Claim: Encinitas yoga program promotes and advances religion
Throughout the now months-long battle between parents upset about the Jois Yoga-funded program in the Encinitas schools and supporters, I’ve continually returned to two fundamental questions:
- Is yoga inherently religious, as the opponents (who have now filed a lawsuit to stop the program) suggest?
- What is it about this Jois Yoga-backed program that caused such a stir when there are numerous other yoga-in-schools programs, including ones with at least loose ties to Ashtanga?
That yoga is inherently religious seems to be the key point in the lawsuit filed on Wednesday by the National Center for Law & Policy. The suit claims that due to this the yoga program violates the “California constitution’s religious freedom provisions.” The suit includes expert testimony from Indiana University professor Candy Gunther Brown.
So just who is Dr. Brown? Here’s a link to her bio page at IU. As I looked into more background, what popped up — and what I remembered — was her lead involvement in a study that determined that praying for another person’s healing can help, especially if that prayer happens physically near the person for whom it is being said.
If you have an image of Evangelical Christians laying on hands, by my impression, you’ve got it pretty close. One of Brown’s specialties is Evangelical Christianity, including Pentecostals and Charismatics. How, you might then wonder, is she an expert on whether yoga is religious?
As best as I can tell — other than from her own claims to her expertise in the suit — it is because she wrote a book, The Healing Gods of Christian America: Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the Mainstream. Here’s a little from her bio about the book:
American interest in divine healing peaked twice in the late nineteenth and late twentieth centuries, in parallel (and intersecting in surprising ways) with twin peaks in interest in various “natural,” “holistic” therapies (such as yoga, chiropractic, acupuncture, Reiki, Therapeutic Touch, mindfulness and Transcendental Meditation, martial arts, homeopathy, and anti-cancer alternatives) that are similarly envisioned as offering something more than biomedicine.
In her declaration for the lawsuit, she writes: “In particular, I have conducted extensive research on yoga and meditation—including school yoga and meditation programs. … I regularly draw upon my research in my teaching, including my research on yoga, meditation, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and metaphysics.”
I know I’m not exactly unbiased here, but I don’t think that makes her the most solid expert. But I’m not going to be the judge or jury in this case. (I will note that she seems to have won a few teaching awards at IU.)
The other thing I checked out: What’s her rationale for getting involved? Nothing has jumped out at me. I’ve looked around to see if she is often an expert witness in lawsuits, and that doesn’t seem to be the case. I assume from her writings and research, which I take to be trying to prove the value of prayer (and its value in being studied) that she’s a Christian, and perhaps Evangelical. But I don’t know. I’m guessing that will be the conclusion a lot of people jump to when they see she is part of the suit. But I haven’t found a string of instances where she’s crusading against the spread of yoga or anything like that.
Her statement is 31 pages long, so I’m just going to take the meat from is:
11. My opinion regarding whether the Ashtanga yoga program in the Encinitas Union
School District (EUSD) promotes or advances religion is as follows:
12. Ashtanga yoga, as endorsed by the EUSD yoga curriculum, in my expert
opinion, promotes and advances religion, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and
13. Documents and statements by EUSD representatives, the Jois Foundation, the
Jois Foundation Encinitas Yoga Shala, the University of Virginia Contemplative Sciences
Center (CSC), the Carlsbad Ashtanga Yoga Center, and other members of the Ashtanga
yoga community include religious and specifically Hindu content.
14. The practices taught by the EUSD yoga curriculum promote and advance
religion, including Hinduism—whether or not these practices are taught using religious or
17. The EUSD yoga program fits a definition of “religion” informed by
scholarship in religious studies and comparative religion.
21. Historically, yoga has been closely associated with religious traditions of India
that are today identified as Hindu, Buddhist, or Jain.
28. Historically, the type of meditation promoted by UVA’s CSC has been
associated with Hindu and Buddhist religious traditions.
31. The EUSD yoga curriculum incorporates and endorses religious concepts.
42. Parents who observed EUSD yoga classes, and/or whose children participated
in these classes, attest to the inclusion and endorsement of religious elements.
49. The Jois Foundation website includes Hindu religious content.
54. Leaders of the University of Virginia Contemplative Sciences Center (CSC)
affirm that Ashtanga yoga and mindfulness meditation promote religion.
57. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and his son Manju Jois describe Ashtanga yoga as
promoting Hinduism, even when presented as a purely physical practice stripped of religious
language and instruction.
59. Manju Jois says doing asanas automatically draws practitioners into Hindu
spiritual path. According to Manju Jois, son of Pattabhi Jois, when teaching “Western students,”
his father did not discuss the “spiritual aspect” of yoga because “Hinduism is very, very hard to
understand.” That is why “the yoga asanas are important – you just do. Don’t talk about the
philosophy – 99% practice and 1% philosophy that’s what he meant. You just keep doing it,
keep doing it, keep doing it then slowly it will start opening up inside of you,” to
“automatically . . . draw you into the spiritual path.”
60. The Carlsbad Ashtanga Yoga Center (AYC) website promotes Hindu religious
61. AYC observes “moon days” for Hindu religious reasons. The website for the
Ashtanga Yoga Center (AYC) in Carlsbad, California (directed by Tim Miller, “the first American
certified to teach by Pattabhi Jois”) explains that the “Ashtanga Yoga tradition” observes “full and
new moon days” because “full moon energy corresponds” to “prana” force and “new moon
energy” to apana force,” as described in the “Upanishads.”
68. Just because the EUSD denies that its yoga program is religious does not, in
itself, mean that the program has been stripped of religious content, nor that it is necessarily
possible to separate a yoga program from religious content.
72. There is evidence that promoters of yoga and mindfulness meditation
commonly engage in “self-censorship” or “camouflage” to make practices seem less religious
and thus more palatable to secular or Christian audiences.
75. EUSD’s denial that its yoga curriculum is religious resembles similar denials
made by other programs and individuals who have brought what they understand as
religious yoga into public education.
79. 13. There is evidence that many yoga promoters believe that practicing
“secularized” yoga will lead practitioners to embrace yoga’s religious concepts.
82. There is evidence that even “secularized” yoga promotes Hinduism and
related religions, as participants in “secularized” yoga do come to embrace religious yoga.
I suppose I should note that there’s a fairly substantial reference to the Ashtanga Yoga Center, most likely because it is local. And in between all the parts printed above are the rationales behind them. (I’m trying to figure out a way to get this online or find it online for those interested in it all.)
All that is in answer to my first question. As for the second question, I think it is a bit funny given Brown’s work with Evangelicalism that it seems to come down to the Jois Foundation’s perceived “evangelicalism” about Ashtanga.
The story includes mentions of the work with the Encinitas School District, but my guess is there are two key parts of the story for the yoga program’s opponents:
As Vanity Fair tells it, Sonia’s single-minded devotion to the practice—along with her husband’s money—has also led to ambitious plans to spread the gospel of Ashtanga throughout the country and even internationally. In partnership with Pattabhi Jois’ daughter and his grandson Sharat (who has taken over his grandfather’s practice), she’s started three Ashtanga shalas—in Encinitas, California; Sydney, Australia; and most recently in Greenwich, Connecticut —and has also set up charities to bring yoga worldwide, from charter schools in Florida to villages in Africa, earning her the tag of the “Mother Teresa of yoga.”
The CSC is designed to effect that reunion, linking the practical approach to yoga and meditation employed in the medical sciences to the cultural traditions that created them. Much of that work will happen in the religious studies department. Campbell is on tap to teach a class this fall called Yogic Traditions of South Asia, which is listed in the online syllabus as “an exploration of concepts and practices associated with the Indic categories of yoga and tantra in major religious traditions of South and Himalayan Asia.”
Of course, I haven’t seen anything to suggest that a similar effort to re-link yoga and its cultural traditions is happening in Encinitas; the district’s superintendent and others involved have said, repeatedly, that is isn’t. (You’ll note, though, that such arguments are targeted in the expert testimony above.)
But if someone were looking for a fire, I guess I can see where they might have thought they spotted some distant smoke here. But it feels like it is taking a lot of looking.
The expert testimony is online now, right here.
Hey! The Catholic Church may be embracing yoga a little, teensy bit.
Are yoga balls in elementary school OK?
Posted by Steve