The Encinitas Yoga Case: Yoga Is Religious, Only It's Not

03/20/2013 12:49 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2013

The charming seaside town of Encinitas, just north of San Diego, might have more yoga classes and practitioners per capita (population 60,000) than anywhere else in the country. Which makes it an unlikely place - or perhaps the inevitable place - for a lawsuit over the teaching of yoga in public schools. The civil suit was filed by parents, backed by a conservative Christian organization, who claim that yoga instruction in public schools violates California law because it is a form of religious indoctrination.

Setting aside the particulars of this case, which could have national ramifications, the question arises: Is yoga religious in nature?

As the author of a book on the impact of yogic teachings in America, I'm asked this all the time. My answer is, "It depends."

Specifically, it depends on how "yoga" is defined; how "religion" is defined; how "Hinduism" (the religion in question) is defined; what exactly is being taught; and how it is presented to the students. In each of those areas, the range of possibilities is immense.

Because yoga is an ornate fabric of myriad forms, shapes, textures and colors, a reasonable argument can be made for either side, depending on those definitions. The classic texts that define the principles of yoga - the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Yoga Sutras - are typically considered Hindu scriptures, and for millions of Hindus, yogic ideals and practices are central to their religious lives.

But it's not that simple. For one thing, there are elements of Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism in the yogic canon, and all those traditions contain yogic elements. The same is true of Sufism, the dominant stream of Islam in India. And now, in the West, one can see the beginnings of a Christian yoga and a Jewish yoga.

So, if yoga is interpreted as religious, it must be the most nonsectarian, nondenominational, trans-traditional, interspiritual, universal expression of religion imaginable. It would also be the least religious of religions, since it demands neither allegiance to a specific tradition, nor faith, nor the acceptance of any doctrine. Few Americans for whom yoga is central to their spiritual lives call themselves religious, and even fewer think of themselves as Hindus. Indeed, none of the gurus and yoga masters who brought yoga to the West ever asked anyone to convert or to accept their teachings on faith. To them, yoga is a practical science that has value for people of any religion.

Or no religion.

Because yoga can be understood as a science, it has always opened its well-stretched arms to atheists, humanists, skeptics and cynics. No need to abandon reason, logic or the rules of evidence at the door. Ideas that some consider theology are, to others, philosophical postulates or hypotheses subject to experimentation. For healthcare professionals, yoga's physical and meditative practices are remedies. Psychologists use them as adjuncts to therapy, and have applied yogic spiritual ideals to theories of human development. Neuroscientists have learned a great deal about the brain from studying meditation.

All of which is to say that "yoga" means different things to different people, has a broad spectrum of applications and can legitimately be presented in a variety of formats, contexts and rubrics. In fact, its adaptability is among its greatest strengths.

Since community attitudes and yoga teaching styles vary, conflicts like the one in Encinitas will invariably be settled locally. In fact, yoga and meditation have been taught in numerous public institutions without serious objection. If I had to bet on the Encinitas case, I would put my money on the yogis. Not only can parents opt out of the program if they don't want their children involved, but officials who monitor the curriculum are satisfied that no religious indoctrination is taking place. Which makes sense, since yoga has always been something one is encouraged to do, not to believe in. There is also reason to suspect that the parties behind the lawsuit have no problem with religion in the public sphere when the religion is their own (see this article).

In the end, teaching yoga in a public school means stripping away elements that the local community construes as religious. Even if that leaves a purely physical regimen of stretches, bends and postures, the health and well-being of youngsters would benefit enormously. I would love to see little yogis bloom across the nation.

But I hope that yoga enthusiasts will bear in mind the possible downside of expediency. In making yoga acceptable in the public domain, will it come to be defined only as a form of physical fitness? Might its mental and spiritual dimensions be diminished to the point of neglect? If that were to happen, "yoga" would no longer be Yoga in all its depth and fullness.

Perhaps the best solution is to extract from the vast yogic repertoire the practices that can be taught in public schools, and then call it something else, like "stretch time." I want yoga to keep on meaning what it's always meant: union - and not just the union of a head to a knee or a hand to a shoulder blade, but the union of the individual soul with the infinite oneness that goes by many names, whether secular, spiritual or religious.