Is Yoga Religious Anymore?

I had to do some blog posts for my history of religion in post-Civil War America class and I was pretty proud of the following post so I will share it here.

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Ariel Skelley via Getty Images

Ariel Skelley via Getty Images

Brian Melley reports in a Huffington Post Religion article that the 4th District Court of Appeal in San Diego upheld a lower court ruling that rejected a family’s lawsuit that tried to prevent Encinitas Union School District from teaching yoga as an alternative to traditional gym classes. The Sedlock family filed the lawsuit claiming that yoga in schools promoted Hinduism and inhibited Christianity, which violated their Religious Freedom. However, the court ruled in a 3-0 opinion that, “While the practice of yoga may be religious in some contexts, yoga classes as taught in the district are, as the trial court determined, ‘devoid of any religious, mystical, or spiritual trappings.’” Public schools continuously deal with parents outraged at school curriculum or practices especially when different religions and/or religious practices are involved. For example, this past fall a Massachusetts father removed his son from class because the history curriculum included lessons on Islam. These instances give an intriguing glimpse at the religious landscape of America. First, this trend suggests that people are suspicious and fearful of religions and practices that are seen as “other” or foreign to America’s majority Christian population. Secondly, yoga, transformed by mainstream America, has become void of its original religious roots and meanings.

A view held by some Christians is that yoga is a gateway into Hinduism and “demonism” as explained by famous mega church pastor Mark Driscoll. Westerners frequently portray Hinduism through an Orientalist lens, believing it to be idolatrous, pagan, and dangerous. Looking at Mary Daggett’s writing, “The Heathen Invasion of America,” many Americans felt that Hinduism caused women to become adulterous, hysterical, and suicidal. In this light it’s easy to understand why Americans perceive Hinduism as such a great threat to society. Are parents such as the Sedlocks worried about yoga practices, which they perceive as leading to Hindu conversion, because it threatens the power and privileges Christians hold in the U.S.? But is Yoga in the U.S. even religious anymore? The Sedlock family clearly felt the presence of yoga classes at their children’s school was in violation of their First Amendment rights of Religious Freedom. However, yoga, in this context, has become globalized and removed from its Hindu roots.

Yoga that is accessibly found in the U.S. is often a reductive form of the practice; so much so, that the U.S. court system has ruled it void of any religious meaning. What does this mean for Hinduism and the practice of yoga? Catherine Albanese, author of “The Elephant in the Dark,” wrote of America’s “manyness of religions” and its “oneness of religion” (12). Hinduism, including its variety of worship practices, makes up one piece of America’s religious pluralism puzzle. Albanese notes that religions in America are shaped, “by, in, and through its relationship with the mainstream” (13). Hinduism and its practices may become influenced by its relationship with mainstream America in order to assimilate itself into the fold of the oneness of American religion.

Yoga instructor and blogger, Andi MacDonald, explains yoga’s globalization in her article “Why I Stopped Teaching Yoga – My Journey into Spiritual, Political Accountability:”

We’ve commodified, materialized and westernized a practice that has roots in a culture that we (and by we I am speaking largely to white folks here) are not a part of. We are taking an aspect of this culture removing it from its context and then we are changing it, claiming to own it, attempting to copyright and sell it and ultimately shaping it into something that is harmful to all of us.

In this way, yoga can be seen as neither threatening or in violation of anyone’s Religious Freedom. Therefore, yoga, in its relationship with the American mainstream, has lost its religious meaning and, instead, has been utilized mainly as an alternative exercising method.

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