Lately, the “religion question” seems to be arising via blogs and social networks in a monthly wave. During the last fifteen or so years I’ve been involved in school yoga, the religion question bobbed up to the surface only occasionally and typically came from a new teacher wondering what to say if the question ever arose.
Now that images of yoga are swimming throughout mainstream commercial media and yoga in schools is practically normal in some regions of the country, the religion question has surfaced in a whole new way and I don’t think it’s going to recede until its been thoroughly vetted.
It is a serious question: Is yoga a religion?
To answer this question, it is essential to define what we mean by “yoga.” There are dozens of yogic disciplines floating around the planet, commonly referred to as simply “yoga,” that entail all sorts of practices that have nothing to do with the type of yoga being taught in schools here in America.
Most yoga programs in schools include:
*Movements and postures geared at integrating mind and body.
*Breathing techniques to relieve stress and sharpen focus.
*Mindfulness exercises aimed at improving attention.
Yes, these yogic practices come from systems that originated in India, but the practices are effective for all types of humans, not just Indians. And, you don’t have to be any particular religion, or even particularly religious for that matter, to enjoy the benefits.
It’s understandable that parents who perceive yoga as a religion would revolt against yoga programming in their child’s classroom. I would be furious if my child was required to take part in anything religious at school. It is easy to see why parents are concerned. “Googling” the word “yoga” results in multitudes of images of deities, foreign symbols and people in seemingly religious worship.
So why even call it “yoga?” Why not just scrap that moniker, skip the debate and rename the system?
Some teachers have done just that. Shed the name, rename and move on. But others say, “not so fast.” One of the aims of yoga is to reach a state of equal vision wherein all people are seen as equally valuable. We can look to modern India to see that yogic systems as they have been practiced there for centuries have not worked to bring social justice, but the aim still exists in the practice. That said, the reasons against calling the practices “yoga” are shrouded in fear of the other. By addressing that fear and clearing up misunderstandings, we are working toward freeing our minds of deeply engrained confusion.
To practice non-violence, tell the truth, cultivate a sound body and mind; these are some of the contents of yoga. These practices are simply inherent to healthy lifestyles for humans. It’s dangerous to let religious leaders hijack kids rights to be healthy because they are afraid the exercises will open their minds too wide and cultivate too much critical thinking. If we give in to those who refuse to see intricacy and nuance, the potential is there that the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater. No more yoga in schools? Does that mean no more movement, mindfulness and focused breathing, too?
Honoring the origin of yoga does not require one to take on the cultural, traditional and/or religious ways of India. We can appreciate the origin of mathematics without having to worship Zeus in much the same way that we can benefit from yoga without praising Krishna. Yoga has universal applications that exceed any cultural or religious containers.
Saying “yoga” is like saying “skating.” It is a broad, general term that encompasses many variations. Does skating belong in schools? Good question. “What type of skating?” Answer could include skateboarding, ice skating, roller skating, and skating for Jesus. In the case of skateboarding, I’d say the risk of physical injury may be too high to condone in schools. Ice and roller skating require vast amounts of space and equipment that schools cannot afford. Of course, if the program involves worship of prophets its’ a no go.
Unlike skating, yoga carries a very low risk of injury (if practiced with a well qualified, experienced teacher), it requires little to no equipment and does not involve the worship of prophets, necessarily. There are sects of yoga practitioners all over the world conjoining Hindu rituals with yoga practice. For some people, yoga is intertwined with Buddhism and Jainism, but that is not necessary. There are also a growing number of people living a yogic lifestyle which include a variety of other religious practices, including explicit connections with Christianity. Meanwhile, there are many folks who utilize the yogic practices with no religious dedications whatsoever.
So, how do we answer our critics who say we are breaking important rules by advocating for yoga in schools? Well, there is no one way and to be certain, we’ll need to apply a little yoga! By listening and engaging in compassionate dialogue with folks who think differently, we can make progress. Researchers and scientists are doing their part by proving the health and wellness benefits. But, I think it’s the one on one, human to human interaction that makes real headway. I do not think we’ll move forward if we discount or ridicule the beliefs and understandings of others. It’s tempting to write off beliefs that stand in contrast to our own, but isn’t that exactly what the “no-yoga-schoolers” are doing?
It’s a long conversation that I don’t see effectively being had in sound bites and elevator speeches. Yoga has been resilient enough to survive many epochs and continues to move it’s way around the globe, seeping into our human condition and hopefully dissolving some of our confusion in the process. The brewing national debate over yoga in schools in America is just another way that yoga helps to reveal reality.
Yoga is not a static situation. It is incredibly broad, almost like eating. We are all food eaters. And within that commonality, there is vast diversity.