Is it OK that yoga’s just exercise?

So, amid all the celebrations about the ruling in Encinitas finding that yoga can be taught in schools there, I have to wonder: Are there any negatives in the judge’s decision?

The first, of course, is that it sounds like this story isn’t over. Opponents are making it clear they intend to pursue further litigation. So expect an appeal. (As I’ve written before, if they do, they will need to improve their arguments. That idea, I think it save to say, got support from the judge who talked about the opponents waging a “trial by Wikipedia.”)

The main negative, however, can be seen in how the story is being headlined by the media covering it. There are a lot of versions of “Judge rules yoga just exercise.” Or the main alternative: “Yoga ruled not religious.”

Just exercise? Not religious?

Here’s a few lines from a quick pass reaction in the Los Angeles Times:

But yoga, as it’s often practiced in this country, has long since shed its religion in favor of a watered-down Eastern vibe that sometimes has a cartoonish aspect.

To claim that the yoga being taught in Encinitas schools is a form of religious instruction springs from the same impulse that finds “Harry Potter” books primers on witchcraft, or “Heather Has Two Mommies” a pamphlet promoting lesbianism.

That argument, of course, was the point of what the defense maintained throughout this lawsuit — the program in the schools even got rid of all the Sanskrit words, much as some yoga studios explicitly and proudly do: “No chanting. No Sanskrit. No incense.”

Yoga, as commodified and commercialized in the West (and elsewhere at this point), pretty much does come down to just exercise — it has shed its religion, per the Times. If you need any convincing, I’d encourage you to check out Facebook or other social media and see how yoga teachers , by and large (and by a large margin), present themselves. There’s more talk about toning your abs than tuning your mind. It’s all working out, not working in, as Tim Miller might say.

But that’s a problem, right?

I know the main argument against what I’m saying: People (children included) are better off doing yoga or being exposed to it than not. There are tangible, physical benefits after all, as growing stacks of scientific studies suggest. (There may even be some untangible benefits, but we probably don’t want to highlight them until this whole issue in Encinitas is over.) So however people get to yoga, great. The more people practicing yoga, the better.

Yoga is good for us, after all. Maybe very good for us. Who wants to deny that to anyone? That’s difficult to counter, as much as I might like.

But the thing is this:

As yoga evolves and spreads — or if you’re feeling argumentative, continues to become the latest commodified brand of fitness — what is it losing? What might it lose? Perhaps yoga, with the benefit of science and research and a focus on how it lowers blood pressure and calms our nervous systems (doing all the measurable things that might once have been categorized as the effects of religion), will evolve into a highly systematized, extremely efficient regulator of our bodies. A one-stop regiment that benefits us physically and emotionally, one that makes our bodies strong and our minds steady.

A perfected exercise in some perfected future, when we all live to 150.

But at what cost? Because there’s no religion in that.

At this point someone might be quick to respond that what is being talked about in this lawsuit and what I’m talking about is only asana, and that asana — sure — is just exercise. And so I should chill. (Maybe meditate?)

But my point is that the way this argument is being made is just the latest line in yoga’s being redefined as asana, and that’s now being redefined once more through this lawsuit.

Think of it, perhaps, this way.

In the distant past, a family gathered around a wonderful, healthy, shade-producing tree. Think of that Platonic tree, with a strong, straight truck and a rounded top full of green leaves and many branches. And they — creatively — called it “Tree.”

But time passes. Some of those once robust branches die, or perhaps are struck my lightning or, no shock, are cut off by that family for their use and needs. And yet they continue to call this tree “Tree,” even though now it has a strong trunk, but a spotty top, one almost with holes you can see through where branches once were.

More time passes. More branches die or are cut off, more leaves fall to the ground. Time passes so more. More branches are gone. And eventually the family is gathering before “Tree” but really it is just a tall, and probably bent, trunk. Just bare wood.

(Did I just steal from The Giving Tree? Maybe.)

And now think of yoga. Way back — those 5,000 years we all are so fond of citing — it had eight limbs, right? People gathered before it by practicing those eight limbs (or trying to get to those last few). But as time passes, some of those limbs fall away — are struck by the lightning of progress, are cut off by the saws of the Western embrace — and we are left with just a trunk that curves into one, lone limb: asana.

And for all the people involved know, that’s yoga.

But it isn’t.

Posted by Steve


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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

40 thoughts on “Is it OK that yoga’s just exercise?”

  1. When I comes to yoga in schools, I agree with the defenses argument. Religion is not supposed to be in schools. They can practice yoga without all of that and still benefit. It was the best and only way they could have argued that case. How you teach yoga in your own yoga studio is your business. This has no bearing on that.

  2. I agree with Shanna! Religion really does have no place in a public school, so you do what you have to do so yoga can stay. Aside from that, however, is the idea that yoga requires one to seek religious enlightenment. From the view you lay out, those who have no interest in the spiritual aspects of yoga should, apparently, not practice? What if all I’m interested in is a little stress-relief and the opportunity to stretch and strengthen my body in a healthy and productive way? I’m confused as to why that would be “bad” for yoga? It still means I’m a healthier, calmer, more balanced member of society, which means I’m contributing to the betterment of this world….and I”m doing it without any desire for spiritual improvement.

    1. Hi Rebecca.

      First off, I completely agree religion shouldn’t be in U.S. schools. (Secondly, I just managed to lose my first response to you, so this one is probably badly formed.)

      Beyond that I’m just thinking about the evolution of yoga. I know commenters here — including on our post on the trial — would have concerns about the yoga you describe, one that’s focused on stress-relief.

      I tried to use the tree metaphor. Here’s another:

      Imagine if the unleavened bread used in the Catholic Mass were made into a highly nutritious, vitamin-packed wafer. People would come and partake of it and get all the nutrition they needed to be healthy. But that would be missing something, right?

      I think as yoga evolves, maybe something similar is happening. Is it good, bad? I don’t know — that’s just the ruminating I’m doing. Should we be celebrating a court ruling that says there is no religion in yoga? Maybe, maybe not.

      But as I said, just ruminating (and for a second time). Now off to practice, which is much better.


  3. One of the most amazing things about the US is its integrative power, its capacity of appropriation, assimilation and oblivion. Take, for example, pizza. It cannot come as a surprise when the local pizza virtuosos – by merit of their apprenticeship at Papa John’s and their experience of having devoured “literally” a thousand slices Hawaiian on thick crust – genuinely believe that they invented it. But should the Italians be bothered? 

    If the Jois foundation is really out to promote a stretching and contortion program under the term “yoga” then they have cut themselves off from their roots. Peter Sanson on Guruji: “He pointed to his heart and said, ‘there is a small box sitting here./ in that box is sitting Atman. / Turn your attention here. That is yoga.” (From “Guruji”). Yoga hasn’t shed anything. One cannot practice yoga without “all of that”.

    1. I certainly don’t know the inner workings/thinking at Jois Foundation, but from the outward signs I see, they certainly have chosen the “spread it as wide as possible” route, which I suppose invariably means having to make other sacrifices. Such as what is rooted in the quote from Sanson.

      As I said, it is hard to argue with that. Yoga’s good for people, I am sure we all would agree. I guess I’m trying to peer at the potential unintended consequences. By way of discussion.


  4. Asana is a way in..for some maybe just a strong core, for some greater mindfulness, better health, breathing, etc. all good things. I didn’t walk into a yoga class knowing what it would bring to me..quite frankly I may have been too intimidated at the time to step in! But I’m blessed for the seeds of awareness and curiosity that led me further…I don’t force my spirituality on anyone else, but I’m blessed to have it and glad to share it. Yoga for children in a public school leads them on a more mindful path, not just a flexible body..planting seeds of hope and some compassion, all good things:-)

  5. The problem here has been the word “Yoga.” They should have called it something else but using the word Yoga immediately connects it with Hinduism. We have to remember that the judge has his own biases and I guess he hasn’t experienced anything even remotely religious going to his Bikram classes (this is precisely why i don’t go to Bikram they feel like an 80’s aerobic class to me). This whole argument is quite unfortunate to me. It’s rather like the christmas argument. I can’t tell you how many times people tell me they aren’t religious but they celebrate christmas. I don’t care how you celebrate christmas it’s religious.

    Is this judges decision based on his own agnostic belief when it comes to yoga or is he saying there is no religion in yoga? I don’t buy it I think his ruling is self serving. I’d like to see this go in front of a jury made up of 6 atheists and 6 people of different religions and let them make the decision.

    My opinion is yoga is a religious practice, is a definite branch of hinduism, is a practice not advised to be undertaken by other religions (within other religions they have their own yogic type practices). We can all practice any religion we want and yoga is a spiritual and religious practice and we can choose to practice it also. Asana practice on it’s own can be what ever you like just don’t call it asana practice, don’t relate it to the great sages and go for it. It is what it is. There are lots of videos out there on stretching and they are nothing like an indian asana practice with opening and closing chants. As I mentioned before I think the problem here is that the Jois Foundation used the word Yoga.

    Steve I like your “giving tree” analogy. Let’s not forget in that story in the end when all the limbs had been cut away and all that was left was a stump for the old man to sit “asana.”

    1. Even the name Jois is religious. It doesn’t matter to me i’m making a point. Being Jewish myself I understand that there was a time in history when my people came to north america and many changed their names to be able to assimilate, do business and be accepted by the predominant christian culture. Things haven’t changed much over the last 150 years in the U.S.

    2. Yoga is not religious. Hinduism has been integrated into it just like Christianity has been integrated into American culture. Yoga, the science itself, is not religious. Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. That is what the Yoga Sutra says.

      1. I don’t have time right now to do any in depth cross referencing here but this is a good starting place.

        “The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali are 196 Indian sūtras (aphorisms) that constitute the foundational text of Rāja yoga. Yoga is one of the six orthodox āstika schools of Hindu philosophy, which, according to the Yogatattva Upanishad, is divided into four forms – Mantrayoga, Layayoga, Hathayoga and Rājayoga[1] – the last of which is the highest (or royal) practice.[2][3]

        Although the Yoga Sutras have become the most important text of Yoga, the opinion of most scholars is that Patañjali was not the creator of Yoga, which existed well before him, but merely a great expounder.) ~

      2. “Reversing the Efforts to Decouple Yoga from Hinduism

        Although the Western Yoga community fully acknowledges Yoga’s Indian roots, and even requires study of Hindu philosophy and scripture in most of its teacher certification programs, much of it openly disassociates Yoga’s Hindu roots. While HAF affirms that one does not have to profess faith in Hinduism in order to practice Yoga or asana, it firmly holds that Yoga is an essential part of Hindu philosophy and the two cannot be delinked, despite efforts to do so.

        Shyam Ranganathan’s [9] analysis gets to the crux of the issue when he writes, “Though some modern atheistic minds and aspiring yogis may disagree, textually there is no getting around the fact that Patanjali uses words, that in the context of Hindu culture, have obvious theological implications” [10]. Patanjali describes the goal of Yoga as chitta-vritti-nirodha or “the cessation of mental fluctuations”, a core concept also expounded in Hinduism’s Bhagavad Gita: “Thus always absorbing one’s self in yoga, the yogi, whose mind is subdued, achieves peace that culminates in the highest state of Nirvana, which rests in me [Lord Krishna/Brahman/Supreme Reality]” [11].

        Similarly, Swami Svatmarama’s opening line in the Pradipika is in honor of the Hindu God Shiva (Siva): “Reverence to Siva the Lord of Yoga, who taught Parvati hatha wisdom as the first step to the pinnacle of raja yoga.”

        In the same 2005 interview cited previously, Prashant Iyengar expounds upon Yoga with references to both Hindu epics and Hindu philosophy: “Mahabharat has so many aspects of yoga like yama (restraint), niyama (observance), sama (calmness)…Ramayana gives us so many beautiful aspects of bhakti yoga and karma yoga. Essential yoga starts with karma yoga…Without karma-consciousness, there will be no progress in yoga.”

        The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) reaffirms that Yoga, “an inward journey, where you explore your mind, your awareness, your consciousness, your conscience” [12], is an essential part of Hindu belief and practice. But the science of yoga and the immense benefits its practice affords are for the benefit of all of humanity regardless of personal faith. Hinduism itself is a family of pluralistic doctrines and ways of life that acknowledge the existence of other spiritual and religious traditions. Hinduism, as a non-proselytizing religion, never compels practitioners of yoga to profess allegiance to the faith or convert. Yoga is a means of spiritual attainment for any and all seekers. ” ~ article link

    3. beautifully written and exactly how I see things. If you are not doing yoga don’t call it yoga and inadvertently lead small children towards a specific religion. who knows, as the child grows and wants the meat rather then the milk he is going to pursue it, and you can’t tell me that yoga as “just excersise” in school does not influence that…. and good job western culture; you successively disrespected a whole culture and sacred practice just to be cool.

  6. Maybe i’m missing something here about Ashtanga Yoga not being tied to Hinduism. My guru Sri K Patthabi Jois opens up his book Yoga Mala with this:

    Sri Gurum Gananatham cha
    Vanim Shanmathuram tathaarim cha
    Pranat osmi moohoormuhu
    (To the blessed Guru and Ganesh
    As well as to Saraswati and Skanda
    To Shiva, the lord of the yogis, and Shri Hari
    I bow again and again)
    source: Traditional prayer

    That’s pretty religious is it not?

    1. You may be my new hero bradstandsonhead.

      Oh, and regarding the Yoga Sutras don’t forget that isvara, who pretty much fits the description of God, and is traditionally translated and discussed as the Lord receives no less than seven specific mentions in a text of 195 aphorisms. Second, I believe, only to citta.

      Oh yeah, and just ignore the man behind the curtain who said that “seeing God everywhere” is the purpose of the practice…it’s just Guruji, after all. What would he know?

    2. This was obviously what the opponents in the trial were trying to get at — that Ashtanga is somehow “the most religious” yoga.

      Of course, I think Sharath is now saying that yoga isn’t religious, for whatever that’s worth. I get that only second hand, though. (And I’ll admit to feeling he sends a bit of a mixed message on the front.)


      1. I don’t think that Ashtanga Yoga (Sri K. Patthabi Jois) is any more religious than Iyengar. Iyengar talks about many of the same concepts as Guruji and they were both students of Krishnamacharya. They also grew up in a different India than it is today. Let’s face it this is business now. When Sri Ramana Maharshi was dying one of his disciples cried out, “don’t leave us!” Ramana Maharshi answered, “i’ll always be with you where will i go.” I’ve never met Guruji but I practice his practice, listen to his voice doing my led class to his video, he’s still here. “the rest is a circus.”

    3. That is a chant from one of the holy books. Of course it is religious. That does not mean that the science of yoga is religious. It means that people took it and applied religion to it

  7. Wow, Steve! That was so perfect! The analogy with “The Giving Tree” (which happens to be one of my most favorite books,) brought me to tears . . . Then I remembered how I came to Yoga, 35 years ago. I was an athlete & dancer who was looking for another way to challenge myself physically. LBCC was offering a new PE class, Beginning Yoga, & it fit my schedule perfectly. The instructor was careful to explain that it was not a spiritual/religious class, initially using only English names & descriptions. As the class progressed & we all became more comfortable, he introduced the Sanskrit names & deeper meanings. I found myself in such a blissful state after each class. I was hooked, but there wasn’t Yoga anywhere else in my area that I could find. I found books, Lilias on TV, some on videotape . . . all helping me to develop my daily practice.

    For many years it stayed a physical practice because of the religious & family situation I was living in. One day, that all changed & I was free to make new choices. I ‘accidentally’ ended up at the Yoga Health Institute & my life changed dramatically. Everything YOGA became my life focus. The more I practiced & integrated the 8 Limbs into my daily life, the better life became. The more I saw ‘God’ in all things & all people, the better I was at understanding, accepting, & loving them.

    Yoga & Ayurveda have healed me in times of physical, mental, & emotional dis-ease.

    After all of these years, Yoga teaches me something new everyday. I guess that’s what motivates me to do my practice every day & to study everything I can.

    So, my point is that some people will be exposed to Yoga without the deeper spiritual benefits, but they will gain the health benefits & may continue to a point where the other ones will be enticing to them. I am always happy that more people are offered the experience of Yoga & what they do with that experience is up to them.


    1. Hi Ananda.

      The Giving Tree was in my regular reading (or being read to) rotation as a kid, too. 🙂

      I think you capture the heart of what I’m trying to say perfectly, so I’ll just let you speak for me. Thanks!


  8. Is yoga just exercise? I like the question. Yes the practice of yoga could be placed on a continuum from those at one end that do it for exercise to those on the other end that are doing it for religious and spiritual reasons. The question again is, Is Yoga Religious/spiritual or is it just exercise? I haven’t read any documentation or scholarly articles anywhere that show that Yoga isn’t religious in origin but there is mountains of information stating the other. Why people do yoga as a practice is irrelevant in this question.

    1. Yeah. But you see. This is the problem. Yoga is transmitted via parampara. That means, we don’t make things up, or offer our take on them. We teach and practice what we’ve been taught. We read the commentaries of those who have realized the scriptures and when it comes to Yoga Sutras, all the commentaries which originate from the original commentator, Vyasa, affirm that Isvara is in the fact the Lord.

      1. When did the masters become the masters though? Yes, everything is transmitted by parampara but we as students are part of parampara. Krishnamacharya revolutionized yoga. He was a heretic in his time. Yes, he learned from paramapara but he put his own spin on it. If we just followed parampara, only male Brahmans would be able to practice yoga. Krishnamacharya and his teacher said that women, non Brahmans and householders should be able to practice. They used discernment which came from their own personal study and practice. Without them, I, a black female in America would not be able to do this practice today. I am glad that somebody took the time to think a little bit outside of the box of parampara.

      2. I’m sorry to say that your position continues to remain untenable within the yogic epistemology.

        To argue that Krishnamacharya made modifications to parampara would require you to point out from within sastra where and when women were specifically prevented from doing yoga. This would be difficult since the exclusion of such persons is itself a deviation from sastra in the first place. Thus, Krishnamacharya’s inclusion would actually be more in line with the teachings of sastra and thus parampara than the deviation you claim he “corrected.”

        Secondly, to argue that you as a student are qualified to offer an interpretation on or modification to parampara because Krishnamacharya did so is borderline laughable. No offense, but have you spent your entire life studying the Vedic literatures? Have you even read the six primary commentaries on the Yoga Sutras? How many times have you read the Bhagavad-gita, the 108 Upanishads, the Vedanta Sutra?

        My questioning is not intended to be mean or hurtful, but merely to point out our actual positions as students of yoga. For the most part, we are woefully inadequate to offer interpretation and analysis and while this is not a problem in and of itself; what is a problem is when we fail to realize it and speak from a place of ignorance disguised and packaged in post-modern mumbo-jumbo of “you’re okay, I’m okay, it’s all good man,” spiritual platitudes. This does not only a diservice to ourselves, but supports and maintains the current “yoga” milieu in which the only person who seems to understand yoga in the Encinitas case is the neo-conservative Christian attorney for the plaintiffs.

        I too am very grateful that we have the ability to practice yoga. But, I don’t think just because we’ve begun practice this makes us qualified to offer modifications engineered to fit our worldview.

        And regarding hypothesis…they are not evidence. They are just what you think.

  9. As far as the comment about Pattabhi Jois, he was human. When we talk about humans, we have to use discernment. Have you read the Yoga Mala? Do you do everything it says? Do you have sex according to how the air is blowing out of your nostrils? Do you eat ghee and sweets all the time? I love Pattabhi Jois and his contributions but I still use discernment when practicing yoga and following advice.

    1. But the question here is “Is it ok if yoga is just exercise?” The question isn’t about advice or what you decide to follow or not follow. We all know Sri K. Patthabi Jois was a human being. Even great saints have internal about faith etc. The trial and the question here is if yoga is Hindu or not. Who cares what people practice or how they practice. I’d like to here if you think that Yoga is tied to Hinduism or not. Judging by what you said earlier you said that “Yoga has been integrated into Hinduism.” I’m all for accepting this but I need some evidence. There is plenty of evidence showing that many of the hindu scriptures and philosophies mention yoga. Give us some evidence the other way

      1. That is the evidence. The fact that they are Hindu scriptures with yoga mentioned in them would indicate that Yoga was mixed into hinduism not the other way around. Many scholars feel that yoga predates Hinduism. I am not a scholar but that is an interesting hypothesis.

  10. if it’s just exercise it isn’t yoga it’s just exercise. asking “is it ok if yoga is just exercise” is like asking “is it ok if love is just sex, is it ok if music is just sounds, etc”. one may be part of the other but not by itself sufficient to define the concept. exercise, even if exercise replicates the mechanics of asana it is not within a continuum of yoga, it’s without. still exercise is very good for you.

  11. It is absolutely OK if the practice of yoga is extremely religious to some people, and at the same time completely devoid of all religion to other people. Yoga is universal, it belongs to all people who wish to practice yoga of all kinds, whether they believe in all kinds of different religions, or even if they are Atheists. Ishvara can be any god of your choosing, and the devotion to (your) Ishvara is recommended as the best path in yoga, but Patanjali is well aware of the godless path, e.g. Buddhism, and that the methods of yoga can be practiced by anyone — unless of course if you have other convictions or inclinations that makes it impossible or irrelevant for you to practice yoga.

    Yoga is essentially a spiritual practice at its core, but certainly asana, pranayama, and meditation — i.e. parts of yoga — can also be completely physical and mental methods that have nothing to do with religion, if that is the path you choose.

  12. Religion is defined as “The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, esp. a personal God or gods.”

    Worship is the word to notice here. If worship is the intent when you practice Ashtanga Yoga asana every day (for example, apparently Pattabhi Jois exhorted his students with the words, “Mind on God!”) then perhaps yoga is a religion for you. That is, if connection with Ishvara/(Personal) God/Universal Consciousness is your goal, then it’s religious.

    Nothing wrong with that, a lovely goal. And, fortunately, a purely individual choice for each of us.


    If your intent is health and wellbeing of the body and mind – if you are there to reduce stress, feel better in your body, get more fit, and/or to calm your mind – then, no, I don’t think it’s a religious practice for you.

    There are gray areas in between these two ‘poles’ of practice – perhaps as myriad as there are yoga practitioners. For some, the idea that doing yoga asana means bowing to a foreign god, well, it just feels abhorrent. My RC hubby, for example, always says, “I’m just here for the exercise,” so that he can justify/align what he’s doing with his personal belief system. For others (like me) their ultimately goal is a connection to Ishvara/(Personal)God/ Universal Consciousness.

    We’re all agreed, even if you choose not to practice yoga “religiously” you will still gain benefits. It is a brilliant system that bestows positive long-term effects on our health and self-awareness. Ultimately, it reveals our most healthy, conscious, compassionate and noblest selves. All through this seemingly simple process of breathing mindfully and moving our bodies. Wow.

    Many paths, one Truth. Tolerance for all.

    And, since it’s the 4th of July, here’s Thomas Jefferson on religious tolerance:

    “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

    I think he would have been an Ashtanga Practitioner, don’t you!? 🙂

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