Yoga as religion?

The Encinitas school district in California got a grant to teach children yoga. Seems harmless, right? Wrong. A group of parents is threatening to sue to stop the practice, arguing that yoga is derived from Hinduism and thus these classes are a violation of Establishment Clause prohibitions against public schools sponsoring religion.

But soon after yoga teachers began leading students at five elementary schools in twice-weekly sessions of stretching, breathing and relaxing, four dozen parents protested to the school board, saying yoga is a system of spiritual beliefs.

School officials quickly announced that parents could choose to have their children excused from yoga class.

But attorney Dean Broyles, representing the parents, said a lawsuit may be necessary to oust yoga from the school district.

Is yoga to Hinduism what school prayer and Bible study are to Christianity, and thus not allowed? As the parents’ attorney said, “If this were a program letting children sit silently and engage in Christian prayer, the district would never allow it.”

The origins of yoga lie deep in history and likely precede even Hinduism, though its links to some form of religious practice seem inescapable. But is yoga now so far removed from its origins that it has become a secular practice? I myself, though not religious in the least, have been tempted to take it up because of friends who swear by its benefits for mental and physical well-being. The only thing that has stopped me is laziness, not any idea that I would be sucked into a religion.

Actually, this would make for an interesting legal case.


  1. raymoscow says

    Some forms of it are very religious (with chants to or meditations on deities and so forth), but the usual ‘yoga’ taught at health clubs and such doesn’t seem to have any religion in it.

  2. Mano Singham says

    The usual test that the courts apply is called the Lemon test and checks whether the purpose of the action is to advance or oppose religion, whether it has the effect of doing so, and whether it excessively entangles the state with religion. If any of those conditions are met, it is unconstitutional. The history of the action becomes relevant in determining the purpose.

  3. Doug Little says

    If that is the case then you might as well ban any martial art, they all require periods of meditation and self contemplation.

  4. Rabidtreeweasel says

    What if, instead of calling it a Yoga class, it was a “Stretching Class” or a “Core Strengthening Class” or even a “Pilates Course.” Yoga movements can be found outside of the yogic tradition. If they don’t plan on teaching the religious aspects and mean to teach a mainstream course they could just change the name. I think it’s wise to look closely at these types of courses and see who is sponsoring them and teaching them. I’d be wary if, for example, I found out one of the teachers/sponsors was from the Lynch foundation.

  5. jamessweet says

    Yoga could be taught in a way that was an establishment clause variation, but as Salty Current says, it is often taught on a way that is totally secular and woo-free. Presuming that’s what the school district was doing, this should be an open-and-shut case. Yoga is pretty well accepted these days as a low-impact form of exercise and stretching, and few view it as a religious thing anymore (except the wingnuts).

    That said, recognizing that religious beliefs that would forbid the practice of yoga are pretty common, it probably is wise to offer an exemption.

  6. says

    I should note that I’m not a huge fan of Meera Nanda (haven’t yet read The God Market, since there’s no Kindle version), and take her arguments with a grain of salt, especially when they’re not properly referenced. But the HAF’s Take Back Yoga campaign is quite real, and definitely a complicating factor.

  7. Kimpatsu says

    Mano, it might interest you to know that in Japan, Judo and Kendo used to be compulsory parts of the national school curriculum until 1995, when a Japanese family of Mormon converts successfully sued the Hyogo Prefectural school board on the grounds that forcing their son to bow to a Shinto shrine (kamidana) at the start and end of every compulsory Kendo class violated their son’r religious beliefs. The court upheld this, and both Judo and Kendo became electives. However, the new Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, racist right-wing hawk that he is, has vowed to “restore national pride” by once again making Judo compulsory. This might not be as slam-dunk a legal case for the religious minorities as it seems, though, because in the intervening 17 years, Judo has changed beyond all recognition. Instead of everyone wearing white uniforms to symbolize spiritual calm (the “no mind”--i.e., lack of ego--of a child), practitioners now wear blue or white, and competition rules have changed as well to make matches more visually dynamic. This is to appeal to TV viewers, for whom the different colours make identifying competitors easy, and was done at the insistence of Sky Sports when they bought the TV rights. IOW, the Japanese PM seems to be admitting that Judo is no longer a Japanese spiritual practice, but merely a sport. But would it be allowed in American schools? In Japan, plenty of other arts with spiritual dimensions are practiced as after-school activities (Shorinji Kempo being highly prevalent), but the difference is that they are elective, not compulsory. Watch this space for further developments.

  8. Cathy W says

    My daughter’s high school choir just sang a couple songs from Handel’s Messiah at their Winter Sing. You’d think the content didn’t get more overtly religious than that -- but it was not done for religious purposes, but for music-appreciation-and-education purposes. As such, I had no objection to it. (The line becomes a little greyer at the elementary school level, where choir is often not an elective and it might be a little harder for the students to separate the content from the musical aspect of the performance.)

    But, anyways, if you can sing the Hallelujah Chorus without religious intent, surely you can do light calisthenics without religious intent, even if the calisthenics in question came about as a spiritual practice.

  9. funknjunk says

    yup, call it stretching class. oh, and breathing. stretching and breathing. people need to relearn how to breathe nowadays. we all breathe way too shallow.

  10. baal says

    I’ve personally done a number of martial arts, fencing, yoga and tai chi ch’uan. Some of the classes had a decidedly religious bent and I stopped going or didn’t start. Others were as secular as competitive swimming (which I also did) or racquet ball. The label of the physical activity tells you next to nothing. The school of thought of the teachers matters as well as the venue and what accommodations that are made for the same.

    Refusals based merely on being ‘yoga’ (wow Alex, that letter was crappy) are ignorant at best.

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