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What Is Yoga Really? After the ‘Non-Religious’ Ruling, the Spirituality Debate Rages On

in Lawsuit-asana, YD News
Third-graders at Olivenhain Pioneer Elementary School in Encinitas, Calif., perform chair pose with instructor Kristen McCloskey in December 2012.

Third-graders at Olivenhain Pioneer Elementary School in Encinitas, Calif., perform chair pose with instructor Kristen McCloskey in December 2012.

And now, the aftermath. Yesterday’s ruling that yoga is not religious and is, in fact, suitable for school children was a major win, but in its wake comes many questions and even more room for debate now that the courtroom seal has been broken and everyone and their maha maya tries to define what yoga really is.

Judge Meyer, who made the ruling Monday, seemed to be feeling the impassioned mood. Commenting on the poor sources and inaccurate information from the Internet:  “It’s almost like a trial by Wikipedia, which isn’t what this court does,” he said.

Meyer reportedly took nearly two hours to explain his decision during which he described this modern yoga as “distinctly American”:

“Yoga as it has developed in the last 20 years is rooted in American culture, not Indian culture,” San Diego Superior Court Judge John Meyer said. “It is a distinctly American cultural phenomenon. A reasonable student would not objectively perceive that Encinitas school district yoga advances or promotes religion.”

Russell Case, a representative of the Jois Foundation (providing the yoga in the Encinitas school district) said that the yoga program is a positive alternative to the kiddie vices of sugar and video games.

“We want them to feel that they don’t need sugar and video games to fill some kind of vacancy that they might feel,” said Russell Case, who helped recruit yoga instructors for the program and works for the Jois Foundation. “We want them to feel that they can get that from exercise.” As a 501(c)3 non-profit company, Case said the foundation cannot promote any sort of religious affiliation.

“The plantiffs don’t want religion in schools and neither do we,” Case said.

Dean Broyles, the attorney representing the parents who filed the lawsuit in the first place was clearly not pleased with the ruling.

“This case is simply about whether public schools may entangle themselves with religious organizations like the Jois Foundation and use the state’s coercive powers to promote a particular religious orthodoxy or religious agenda to young and impressionable schoolchildren,” Broyles said after Monday’s ruling.

Broyles expands, via press release from The National Center For Law and Policy of which he is president:

“I recognize that most people in America do not view or identify yoga as a religious practice. However, such opinions are not based on fact, but are based primarily upon a lack of knowledge or ignorance about yoga and its relationship with Hinduism,” stated Dean Broyles. “This case is not about whether yoga has health benefits, whether individuals may personally practice yoga, or whether individuals like or enjoy yoga. This case is simply about whether public schools may entangle themselves with religious organizations like the Jois Foundation and use the state’s coercive powers to promote a particular religious orthodoxy or religious agenda to young and impressionable school children. Religious freedom is not for sale to the highest bidder.”

He also cryptically warns that “this is not the end of the road for this case or the last word regarding the fate of yoga in public education—this is only the beginning.” Jesus Christ, man. But we believe him. An appeal is forthcoming.

Meanwhile, the defendant in the case, superintendent Tim Baird maintains that the program is for the health and benefit of the kids in the long run.

Encinitas schools Supt. Tim Baird has said that the program is worthwhile in teaching healthy exercise and eating habits. He said he hopes that teaching yoga to students will decrease instances of fighting and bullying.

“We are not instructing anyone in religious dogma,” Baird said. “Yoga is very mainstream.”

The judge backed up this sentiment. Yoga is so mainstream it’s really no different from other exercise programs, he said.

Meyer sided with the school district’s explanation that its program has taken out any references to Hinduism and its liturgical language, Sanskrit. Yoga, the judge said, is similar to other exercise programs, such as dodgeball.

“Distinctly American,” “very mainstream,”  similar to dodgeball. Here comes the rub. While we’re over the moon those kidlets in the Encinitas school district get to continue their yoga practice should they so choose, the defense that yoga is stripped of its spiritual roots, that it has completely rid itself of cultural and historical references, that it is devoid of something more than a dodgeball game is not only a non-win, it’s way, way off.

Should this have been a trial of spirituality versus religion, instead?

This HuffPo article had an interesting perspective on the case and the ruling. In it, the author pointed out a recent Pew Research Center poll of the “nones” or those Americans with no religious affiliation (including, but not solely, atheists and agnostics) and their thoughts on spiritual beliefs, faith, spiritual energy, astrology and the “evil eye.” The 2009 poll found that the unaffiliated aren’t really looking to be affiliated in any way, as in religion, but they’re on par with the general public in feeling a deep connection to nature and the earth and are actually more likely to believe in yoga as a spiritual practice rather than just exercise.

There is little evidence that the unaffiliated are, by and large, “seekers” who are searching for a religion that fits them or that they have embraced New Age spirituality, Eastern religious ideas or other beliefs from non-Abrahamic faiths. Only about one-in-ten U.S. adults who identify their current religion as “nothing in particular” say they are looking for a religious affiliation.

The unaffiliated are about as likely as others in the general public to believe in reincarnation, astrology and the evil eye. And they are only slightly more likely to believe in yoga as a spiritual practice and in spiritual energy located in physical things such as mountains, trees and crystals.

The unaffiliated share similar stances with Christians on reincarnation, astrology and the evil eye. But they’re more likely to be deeper into spirituality.

For the most part, the religiously unaffiliated look similar to Christians on these beliefs. For example, the unaffiliated are about as likely as Christians to believe in reincarnation, astrology or the evil eye. There are two exceptions, however. The unaffiliated are somewhat more likely than Christians to believe in spiritual energy in physical things such as mountains, trees and crystals (30% vs. 23%), although this is a minority viewpoint within both groups.

The unaffiliated also are somewhat more likely than Christians to believe in yoga as a spiritual practice (28% vs. 21%), though again, this is a minority viewpoint among both the unaffiliated and Christians.

Here’s the stat breakdown:


So non-religiously affiliated people still have spirituality and check their horoscopes? Hm. We don’t know if these folks were asked if yoga was religious or just if they thought it was spiritual. In any case, the path is massively muddy when it comes to defining one’s spirituality, the practices thereof, and whether or not teachings of a system rooted in much more than just exercise is imposing on our First Amendment rights.

But then how do you explain in a court of law that yoga is not religious, it’s spiritual? Hint: You don’t, if you want to win against conservative groups who believe yoga is the devil.

Holy hell, buckle your yoga belts, this is so not over.

The Confluence Countdown, an Ashtanga website, has also been following this nice and closely. 

[LA Times; US News]



12 comments… add one
  • Desiree

    Really – you don’t necessarily want to argue that it is spiritual if you want these kids to continue practicing in schools. I am a yoga teacher that was raised in fundamental Christianity in the 70s and 80s. Spirituality and Secular Humanism are in the same bucket as Hinduism or any other religion. They would view even spirituality as promoting an “agenda to young and impressionable school children.”

    It is difficult to have a dialogue with a group that believes they have the only correct answer.

  • Carol Agriesti

    It would be easy to have the same court case about a dance program. Dance originated in religious ceremonies to induce a certain (trance) state in the participants. The health science remains, in as much as one does produce endorphins which give a sense of wholesomeness. But from the original lineage start of dance, to the present form of dance, it would be an extreme and dangling-by-a-thread theory, that dance is teaching religion.

  • It seems to me that the meaning in any practice springs from intention.

    “Exposing children (or anyone) to the physical practice of yoga is not the same as indoctrination, any more than a module about Karl Marx in a World History class is intended to create communists. Ultimately, the meaning of any practice is rooted in intention. A “Sun Salutation” is nothing more than a series of body moves and stretches unless the person doing it chooses to see the sun as a deity and the movements a form of worship. Like beauty, worship is in the eye of the beholder, which is why the Bible, Koran and other ancient texts are viewed as literature or philosophy by some, as sacred ancient text by others, and by still others as the literal word of God.


  • Thanks for the excellent summary of a complex issue, and particularly for including all the quotes so we can get a good feel for the actual language used.

    This is one of the best overviews I’ve seen of a story that is all over the Yoga blogosphere right now.

    Bob W. Editor
    Best of Yoga Philosophy

  • Ilan

    I just want to say one thing that whether it’s Bhagwad Gita, which is the story of Yoga or Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras both of them do not praise/associate with any religion. The core teaching is about attaining the ultimate goal of human life i.e. self-realization through Yoga wherein body is a merely a tool to bring about the union of mind, body and soul. Very simple and straightforward. It’s very disheartening to see how most of the people interpret or align this beautiful practice with religion, philosophy etc. One needs to experiment, and ultimately experience the benefits both physically, and mentally first hand before making a call about Yoga. Om Shanti!

  • Semper Fi

    Be careful using the “American Yoga” card. That just cheapens the practice to Lululemon gym yoga level.

  • Adan

    What do you mean dodgeball is not spiritual? Any activity done with the proper attention and consciousness is spiritual. Similarly, if hatha yoga is not done with the proper attention and consciousness, it is not a spiritual practice…

  • Chris

    The ancient Hindu Science of Yoga is a stepping-stone to the Higher Path of Self-Realization. So, of course, Yoga is so very much more than getting-bendy-on-a-mat.

    Yoga is designed to bring about increased awareness and self-improvement. Embracing Yoga requires embracing at least the elementary principles of Yoga, such as Ahimsa and Vegetarianism. Ahimsa, the renuncition of aggression, does not at all, equate with cowardly submission, for when faced with Injustice, it is indeed one’s bounden duty to engage in a courageous, Righteous War (Dharma-Yudh).

    So, yes, Yoga, Inc. can dumb Yoga down to “getting-bendy-on-a-Mat”, but Yoga is much, much more.

  • C4S-G

    it’s a tricky issue.

    I don’t believe yoga is religious. It has evident roots in Hindu and Vedic belief, however adhering to nor subscribin to this is absolutely required.

    Moreover, many people in Western society practice yoga largely for its health benefits, not based on spiritual reasons. We should remember that Western culture’s spirituality is Christian traditionally. Eastern/Dharmic notions of course don’t meld with that, and most Westerners who adhere to that aspect of yoga have rejected Western religious and/or spiritual contexts prior.

  • 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.

  • Mid

    Hooray for bringing up polyvalence!

    This whole mixed up debate boils down in part to confusion about the meanings of words. What does “yoga” mean in each sentence ? How ’bout “religion” or “spirituality” ? Answer: the definitions differs from sentence to sentence. No wonder no-one can agree! They’re using the same words to mean different things, and no-body knows (or admits) it. It’s the tower of Babble-on, all over again.

    Thanks YogaDork for highlighting the fact that this legal puppy ain’t dead yet. Hopefully a higher-level judge will put a sharper verbal knife to the issues at stake.

    Meanwhile, IMHO it is pretty cool that yoga is getting this kind of legal attention. It’ll help our society at large, I think, to disentangle our understandings of meditative, spiritual, and physical exercises. I’m willing to bet that their benefit have little to do with one’s religious belief system.

  • Thank you for so much information. I’m so glad to see you found it.

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