The Verdict Is In: Asana a.k.a. Yoga Is Cool in School

The Great Yoga Debate entered a courtroom and a verdict is in. Take the Om and Namaste out of yoga class, and substitute Sanskrit posture names such as padmasana with "criss-cross applesauce," and suddenly, yoga is a part of Americana and just fine for public schools. So did rule San Diego Superior Court Judge John Meyer after parents in Encinitas, CA sued the school board for allowing the Jois Foundation to teach a bare bones version of yoga to public school students hoping to decrease obesity and increase relaxation. Students were allowed to opt out, but the parents argued that yoga was essentially a Hindu practice, the teaching of which infringed upon the wall that must separate church, or in this case, temple and state.

In a nearly two-hour bench ruling of the hotly debated yoga-church-state case, Judge Meyer said that even though yoga may date back to 1500 B.C. and have its roots in Hinduism, the 30-minute yoga classes that emphasize respect, proper breathing and posture are not teaching religion.

As a lawyer, mother of two boys in public school, and active proponent of the Hindu American Foundation's (HAF) Take Back Yoga Project, I couldn't agree more. Three years ago, after hearing from the front desk of the Yoga Journal that "they [the editors] avoid it [the term Hinduism] because of its, you know, baggage," HAF set in motion a movement to bring to light the Hindu roots of yoga. The purpose of the project was two-fold: 1) to help the public-at-large understand that what is today generally understood as "yoga" is really asana, just one of the eight limbs of a holistic spiritual discipline; and 2) to call out the yoga industry for delinking yoga from Hinduism in a commercial quest to win over adherents.

Yoga is not merely stretching -- downward dogs and warrior poses -- coupled with a few deep breathing exercises. Though they are enormously beneficial, these are, strictly speaking, just asanas, or postures. Yoga is actually a transcendent spiritual journey encompassing moral codes such as ahimsa, or non-violence, purification of the senses and deep meditation. Yoga's journey, Hindus believe, ends in Self-realization, awakening practitioners to the eternal realities of their real Self, their inner consciousness.

Our hope was to promote the understanding that yoga is one of the Hindu tradition's many gifts to humanity. Moreover, Hinduism's pluralistic ethos does not require anyone to repudiate their own faith or convert to Hinduism in order to reap the benefits of yoga and many other transcendental Hindu teachings. Indeed, acknowledgement of the spiritual wellsprings of yoga seems only fair.

The Take Back Yoga Project generated international debate, as has the yoga in school case. Hindus joined many yoga teachers in insisting that the potential benefits of teaching yoga to our hyperactive, hyper-connected, and hyper-stressed children was so great, that HAF should just chill out and agree that yoga has nothing to do with any religion. And so what if yoga were infused with a Hindu sheen, some said. "Hinduism is different from other 'religions' and the teachings are universally applicable -- the laws of karma don't just apply to Hindus," they argued. Or, "If 'Under God' can be in the Pledge of Allegiance, why should yoga teachers have to scrub out Namaste and Om?" And, "Hinduism is non-proselytizing -- you don't have to convert or be Hindu to practice or benefit from yoga."

I understood well what many of my colleagues were saying. But as a mother and as a lawyer, I have to admit, I had serious concerns about yoga in schools. From my own experiences, I could easily place myself in the plaintiff parents' shoes -- parents who may be uncomfortable with something being taught to their children that might not comport with their own belief system. Indeed, we at HAF have strongly opposed the creeping proselytization in schools throughout the country where school sponsored prayers are okay and Intelligent Design edges out evolution. It was difficult for me to set aside the legal slippery slope arguments.

So, at least at HAF, we parsed the facts carefully and presented our arguments well before Judge Meyer ruled:

1) Public schools may not offer Yoga in schools, as Yoga is a spiritual discipline rooted in Hindu philosophy.

2) Public schools may offer asana-only programs as part of their curriculum because asana alone is not yoga. Although connected to Hindu culture and philosophy, the physically-centered practice of asana, disconnected from Yoga, only means pose, posture, or manner of sitting.

3) Specific programs such as the eightfold path based Ashtanga Yoga that go beyond the instruction of asana and other physical components of yoga are based on Hindu philosophy. Community groups, of course, are free to offer such programs during non-school hours using school facilities on the same basis as other community groups sponsoring secular programs for youth.

4) Asana, or postural practice, has been shown to tremendously benefit muscle tone, flexibility, blood pressure, back pain and arthritis, and the immune system. Studies have also shown that for children, the practice of asana may work to reduce Attention Deficit Disorder (AD/HD), improve general behavior, and grades.

While I haven't read Judge Meyer's ruling yet, media accounts indicate that our position is in consonance with his. Yoga is rooted in Hindu tradition, he reportedly said, but the "yoga" taught in Encinitas was stripped bare of all cultural references and even the Sanskrit names for poses, rendering it non-religious. I would go further to say that such asana based courses should not be called yoga. They are immensely helpful, and schools should embrace them, but yoga means so much more.

I might quibble, also, with Judge Meyer's statement that "Yoga as it has developed in the last 20 years is rooted in American culture, not Indian culture. It is a distinctly American phenomenon." Sure, mushrooming American yoga studios have appropriated, or shall we say Americanized, yoga to nearly unrecognizable varieties of posture clubs -- turn the heat up, turn it down, Doga, Christian yoga, you name it. But the stalwart teachers of the American yoga world -- the recognized leaders who have been teaching yoga well before this "yoga fad"-- still face Eastward to learn and draw inspiration.

The legal imprimatur to Take Back Yoga is welcome. Let the world avail of the manifold benefits of Yoga, meditation, Ayurveda and so many of Hindu civilization's bequests to humanity. A thank you card now and then is only polite.