June 4, 2013

Yoga is a Religion, Right? ~ Mijael Brandwajn

In less than a month, a judge will declare if Yoga is indeed “crossing the line” into religious beliefs.

Maybe you’ve heard the news: some concerned parents in Encinitas got their kids out of the new classes imparted in their public school, and now they are filing suit to get them out of the curriculum entirely.

This lawsuit reflects the dichotomy that has permeated the world of yoga and meditation since they crossed boundaries from India, their motherland.

But yoga has a religious nature, right?

In the Christian circles, the words of father Gabriele Amorth (“Yoga is the work of the devil”) are still influencing stances. The distinguished Amorth—who happens to be the Vatican’s chief exorcist—puts Harry Potter books and movies in the same “demonic” category. However, those narratives, rather than taking you to the “ungodly” world of Hinduism, bring you straight to Satanism.

Even though I don’t see parents worried about the broom-flying-teenage-magician, as a yoga teacher in Latin America, I regularly hear people talking about the way the practices I teach lead to perdition.

The Encinitas lawsuit reflects these same fears and questions, but now a panel of experts from eminent universities is trying to prove one of the following two points of view:

Position 1: Yoga cannot be separated from Hinduism.

Yoga translates to “union.” Its practices’ (postures or otherwise) main objectives are to create the experience of oneness.

That’s a hard thing to explain in a short space.

I’ll try anyway: the main intention of a yoga practice is to realize that one’s true identity has nothing to do with the body or our mind, but rather with an essence that could be described as “the Supreme Consciousness of the Whole Universe.”

Even leaving Ishvara issues aside (Ishvara is usually translated as “the Lord,” and is a core part of the practice of yoga—as in, “Surrender to Ishvara), the definition of yoga is without a doubt, deeply spiritual. The idea of Universal Consciousness, or Purusha, together with the idea of rebirth and surrender to the Lord, leaves very little wiggle room: if yoga is not a religion, then at the very least it’s based on a theism and spiritual belief that is not in agreement with the current Christian dogma.

If this wasn’t enough, yoga is regularly categorized as one of the six astika philosophical schools of Hinduism, which accept the Vedas as “supreme revealed scriptures” (you can get that one from Wikipedia, or from any teacher training worth its salt).

Houston, we have a problem.

Position 2: Yoga can be used as an agnostic tool for self-development.

T. Krishnamacharya, sometimes known as the “grandfather” of Western yoga for his influence in the teachers who brought the practice to this side of the planet, was one of the main teachers who separated the spiritual from the practical aspects in yoga.

Krishnamacharya was a devout Hindu, but he understood that some of his students had different religious beliefs, and others still came simply to learn the physical aspects of the practice that would yield better health and peace of mind.

To give the student exactly what he or she needed, without forcing them to accept any other aspect of the practice, Krishnamacharya began to re-contextualize the teachings of Yoga for a modern, multicultural and multi-religious world.

His son, T.K.V. Desikachar, an engineer whose beliefs about yoga are closer to agnosticism than the Hindu devotion of his father, further propelled this transformation, propagating the teachings of yoga from a point of view that would be acceptable to anyone, regardless of their beliefs.

This can be seen in the way two of his better known students— Gary Kraftsow and Leslie Kaminoff—teach yoga, making it accessible even to those who don’t believe in God. It’s also visible in the way he translated the Yoga Sutras—one of the most “agnostic friendly” translations available.

Furthermore, the obsession of the West for the physical has created yet another avenue for yoga to be stripped of its philosophical depths. This explains why the majority of yoga classes in the West have upwards of 70% of the time dedicated to the body, and usually less than 5% spent in philosophical teachings (if you are lucky).

If all that wasn’t enough, the widespread interest from science in understanding the effects of yogic practices and their marvelous effects for mind and body has been another driving force in “filtering” the practices from all their spiritual underpinnings. So, rather than talking about enlightenment, higher states of consciousness or connection and oneness, the scientific journals and the magazines and newspapers that quote them, use words like concentration, attention, relaxation, strength, flexibility and so on.

The verdict and its consequences—

The central issue with finding a verdict to the Encinitas case, could be illustrated with this popular metaphor:

Yoga is like a big elephant.

The people involved in the lawsuit are trying to determine what yoga is, but they are all blind. One of them takes hold of the tusk and says Yoga is large, pointy and dangerous. The other one grabs an ear and replies “oh no, it is actually rather flat and soft, completely harmless.”

Apparently, yoga was being taught at the schools using only the elephants ears (postures and breathing), and the parents are concerned that eventually the other scary parts of the animal will be shown. One never knows when sun salutes become “sun worship,” or when the concept of rebirth enters the conversation when it may not be appropriate in a public school curriculum.

There is already talk of this case’s chances of making it to the Supreme Court. If the Jois Foundation (who want to teach Yoga in schools) lose the case, it could put in jeopardy many yoga programs taught in schools, prisons and healthcare centers, and many people could lose access to a grand range of benefits derived from those programs.

That would really suck, as they would be throwing the baby with the bathwater.

On the other hand, if the Jois foundation lost the case, it might bring more clarity to the question, “What is yoga?”

Maybe we yoga teachers would have more ease teaching yoga in a spiritual context that is more attuned to its roots without having to apologize to those agnostic and atheistic students in class.

But that would also mean we would be better off changing the names of those programs that seek relaxation, stress management, or strength and flexibility, with words that describe those benefits, without mixing them with the traditions, philosophical and spiritual views that define yoga, and which are so uncomfortable to those who do not share those views.

If yoga teachers want to teach in an agnostic or publicly funded environment, then maybe they should just call their programs “meditation in movement,” or something like that, and leave Hindu references and Sanskrit names aside in the places where they aren’t welcome.

For yoga students, they just have to remember that they don’t have to accept every part of the elephant.

They can just use the parts that serve them.


Mijael Brandwajn is a yoga teacher and currently owns the largest yoga studio in Panama, Central America. His loves teaching teachers and his latest project: yogaparalaespalda.com (yoga for back pain in Spanish), but he is most passionate about the evolution of yoga and how we can make it relevant in our lives. He has his own very opinionated blog, http://mijaelyoga.com.



Like elephant Yoga on Facebook

Ed: K.Macku/Kate Bartolotta

Read 9 Comments and Reply

Read 9 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Elephant journal  |  Contribution: 1,375,690