Hang on. It's not over.
On Monday, the organization that filed a lawsuit against California’s Encinitas School District alleging yoga is a religion and should not be offered in public school appealed a ruling that said the school’s program could continue.
Dean Broyles, president of the National Center for Law & Policy, filed the original lawsuit last October on behalf of parents. The nonprofit was established to defend religious freedom, traditional marriage and the sanctity of life. Parents who objected to the Encinita's school yoga program, funded through a grant from the K.P. Jois Foundation (recently renamed the Sonima), argued it established a practice of religion. In July, San Diego Superior Court Judge John Meyer ruled that the teaching of yoga in public schools does not establish a government interest in religion and has a legitimate secular purpose as part of the district’s physical education program.
Lots of experts have weighed in on this debate, which shows no signs of abating. Author Katherine Stewart alleged in a magazine article that the National Center of Law & Policy’s lawsuit was at best hypocritical, because the organization champions Christian-oriented programming in the same school district. The Christian Broadcasting Network did a story featuring Laurette Willis, who warned that yoga presents a danger to Christian believers. She has created an alternative called “PraiseMoves,” which are adapted yoga poses set to Bible scripture. The popular blog YogaDork weighed in with its customary snarky tone. A candidate for Virginia’s attorney general attorney office has alleged that yoga is a tool of Satan. Yogi Mark Whitwell argues that yoga can help shore up one’s religious beliefs, regardless of brand. As with most issues that become politicized, contention has become the point, and no one is convincing anyone of anything.
We openly acknowledge our own biases. One is that children benefit greatly from engaging in yoga practices that include the physical poses and meditation. Research is shoring up this assertion, and in today’s overwhelming, chaotic world, why rob children of something that can help them navigate its complexities? (I have often said I wished I had learned about and begun practicing yoga when I was much younger, because it has had such a profound and positive affect on my life.)
Secondly, while yoga philosophy definitely has spiritual elements to it, we don’t see the logic of calling a religion. The spiritual aspect of yoga is defined by the practitioner, not by any one organization or dogma handed down by a central authority.
We know plenty of people, even devoted practitioners, who see yoga as nothing more than a form of physical exercise. In our Western culture, the physical aspect is so emphasized that most people don’t even realize there is more to it than that. When we were doing research for Yoga Wisdom at Work, we were surprised how many experienced yogis — even some teachers — had never heard of Patanjali’s Sutras or the Eight Limbs of Yoga. That’s one reason we find this “yoga is an organized religion” assertion so ironic. The argument makes about as much sense as defining gardening as a religion because some people believe God created the earth an people kneel down when they weed.
The debate will rage on. Religion engenders passions, and people’s beliefs are deeply held. We’re not experts — just committed practitioners. We’re not here to offer evidence, only our experience.
And our experience fuels the hope that yoga will stay in school.