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The Threat of Yoga

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Yoga is getting a lot of attention lately -- from news of people overdoing it by mistaking it for a competitive sport to objections to its being taught in schools as a means of religious (in this case Hindu) indoctrination.

I attend yoga classes three times a week at The Mindful Body here in San Francisco. The practice keeps me fit and focused and I haven't, as yet, been turned into a Hindu (although I remember Ram Dass confessing that he was more of an Undo than a Hindu). I come away grateful and refreshed, having been in the company of sane teachers and practitioners who are in no way spiritually whacky.

In other parts of the state and country, there is fear that yoga might have a corroding effect on children if classes were to be offered in schools. A group of 60 Southern California parents thinks so. The teaching of yoga is seen as a subversive effort to slip religion into our schools at tax-payers expense (although, in this case, the proposed teaching is privately funded). The question is, "Is yoga a religious practice?" Well, yes and no. "Religion" is an umbrella term for so many things that it becomes almost meaningless. Aldous Huxley pointed out years ago, the word religion,

"is used to designate things as different from one another as Satanism and satori, as fetish-worship and the enlightenment of a Buddha, as the vast politico-theologico-financial organization known as churches and the intensely private vision of an ecstatic. A Quaker silence is religion, so is Verdi's Requiem. A sense of the blessed All-Rightness of the Universe is a religious experience and so is the sick soul's sense of self-loathing, of despair, of sin, in a world that is the scene of perpetual perishing and inevitable death."

The too easy invocation of the separation of Church and State can be used, not only to inhibit free speech, but also to deprive (in this case) students of ways of being and thinking that can be healthy and healing.

Like the word "religion," yoga can take on many forms. One local yoga studio -- to my mind -- offers little more that calisthenics for the under-30s. Most studios throw in a few Sanskrit words -- an Om Shanti or two, and we often acknowledge each other with a reverential Namaste. Deeply meaningful to some, a way of respectful focusing to others: harmless stuff, I'd say. In fact, I find such kindly and respectful acknowledgements totally compatible with my faith. No doubt there are some who practice yoga who corrupt it with self-centered attitudes. But that's true of all groups of the committed. What disturbs me is the appalling ignorance behind the objections to a healthy practice of yoga that could greatly help those who choose to do so. It's as if the Christian God were some senile benevolence who cannot defend himself. St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out that the truth from whatever source is of the Holy Spirit and there is a deep truth in good yogic practice.

On quite another issue, a group of high school cheerleaders in Texas won the latest legal skirmish over their display of religious slogans on banners used at football games. A judge agreed with the students that the slogans were an individual expression of private free speech. As was to be expected, "The Freedom From Religion Foundation" got involved in this one. They worry too much and can't see that their movement smells religious too. I want to found "The Freedom from the Freedom From Religion Foundation" in protest to the banishing all religion from the public square in the name of freedom. This banishing has a corroding effect by undermining the bonds of culture without which we are victims of fragmentation and division. We need tradition: that flow of life, which takes history seriously. I find it in the oddest of places. There it is in my yoga classes and recently, while staying with friends in Santa Fe, I attended a sangha -- a monastic Buddhist community. We sat in silence for half an hour in a lovely space and then listened to a meditative talk. It had the unnerving affect on me of a kind of homecoming -- the silence, the bells, the candles, the iconography all bearing witness to holiness, transcendence, even sacramentality, which I miss in most of the churches I attend of whatever denomination. They seem only concerned with the horizontal and the narrowly therapeutic. There's little of the vertical. Being with that Buddhist community revived in me my appreciation of being nurtured by a Christian sensibility.

The controversy over yoga makes me wonder how we're going to express our differences and celebrate what we have in common. Perhaps one way is not only to be prepared to learn from one another but also to acknowledge that the last word hasn't been spoken about the traditions in which we locate ourselves. As a Christian, I like the end of Diarmaid MacCulloch's "Christianity: The First 3000 Years":

"Original sin is one of the more plausible concepts within the Western Christian package, corresponding all too accurately to everyday human experience. One great encouragement to sin is an absence of wonder. Even those who see the Christian story as just that -- a series of stories -- may find sanity in the experience of wonder: the ability to listen and contemplate. It would be very surprising if this religion, so youthful, yet so varied in its historical experience, had now revealed all its secrets."

One of the side-effects of yogic practice is what G.K. Chesterton called "the sunrise of wonder." And wonders never cease. A friend of mine, an observant Jew, has been practicing yoga for more than 30 years and, he says, "I'm still a good Jewish boy!"

So, we shouldn't worry about teaching yoga in schools. At its best, it deepens what it already there.

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