commandments inside a public school classroom, lest students feel pressured to read and meditate on them. But this is OK?

Let’s try a thought experiment. Orthodox Christianity has a tradition known as hesychasm, in which hermits discipline themselves to meditate, shut out the world, and experience God inside them. It’s a very difficult mystical practice, not for everyone–though some people like to dabble. Apparently it gives great inner peace. The key element is repetition of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me, a Sinner.” Suppose some enterprising Orthodox Christian foundation adapted these practices, put the Jesus Prayer in an esoteric language, and proffered the package to a public school district as a stress-reduction program for kids. Would anyone think such a program constitutional under present law?

The plaintiffs in the case have indicated they plan to appeal. I hope they do, because this could turn out to be be a very significant case. As Eastern religious practices continue to seep into mainstream culture, situations like this are bound to recur. They may lead to a change in the way Americans understand religion.

California Court Rules School Yoga Program Does Not Violate Constitution

The Crisscross-Applesauce Position (New York Times)

An update on a case I wrote about in May: a California state court has ruled that including yoga in an elementary school phys ed program does not violate the Establishment Clause. Under current Supreme Court precedent, public schools may not endorse any particular religion (or, for that matter, religion generally). In yesterday’s ruling, the San Diego Superior Court reasoned that the Encinitas Union School District has scrubbed religious references from its yoga classes–the Lotus position has been renamed the “Crisscross-Applesauce” pose, for example–so that what remains is merely a fitness and stress-reduction program for kids. The court apparently did not find persuasive the testimony of an Indiana University religious studies professor, Candy Gunther Brown, who argued that yoga, a Hindu practice, is inherently religious. A lawyer for parents who brought the lawsuit against the school district says his clients will likely appeal.

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