Yoga and the Boundaries of Religion in the Public Square


by James Dennis LoRusso

In one of the latest installments of the culture wars, we once again confront the struggle to specify the boundaries between religion and the state.  A group of parents in Encinitas, CA, with the aid of the National Center for Law and Policy, has threatened to sue the local public school district over its inclusion of a 30-minute yoga session at its elementary schools.  The program, which school administrators claim is part of a comprehensive wellness initiative, has been made possible with the help of a $500,000 grant from the Jois Foundation, an Encinitas-based organization that promotes the practice of Ashtanga Yoga.  Opponents maintain that yoga is essentially a religious practice, and by requiring children to engage in it, schools are “promoting Hinduism?” as the headline of a recent NPR article declares.

On the surface, these kinds of debates revolve around a single question: Is yoga religious?  Despite its historical ties to South Asian religious practice, its position in the United States remains more ambiguous.  In an article from The Guardianon the controversy, Andrea Jain, assistant professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University, ascribes a more complex history to yoga in Western cultures.  She states:

Postural yoga has been shown to be a successor of fitness methods that were already common in parts of Europe and the United States before postural yoga was introduced.  So we could think of postural yoga as a 20th century product, the aims of which include all sorts of modern conceptions of physical fitness, stress reduction, beauty and well-being, these things are not present in pre-colonial traditions of yoga at all.

Jain’s remarks certainly clarify how the cultural positioning and meaning of yoga has shifted over the last century, but her statement implicitly endorses certain assumptions about the boundaries of “religion.”  For Jain, the practice cannot be religious precisely because, in the process of transmission to the west, its substance was changed, suggesting that some imagined, “pristine” form of yoga existed before the corrupting influence of Western imperialism.

Critical scholarship on religion can often reflect such views.  For instance, Richard King and Jeremy Carrette, in Selling Spirituality (2006), suggest that, “widespread popularity of yoga in the West is largely linked to its secularization” and in the process “[it] loses much of what is genuinely counter-cultural, transformative and challenging to western cultural norms.”

While King and Carrette draw attention to how cultural transmission can change concepts and practices, these kinds of analyses pose a slippery slope, reducing the complex categories of “religion” and “culture” to discrete and observable objects.  Once again, only in its indigenous context and with its original meanings intact does yoga remain authentic and fully “religious.”

Categories like “religion” and “culture” serve us better when seen as concepts embedded in discourse that point to particular social processes.  The question is not “is yoga religious?” but rather “what is at stake in defining something as a religious practice?”  This can reveal a much more robust picture of the controversy over yoga in public schools.

Monica Luhar, covering the story for India West, writes that, “social scientists and psychologists have documented how self-control through yoga increases academic potential and fights against substance abuse, binge eating and various other hurtful practices.”  Here, Luhar uses scientific discourse to characterize yoga as strictly secular in this instance.  Because it holds material rewards, yoga should not be understood as religious.

Yet, scientific evidence is hardly sufficient to demonstrate the secular quality of any given practice.  Regular prayer has been shown in studies to have similar effects on stress levels and overall wellness, but public school administrators most certainly would reject any suggestion that prayer be a part of any required wellness program.  What exactly makes prayer “religious” and yoga “secular” then?  We would have to assume that “religion” is limited to matters of belief in doctrine, gods, or other myths (a very Protestant understanding of this term) and that embodied practices, without some attendant religious dogma, cannot constitute “religion.”

Yet, on the other side of the debate, ironically, evangelical opponents claim that because yoga is historically rooted to South Asian religious practices, it inherently transmits religious knowledge to the practitioner.  The National Center for Law and Policy, the evangelical-based group behind the opposition, acknowledges this perspective in a document explaining their reasoning:

The physical poses of yoga (Asanas) were developed to tell stories of Hindu gods and events.  In a widely acknowledged book called Myths of the Asanas, the authors write to yoga teachers and practitioners, “Asana practice’s… philosophical principles encourage spiritual growth… [that] Asanas can be viewed as a kind of prayer.

By this reasoning, concepts and practices that have served at any time a “religious” function must be kept out of public institutions.

To what extent, however, does this apply?  Does anything with a historical tie to a religious tradition somehow transmit its doctrine or represent a religious act?  By this logic, should we rename the days of the week because on Monday we are worshipping the moon, or Thor on Thursday?  Such arguments actually complicate other efforts of the NCLP, whose mission supports the “sanctity of life” and “traditional marriage,” two positions intimately bound to the theological assertions of some evangelical Christian communities.

Controversies such as these illustrate, on one hand, that nothing is inherently religious, and on the other hand, that religion is not a “thing” out there that can be observed, contained, or protected.  If anything, public debates on religion are inconsistent, episodic, and lack firm boundaries.  By looking under the surface to the reified notions of religion employed in these debates, we are better able to move past simplistic notions of how culture operates.

As Linell Cady, Professor of Religious Studies at Arizona State University, suggests in her essay, “Loosening the Category that Binds,” cultures are not “bounded wholes, with a large measure of integration and coherence,” but “far more fragmented and contested, with meanings negotiated rather than shared.”  Religion is one such contested concept, the meaning of which is neither shared by all nor owned exclusively by any particular group.  At once, then, yoga both is and isn’t religious, but so are a great many things, I suppose.

James Dennis LoRusso is a doctoral candidate in American Religious Cultures at Emory University. His dissertation project examines the relationship between spirituality in business and larger cultural and socio-economic developments in the contemporary United States.

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One Response to Yoga and the Boundaries of Religion in the Public Square

  1. Richard King says:

    This article misrepresents the arguments put forward in Carrette and King’s Selling Spirituality which are, in contrast to the way they are presented here, based upon a recognition that “as concepts embedded in discourse that point to particular social processes”. It is stated that

    “While King and Carrette draw attention to how cultural transmission can change concepts and practices, these kinds of analyses pose a slippery slope, reducing the complex categories of “religion” and “culture” to discrete and observable objects. Once again, only in its indigenous context and with its original meanings intact does yoga remain authentic and fully “religious.””

    However, the authors make it clear in the book (and in their other writings) that there are innumerable issues with the deployment of the category of religion in these (and other contexts). Indeed much of King’s work has involved arguing the opposing standpoint to the one attributed to him here – namely that the category of “religion” has a specifically western historical provenance and therefore cannot be unproblematically applied to an Indian context as if an easily identifiable object ‘out there’.

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