Let's just get this out of the way right off the bat, shall we?
Yoga is a religion. Oh, it most certainly is. Packed like Mary Magdalene's cherry Lululemons with feral devotion and sweat-soaked passion, ageless wisdom and funny breathing sounds you make though your face, indicating rapture.
Like any reasonable religion, there are wild, multi-armed deities and smoky incense, sticky bodily contortions and profound prostrations, yelping lunges and powerful upside-downings, funky music and rhythmic incantations, laughter and solemnity in miscellaneous turns. Just like the Mormons.
And of course, it's all frequently topped (or rather, bottomed) by deep contemplations where you sit for many minutes in total stillness, imagining complete re-absorption into the gaping maw of infinite, universal consciousness which smells strangely like sandalwood and pomegranate seeds and Shiva. Nice.
How do I know about yoga? I've seen it. Felt it. Live it. Hundreds, nay thousands of students passing through my classes over 14 years of teaching Vinyasa yoga in San Francisco, many of these students enjoying religious or near-religious experiences, spiritual transformations, upheavals, dark nights of the soul (though to be honest, most just come for fantastic exercise and exquisite stress relief), followed by giddy tastes of their own innate divinity that rocked their world and helped them leave their thankless husband or loveless job or Texas. Hey, it happens. A lot.
Yoga is a religion the way breathing is wine. Yoga is a religion the way air is music. Yoga is a religion in a way too few westerners are trained to understand, particularly the right-wing variety, particularly the right-wing pseudo-Christian lawyerly types of America, scowling and confused and ever-furious at the world. As you would expect.
Have you heard? About these odd folk from the National Center for Law and Policy -- which, by its very name, you know must be a dreadful place to slump into every day -- terribly unhappy people who spend their days hoping to "cure" awful gay people and put a stop to women who use birth control and enjoy sex and orgasms and premium boutique coffee? Presumably?
It would appear the NCLP is suing, on behalf of some very uptight SoCal parents, the Encinitas Union School District over a pilot program that teaches some playful yoga basics -- stretching, breathing, a little calming meditation -- to children a couple times a week. The horror.
Their claim? Yoga is rooted in the Hindu "religion," and therefore serves as an indoctrination into that belief, much in the same way techno music and giant mimosas "indoctrinate" kids into homosexuality. The NCLP claims that rules separating church and state demand these children stop that happy, self-empowerment bull-crap right this minute, and get back to fearing an angry, all-American God, or no one gets dessert.
Is it not adorable? And a little bit sad? It is my guess that these fine, terrified people are not at all studied in matters of yoga or ancient philosophy. It's my bet that most have never left their home state, much less studied the world's great spiritual traditions at any length, much less delved into their own aching bloodstreams to seek any sort of subtle, throbbing understanding of mankind's staggering myth-making abilities, his ageless need to invent religions and gods, the gorgeous, difficult, chthonic craving to connect with something larger than the self -- which, in yoga, we like to call the Self. If they ever had, they might glimpse the absurdity of their claims.
But perhaps they suspect? Perhaps some part of their lonely souls sense that, if children learn to enjoy yoga, they might begin to embrace its timeless, dramatically simple message that tells them they are perfect and wholly divine already, and therefore need no God, or church, or shame? So it would appear.
To religious fundamentalists, this is yoga's most dangerous, un-Christian, sacrilegious teaching of all: That you are not innately broken, or flawed, or sinful. That there really is no god to worship but the one already present in you, waiting to be expanded. That you are already the divine light you seek. Therefore, you need not attend any church, send cash to any gloomy priest, beat yourself into bloody redemption, or believe what your parents or politicians tell you about heaven or hell, sin or fear, guilt or shame or gay people or women or nature or time or foreigners or politics or sex. You need only wake up to your own innate divinity, every moment, every breath, every touch and taste and step, before it's too late. See? No wonder they're terrified.
But perhaps we should try to be a little clearer, tease out a few more meanings. Because while yoga is like a religion insofar as it offers, at least for more dedicated, serious practitioners, proven, mystically structured access to total spiritual liberation, it also has almost absolutely nothing to do with how clenched Americans like the NCLP define, and are defined by, organized religion as we know it.
The yoga I know -- Westernized and athleticized, branded and heavily marketed, but still deeply tinged by ancient Hindu philosophy -- this yoga demands no specific theological doctrine. There is no harsh scriptural dogma. There is no heaven, no hell, no old, scowling, puppetmaster superdeity. Unlike the bloody tragedies of Christianity and Islam, et al, yoga teaches that there is no separation between the self and the divine, between you and God. It's you. You're both. You're already "there." Can you imagine?
It's this idea of separation -- this cruel, Puritanical thought you're just a meek and broken animal stuck here on Earth while God is way up there, flawless and perfect and unhappy with your porn collection -- where yoga philosophy differs most wildly, most beautifully, from the west, and it is this simple notion that perhaps terrifies people like the NCLP the most of all.
Behold, for example, Virginia's ultra-conservative candidate for Lt. Governor, one E.W. Jackson, who believes that yoga and meditation aren't just religious, they're downright Satanic, insofar as meditation teaches you to "empty out" -- which, to Jackson, is basically an invitation to let Satan slide right on in.
Speak for yourself, nervous candidate. In meditation, you "empty out" so you can clear the toxic debris of frantic modern life. You "empty out" so you can better find, and live from, your heart, as opposed to your fears and your false convictions, your ego, your manic strivings for popularity or power. You "empty out," in other words, to avoid becoming anything like E.W. Jackson.
But wait, here's where it gets really juicy. Because...
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Mark Morford is the author of 'The Daring Spectacle: Adventures in Deviant Journalism,' a mega-collection of his finest columns for the San Francisco Chronicle and SFGate, and the creator of the new Mark Morford's Apothecary iOS app. He's also a well-known ERYT yoga instructor in San Francisco. Join him on Facebook, or email him. Not to mention...