A victory for US schoolchildren through a faulty understanding of yoga
Perhaps because of its inherent vastness, the term 'yoga' is applied to the most random of activities these days and its purpose has been lost along the way.
By Sheetal Shah
The district court ruling on the yoga program in public schools in Encinitas, CA has reignited the debate over the Hindu roots of yoga. The majority of headlines have erroneously proclaimed that the court ruled yoga is not religious.
In fact, the court said no such thing.
On the contrary, the court stated, "It is undisputed that Hinduism is a religion. We assume...that Ashtanga yoga insofar as it prescribes the practice of an eight-limbed form of yoga in which the eighth and final limb is ‘union with the universal or the divine,’ is a religion…”. Granted, the use of the word “religion” to describe both yoga and Hinduism provides a limited understanding of the belief systems and practices. Nonetheless, the court was not shy about linking Ashtanga yoga with Hinduism.
To understand the court's focus on Ashtanga yoga, we first need to revisit why the yoga program in Encinitas became the center of this legal controversy. The first iteration of the program was sponsored through the Jois Foundation and overtly promoted the Ashtanga nature of its curriculum. One of the teachers presented the children with the eight limbs of Ashtanga* and taught them to begin class with "Namaste". Though the teacher defined "Namaste" as "Respect", its definition lies closer to "The Divine in me bows to the Divine in you" - a notion very much rooted in the Hindu idea that God, or the Divine, resides universally in all beings, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or religious affiliation. And of course, the Jois Foundation, itself named after the father of Ashtanga yoga, Shri Pattabhi Jois, promotes the eight-limbed Ashtanga yoga.
It was this version of the yoga program that caused concern for some of the parents in the district, and rightfully so. But that program went out of existence three years ago. The program in Encinitas, now sponsored by the Sonima Foundation, does not teach children about the eight limbs of Ashtanga nor does it include chanting of "Om" nor the inclusion of concepts dealing with God. As Sonima’s website states, the curriculum is “based on best practices of health and wellness, including exercise based on yoga and common exercise regimes...”. It was in reference to this program where the court deemed the “yoga classes as taught in the District are...‘devoid of any religious, mystical, or spiritual trappings.’”
For the thousands of schoolchildren who are benefiting from Sonima’s wellness programme, the court ruling is a victory. And so also it is for those of us who are vested in seeing generations of healthy, kind, and self-aware children.
Also noteworthy is the distinction the Sonima Foundation makes about its curriculum as "based on yoga" rather than "yoga" itself. And that distinction, minor as it may appear, is important to many Hindus, particularly to those of us who have grown up in the West having to explain to our peers, teachers, and coworkers that we are far more than a people who worship idols and cows, have a caste system, and believe in an oversimplified notion of "what goes around, comes around." Rather, we come from a pluralistic tradition that believes that the Divine resides in all, and every person, regardless of faith or no faith, has the right and ability to develop the concentration to ultimately experience union or oneness with God/Divine/Consciousness. The methods of concentration to achieving that union are many, and we refer to them as yoga. And yet this concept of yoga, which is at the very core of Hinduism and can be found in Hindu texts dating back thousands of year, is universal in nature, which is perhaps why its reach is so vast. In line with Hindu thought, yoga does not have a set of prescribed commandments nor a "chosen" people nor does it require one to pledge allegiance to any one God. It is inclusive and welcomes anyone who is willing to embrace its pluralistic outlook.
Perhaps because of its inherent vastness, the term "yoga" is applied to the most random of activities these days and its purpose has been lost along the way. Emblematic of the problem is the court’s attempt to bifurcate yoga into something that can be purely "religious" or purely "secular". Whether the yoga is hatha, ashtanga, kundalini, raja, karma, jnana, or bhakti, the paths overlap and its ultimate purpose is to develop a type of concentration that allows one to experience one’s true self or the Divine or pure consciousness (for those who do not believe in God). There is no purely religious yoga or secular yoga nor purely physical yoga or spiritual yoga. There is only yoga.
So if there only exists this pluralistic yoga which does not require allegiance to a specific God or religion, why do we at HAF find the need to acknowledge its roots in Hinduism?
Because the crux of Hinduism is this pluralistic philosophy which allows its adherents vast freedom in their journey to enlightenment and ultimately, moksha. Yet, when we try to explain it as such, we instead find ourselves in terminology debates over the origins of “Hinduism” vs. “Vedic” vs. “Sanatana Dharma” vs. “yoga” vs. “ancient Indian,” with various academics and the likes of Deepak Chopra, who have made millions repackaging and selling Hindu philosophy as everything but Hinduism. This superfluous debate stems from the term “Hindu” itself, which was coined in the 12th century by the Persians and unfortunately, stuck. Yet, it is the collective identity of over one billion people whose beliefs and practices stem from the Vedas (thus, Vedic) and who consider Hinduism to be comprised of many viewpoints, including the six major darshanas, one of which is Yoga. The self-referential term is Sanatana Dharma, or Eternal Truth, and there has been budding interest in the community to return to this original term.
This debate over terminology - which unfortunately functions to separate the underlying pluralistic philosophy from Hinduism as a whole - has become an issue, particularly for Hindus in the West where caricatured views of Hinduism have been perpetuated. It is why many in the yoga world, like Yoga Journal, refuse to acknowledge any link between yoga and Hinduism. And most problematic of all, it has filtered down to our public schools where both states’ content standards and social studies textbooks present Hinduism in this misguided manner. What child growing up in America wants to be associated with stereotypes and caricatures? It has led to young Hindu American students being mocked and bullied by their peers and in some cases, their teachers. Worse, it has led some to be ashamed of their tradition, heritage, and faith.
Now, imagine public school textbooks that present Hinduism in the same fair and accurate manner that they do other faith traditions. One that explains Hinduism as pluralistic; comprised of various viewpoints on reality, one being Yoga; and very diverse in its practice. Imagine the beneficial impact that would have not just on Hindu students, but on all students who are coming of age in this global environment.
It was with these lofty goals in mind that HAF began its campaign to highlight the Hindu roots of yoga. All along, we have been clear that an acknowledgement of the shared pluralistic roots of yoga and Hinduism do not to compel anyone to profess allegiance to Hinduism nor take yoga away from anyone. For those with open hearts and minds, yoga has always been and will always be.
*The eight limbs of Ashtanga are yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi.
Sheetal Shah is Senior Director, Hindu American Foundation.