Yoga is pretty easy to make fun of (plenty of yogis mock themselves), or to simply dismiss as a fad (its popularity and ubiquity will certainly be remembered as one of the hallmarks of the early years of this century), but for the most part, it doesn’t have a reputation as a source of disagreement — being banned or bringing parents together to “stamp that evil seed out” (a la rock ‘n’ roll in the ’60s). Yet yoga, which seems to make sense as a way to calm ever-more-anxious students’ nerves, and maybe keep a few pounds off kids who are now officially fighting an obesity epidemic, may be taken to court by parents in Encinitas, Calif., which is near San Diego. The parents’ beef? They see the stretching and strengthening routines of Ashtanga yoga as some kind of religious indoctrination.
“There’s a deep concern that the Encinitas Union School District is using taxpayer resources to promote Ashtanga yoga and Hinduism, a religion system of beliefs and practices,” attorney Dean Broyles, who represents the concerned parents, told the North Country Times.
The superintendent for the schools, Tim Baird, says he expects the classes, which are in nine schools currently (and set to expand to more via a grant of more than $500,000 from an Ashtanga yoga association) to continue, and his decision to bring yoga to the students to be upheld.
“Yoga is a worldwide exercise regime utilized by people of many different faiths,” he said. “Yoga is part of our mainstream culture.”
As a young atheist, I was sensitive to the plethora of Christian messages that were part of the common culture at my smallish public high school in New York state — enough so that I complained several times to the dean of students about the most egregious rule-breaking the school engaged in on behalf of Christian student groups, because I believed then (and I still do) that religion and spirituality are private concerns, to be kept in the home and places of worship. One of the reasons that I have left some yoga classes is because I felt I was being preached to about spirituality, and I left that behind when I left the Episcopalian church when I was 13. But I also know that yoga can be effectively taught without any religious or spiritual messages at all (which is actually how I practice it, and how it is being taught at Encinitas and at schools all over the U.S.).
I see it like this: some people walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain — which is a traditional pilgrimage route for the faithful that ends at a spectacular church at Spain’s Atlantic coast. I have also walked much of this ancient route; as an atheist I appreciated its history, its natural beauty, and the quiet charm that is all part of northern Spain’s DNA. Hiking the Camino doesn’t make me a Christian any more than doing yoga poses makes me a Hindu. Dancing the Hula doesn’t make me a native Hawaiian (I have done that too), nor does eating matzo ball soup make me a Jew.
Just doing yoga doesn’t make anyone a Hindu, or even more likely to become a Hindu. I’m pretty sure the vast majority of America’s 20 million yoga practitioners haven’t switched religions. Yoga can just be exercise —in fact this atheist wouldn’t have it any other way.
credit: Starr Vartan