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