Is Yoga a Religion?

Last week, parents in California’s Encinitas Union School District filed a suit against a recently adopted (completely optional) in-school yoga program. Their issue? As one enraged parent put it, “They’re not just teaching physical poses, they’re teaching children how to think and how to make decisions… They’re teaching children how to meditate, how to look for peace and for comfort” (Common Dreams). The parents’ lawyer agrees (as any good hired lawyer should): “This is frankly the clearest case of the state trampling on the religious freedom rights of citizens that I have personally witnessed in my 18 years of practice as a constitutional attorney,” said Dean Broyles in a public statement (Wall St. Journal Blogs). The Constitution Daily–a blog that claims to provide bipartisan, “smart conversation about the Constitution” is not so sure, and points to the many nuances within the definition of “religion”–does a religion necessitate a belief in a god? an afterlife? Is a practice or activity that discusses morality automatically religious? (If so, philosophy, English, and history teachers had better watch out!)

As for me? I find the lawsuit utterly preposterous. Unless the yoga teachers in the Encinitas school district have created their own brand of yoga that adds religious discussion to the practice, I cannot begin to understand their opposition. If teaching bodily awareness is religious, perhaps we should ban physical education. If teaching children “how to look for peace and comfort” is an infringement on their rights, maybe we ought to rethink what it means to be a good parent. If encouraging deep breathing is off limits, why not go ahead and outlaw oxygen, just to be extra cautious?

It is frustrating at times to see yoga represented in the media–many articles would have us believe that yogis are all a bunch of Buddhist vegans who vote Ralph Nader (whether he’s on the ballot or not). And while there are plenty of them (us) who are bleeding-heart new-age hippies, “the yoga community” is in fact quite diverse. Even within my circle of friends and students, there are yogis who identify as Christian, Muslim, Jewish, republican, democrat, independent, the list goes on. What we share, however, is much more salient: a desire to be healthy, strong, reflective, and resilient people. If that’s religious, so is being human.

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