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What Makes the Encinitas School Yoga Program Religious?

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I've appreciated the lively commentary on my previous blog post. A number of commenters asserted that yoga is generally practiced in a non-religious context in America. Some specific numbers may be of help here. According to Pew Research Center surveys, 28 percent of religiously-unaffiliated Americans (and 23 percent of the total population) "believe in" yoga as a "spiritual practice." The Yoga Journal reports that 32 percent of practitioners were motivated to start yoga by a desire for "spiritual development," and 30 percent are motivated to keep practicing in order to continue developing spiritually. 51 percent of practitioners say that knowledge of yoga terminology is a "must have" in a yoga instructor. Anton Drake, author of Atheist Yoga, acknowledges that mystical ideas (for instance, religious beliefs about chakras) are "definitely part of yoga's popular image" and can affect people's "concepts of spirituality without their being totally aware of it." (You can find a lengthy discussion between Drake and myself on his website). Sociological research indicates that as people practice yoga for longer periods of time, they are increasingly likely to internalize yoga's religious philosophy.

The Encinitas Union School District (EUSD) did not implement just any yoga program. The terms of a $533,720 grant from the Jois Foundation obligated EUSD to promote Ashtanga yoga. Ashtanga (eight-limbed) yoga was developed by Krishna Pattabhi Jois from the Yoga Sutras, a sacred text for Hindus. The eight limbs of Ashtanga are:

1. yama: moral restraint
2. niyama: ethical observance
3. asana: posture
4. pranayama: focused breathing
5. pratyahara: calm mind
6. dharana: attention
7. dhyana: meditation
8. samadhi: union with God.

Ashtanga emphasizes postures and breathing on the premise that these practices will automatically lead practitioners to experience the other limbs -- including union with the universal (Brahman) -- "whether they want it or not."

Whereas Protestant Christianity focuses on words and beliefs, Ashtanga yoga's focus is practice and experience. Nevertheless, Ashtanga is "religious." It explains ultimate problems and connects individuals with suprahuman energies, beings or transcendent realities (such as worldview, or big-picture reality) and cultivates spiritual awareness and virtues of ethical and moral character (such as ethos, the philosophy of how to live).

Jois insisted that every yoga session begin and end the same way -- with sun salutations (Surya Namaskar) and lotuses, coordinated with focused breathing (to let the prana (vital breath) flow). These are deeply symbolic rituals that express and instill religion through repetition. Jois prescribed Surya Namaskar to pray to the sun god, Surya, chief Hindu solar deity. With "praying hands" (anjalimudra), one reaches to the sun in praise and petition, bows in surrender and worship, and rises up remembering the true "sun" within. Sitting in lotus symbolizes spiritual purity and enlightenment and presumably moves prana to bring about meditation and samadhi.

The Jois Foundation (founded in loving dedication to K.P. Jois), with funding from billionaire Paul Tudor Jones whose wife Sonia is an Ashtanga devotee, gave EUSD a half million dollar grant to implement a comprehensive Ashtanga yoga curriculum. The grant required that the Jois Foundation train and certify EUSD yoga instructors, shape the EUSD curriculum, and keep rights to export the curriculum to other schools once a "research study" reported benefits.

Although EUSD spokespersons testified to ignoring the grant's terms, EUSD yoga classes opened with sun salutations and finished with lotuses (the postures are still called "lotuses," not "criss-cross applesauce" in the printed curriculum and in a current EUSD promotional video), coordinated postures with focused breathing, and used yamas and niyamas to teach moral character. In fact, it came to light just after the trial's conclusion that two EUSD-employed Jois Foundation teachers apparently took EUSD students on a field trip in March 2013 to demonstrate "teaching Ashtanga yoga to children both in and out of the school system" at an overtly religious Ashtanga conference (opened by a Ganesh Puja) in San Diego!

After children and parents began complaining that the EUSD program seemed religious, administrators changed wording and tweaked pose sequences. Teachers removed posters of an eight-limbed Ashtanga tree and sequences taught by "K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute," and stopped teaching children to color mandalas (sacred symbols for visual meditation). Teachers stopped using Sanskrit -- except the word "yoga," a Sanskrit term for "yoking" with the divine. Kids still used Sanskrit (a sacred language for Hindus), greeting teachers with Namaste ("I bow to the god within you") and calling the final resting pose shavasana ("corpse" -- symbolic encouragement to reflect on one's death to inspire virtuous living). Kids still chanted Om (symbolizing Brahman) as teachers sounded bells (used in sound meditation) and verbally guided meditations to transition between lotuses and into "resting." Teachers continued using symbolic gestures such as "praying hands" (anjalimudra) and "wisdom gesture" (jnana mudra), which in Ashtanga yoga symbolize union with the divine and instill religious feelings.

Despite EUSD officials' claim to have removed even the appearance of religion from the curriculum, more than "stretching" and "breathing" continued to take place in EUSD classrooms. Children recognized what was going on as religious, which is why, for instance, many of them chanted Om without needing prompting. Yoga practice extended beyond the P.E. classroom -- for example as a tool for calming children during all-school assemblies -- so even children who opted out of P.E. for religious reasons could not opt out of the comprehensive yoga curriculum.

Psychology research, on "extinction and relearning," shows that once a person learns an association (e.g. a religious association of a yoga pose), the memory of that association doesn't go away, regardless of whether one tries to replace it with new associations (e.g. by associating the same yoga pose with "secular" notions of "health and wellness"). Even if the old association is temporarily suppressed, it doesn't disappear entirely. It's still there and can be reactivated, or relearned, very quickly. Retrieval cues (such as familiar yoga postures) bring former associations to mind. This is actually how advertisements work--by creating associations that you can't forget even if you try (complete this musical phrase: 8-6-7--5-3-0 __ . . . ). There's another psychological process, of "transitive inference," at play here as well. Public school children who reason "yoga = postures = feeling good," may equate yoga with feeling good, and be more inclined to seek out yoga, regardless of whether the context is "secular" or "religious."

Suppose that someone claims that making the sign-of-the-cross gesture is a physical exercise that strengthens the arm muscles and helps to limber up the hand for writing -- and insists that, for me, the exercise has no religious meaning whatsoever. Other people are still going to interpret the sign of the cross as a religious gesture. And if you teach a secularized sign-of-the-cross exercise in public schools to prepare for writing, the exercise is still going to function as an advertisement for the religious version of the practice because so many people associate the gesture with religious meanings.

Regardless of whether Jois or EUSD intended for yoga to affect children's religious beliefs, sociological research suggests that people who begin practicing yoga for its physical benefits gradually come to adopt yoga philosophy, causing them to change their religious worldviews.

Kristin is a college student who grew up Catholic and tried yoga thinking it was not religious. "I mean they have yoga classes at the YMCA and that's a Christian organization." Kristin explored yoga, "starting with the physical aspects," since she enjoyed the stretching. But she says, "then I started reading," and discovered a "really good mind-body-spirit thing." Kristin now considers the "eight limbs of Ashtanga" to be "basically similar to the 10 commandments," but better, since the principles are "just like suggestions" in contrast to rule-oriented Christianity.

EUSD used funds from a religious organization with a missionary agenda to implement a religious yoga curriculum that furthers the goals of the funding foundation. U.S. and California constitutions prohibit this kind of complicity of government and religion.

References
Yoga Journal and Sports Marketing Surveys; Yoga in America; 2012; pp. 43, 54, 56.