Court Allows Yoga in Public Schools: We Won! But at What Cost? ~ Roopa Singh

Via Roopa Singh
on Jul 23, 2013
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In a recent Southern California lawsuit, Sedlock vs. Baird, the relationship between yoga and religion took center stage as parents fought to keep yoga in public schools.

A mother and father were uncomfortable with their child coming home from school knowing Sanskrit names for asanas; they were unsettled by the idea of sun salutations and the potential connection to spirit.

In response to the lawsuit that ensued, hundreds of Encinitas (coastal beach city in San Diego county, California) families came together to advocate for yoga to stay in their public schools.

On July 1, the decision was made to keep yoga in public schools; a decision that stated yoga does not endorse or inhibit religion.

On one hand, I am delighted that yoga was kept in American public schools, primarily because of how needed it is in the lives of children. On the other hand, I am concerned about the need to sever yoga from all signs of coming from South Asia so as to fully integrate into American society. The successful defense team rested their argument on the assertion that yoga is now more American than it is Indian, a practice “as secular as aerobics.” Towards keeping yoga in their schools, “possibly religious” elements of the yoga offerings were stripped away by school workers, including any reference to Sanskrit.

It is important to take time to begin to tease out nuances here, around the relationship of yoga to religion, because this legal language is now codified and will be relied upon as precedent for the entire future trajectory of yoga in America.

What are the assumptions underlying the statement that yoga is now more American than it is Indian? That to be Indian tends towards the religious, or is more tied to spirituality? That yoga, in the sliver of time that it has existed in America, could be severed from the culture that created and sustained it for at least 4000 years?

Many of us have lived the experience of being both Indian and American and exemplify the way that yoga can be both. Growing up in an open minded, progressive Hindu household, I was consistently taught that Hinduism was expansive enough to allow for all religions to be respected, imbued with enough wisdom to exist as polytheistic and monotheistic. Therefore, no choice had to be made between being Hindu and being anything else. This is a drastically different religious and spiritual ideology than many Christians are used to.

Christianity, which generally draws clear lines around inclusion and exclusion, is responsible for shaping the American idea of religion. The fact is, relationships between yoga, religion, and spirituality are complex, and certainly not able to be reduced to a “Yes, yoga is religious,” or “No, yoga is not religious,” stance.

It is unfortunate that the race to protect the existence of yoga in American public schools created the need for an argument that requires a severing of cultural ties in exchange for integration. To a large extent, America has always required a severing of cultural ties in exchange for being American.

Think of the flood of European immigrants severing cultural ties for blanket constructions of American whiteness. Perhaps the forced abandonment of home propels this same population, generations later, to continuously run to yoga and India as a kind of home for spirit, mind and body. In the running to India, it is not a stretch to assume that the dysfunction would continue, that those oppressed would then oppress.

It makes sense that the American practice that required origins to be stifled even as bodies were used (the whitewashing at Ellis Island, the blackwashing at Southern plantations) is being enacted now with yoga as a body, not a human body but a body of cultural and theological production.

It is so poignant, the way many white and black practitioners of yoga adopt an Indian identity, often in stark brown face. Poignant and delicate, because adopting a new home before coming to terms with one’s home of origin is an adaptation or appropriation fraught with fear. Fear breeds violence. Arguably, the association of India with cosmic spirituality and new-agey religious practices is mainly an unfortunate by-product of spiritual tourism, a new kind of occupation. Occupation, like all forms of violence, operates on extremes, swerving between two polar opposites of love and hate.

Love yoga, but hate South Asians; we cannot run from the extent to which this is the moment in time we are in as Americans. We practice asanas and launch drones into Pakistan. We fuel a high end yoga fashion industry, loving our Lululemon and supporting the exponential continuation of Triangle Factory style disasters in Bangladesh. We love the one Indian doctor on our favorite hospital show, while hate crimes and shootings continue on Hindu temples, Patel Brothers grocery stores and South Asian cab drivers. We idolize spiritual South Asians like Deepak Chopra, but effectively weed out all but the most right wing South Asian elected officials.

But the science of yoga was created with balance in mind, to help humans be unswayed by tides of these types of extremes, balanced in the fray of life.

Yoga is South Asian and American, and serves so well as a nation builder in America and the world over, precisely because it creates and strengthens universality from the inside out.

When the integration engendered by yoga is not reflected externally by the integration of South Asians in the definition of American, there is a disservice being done to yoga and all who do it, period. I am thrilled that the court allowed yoga to remain in public schools in Encinitas, that is good precedent for the rest of the country. Also, I hope yoga can re-ground in its cultural roots as it becomes more American, and I aim for all people to have access to yoga that is inclusive.


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Asst. Ed: Meagan Edmondson/Ed: Brianna Bemel


About Roopa Singh

Roopa Singh, Esq., is the founder of South Asian American Perspectives on Yoga in America (SAAPYA) and a business owner of Brooklyn based health and wellness center, Third Root.  SAAPYA provides a platform for South Asian American voices in yoga, cultural awareness in yoga trainings and a network of South Asian American practitioners of yoga.


16 Responses to “Court Allows Yoga in Public Schools: We Won! But at What Cost? ~ Roopa Singh”

  1. Geoff Withnell says:

    " I was consistently taught that Hinduism was expansive enough to allow for all religions to be respected, imbued with enough wisdom to exist as polytheistic and monotheistic. Therefore, no choice had to be made between being Hindu and being anything else. This is a drastically different religious and spiritual ideology than many Christians are used to."

    Here's the problem. Americans are not all Christian; or even polytheistic, or monotheistic. Some Americans do not believe in spirit at all. And in America, in the public schools, those people have the right to NOT have their children taught religious beliefs contrary to that.

  2. Personally I'm all for America keeping their hands off yoga, and leave the Kemetic yogis, the Ashtangis, and Boddhisattvas alike ALONE and keeping their co-opting commercializing culture away from a tradition I too consider very religious/spiritual. The 'way of life' stuff. But since I too am American born, I am very happy to see this point of view expressed so eloquently and to the point. From what I've seen, here in America, is that people most certainly do love yoga, and as you said, 'but hate South Asians' I would add 'hate South Asian Americans,' to that. I applaud your bravery Roopa, and I apologize that my fellow American (above – Geoff Withnell, felt the need to insult your intelligence and tell you what the problem 'is,' in his white privileged eyes, rather than consider that what you have just written opens so many hopeful avenues for the true essence of Yoga the thrive in spite of the malarchy and deep seated racism-white supremacy culture we live within.

  3. Lauralea says:


    I attended Off the Mat's Yoga in Action program with you at Third Root. I found your article extremely interesting. I am also curious what this legal language and precedent will bring in the future.

    If anyone is interested, here is a link to lululemon's "shared partner values."

    It includes the vendor code of ethics, how partners are selected, and monitoring and enforcement. Coincidentally, throughout August, the 75th & Broadway store is using its regularly scheduled complimentary yoga classes to raise funds for local organizations which provide yoga in schools or other centers of need. They will be donating $5 for every yogi in attendance.

    Thank you for your optimism. I agree that yoga will continue to "create and strengthen universality from the inside out."

  4. Geoff Withnell says:

    My comment had nothing to do with race. NOTHING. Neither do many people's objection to the practice of yoga in public schools. I am a white male. Does that make my life privileged? Yes, of course in this society and culture, white males have advantages. Only a fool would claim otherwise. Did I ask for those advantages? Does being a white male make me automatically a racist and a white supremacist? No. But while Hinduism may be expansive enough that – for Hinduism – no choice needs to be made between Hinduism and anything else, the "anything else" gets to have a choice if it wishes to embrace Hinduism. Note that I didn't say that I had the objection. But in America, in public schools, any reference to spirituality is a time bomb. And justly so. Parents don't have choice in sending their children to school, and little control over what happens there. As a non-Christian, I have had to take sometimes extraordinary steps to make sure that my children weren't being taught Christian concepts in school contra

  5. Jess says:

    Roopa, I appreciate the prickling salience of the connection you draw between whitewashed & severed cultural identity and modern American spiritual tourism. Perhaps it's too painful and therefore feels too difficult to undertake the unearthing of this heritage of oppression, too scary to plumb the depths of cultural loss, so instead, American yogis whose cultural heritage was blended in to the pasty American mush seek safety in the Others of South Asia. I'm also not surprised that members of a secularized, nominally-Christian-but-actually-conflicted nation like the USA are seeking meaning in more ancient, spiritually rich and diverse cultures. Of course, on the other hand, if, as you write, Hinduism accepts the co-existence of monotheism and polytheism, or more broadly speaking, the plurality of spiritual practices, this strikes me as an acceptance of the right of anyone to don a mala or practice a puja, even in their own bricolaged spirituality. I include myself in this latter category, to be honest, though I fiercely believe in the open discussions of questions SAAPYA's raising. I also frequently question when and where I use my mala for meditation and when it also appears like "fashion."

    Again, thank you. I'm very grateful to have you in my community, keeping me and others on our toes about our assumptions. And sometimes on our toes in utkatasana, too…!

    Brooklyn, NY

  6. I had to recite the 'I pledge alliegence to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic, for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.' on a daily basis growing up in good ol' Dallas Texas. You might want to try homeschool. There, you can keep your kids safe from 'concepts.'

  7. Roopa Singh, Author says:

    Hi Geoff,

    Thank you for reading. True, America is based on an idea of freedom of religion, or lack thereof. But Christianity pervades the culture, and I was referring to Christianity in that light, as an overall influence on how folks roll on notions of religion in this country.

    Totally agree with you on Americans being everything under the sun. That's a core point of the piece!

    Also, whether teaching yoga is teaching religious beliefs, well that's the debate. Certainly, we would never say that teaching Latin would be teaching Catholicism. So why then do we say that teaching even a few words of Sanskrit lean towards teaching Hinduism?

  8. Roopa Singh (Author) says:

    Thanks for tuning in Malika. What I love about SAAPYA is that we are about building stronger and stronger bridges. When I use the term hate, that is not without understanding of the love. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Integration and accessibility, those are key values of this piece.

  9. No offense taken, and again, happy you are contributing Geoff.

    Whether or not people's objection to yoga in public schools has to do with race, or xenophobia, well, that is a larger question, and I wouldn't presume to speak on behalf of so many. What is true is that we are talking about yoga and its relationship to Hinduism or any spiritual practice, and we are talking about it because its complex. What is also true is that everything that comes out of the South Asian region, including languages, is not automatically religious. That association is reductive, and I believe, fear based.

  10. Roopa Singh (author) says:

    Hi Laura,

    Thanks for reading and contributing. And also for sharing about lululemon. Yoga fashion, a booming trade, and not entirely unsustainable.

  11. Roopa Singh (Author) says:

    🙂 So glad you are a part of this movement to support the voices of South Asian American practitioners of yoga in America. What you are grappling with is echoed by so many, thank you for sharing.

  12. Geoff Withnell says:

    I don't need to "keep my kids "safe from concepts". I don't want authority figures teaching them things like how European Christianity brought civilization to the rest of the world. Nor any other religious concepts. Public school isn't the place for that.

  13. Geoff Withnell says:

    Jess, if I used "swarthy" the way you used "pasty" you would rightly conclude I was a racist.

  14. naxal says:

    What I love is that this piece is inspiring passion. What is challenging is when that passion isn't directed towards better yoga for all, a better world for all. Sigh. Step by step, breath by breath. That's def my mantra these days.

  15. guest says:

    How did Geoff "insult her intelligence" ? He is right, not everyone is spiritual/religious and religion must be kept out of schools to ensure freedom of and from religion.(except comparative religion off course)

  16. guest says:

    While I agree that yoga can't be (and shouldn't be) separated from it`s rich history, I would argue that yoga does not have to be religious. I am not religious, I had to find yoga instructors who where not blabing on about gods and goddesses or including some random spiritual lecture but it's possible. You can mediate and do good yoga while being secular. I love the stories about all the mythical figures as long as they are told as is: stories, tales and not actual historic "facts". I bet even in ancient practice some yogis where atheists.
    And whoever called America secular: hahahaha. the US is probably the most non-secular western country around (and high up worldwide)