Last week's ruling in the Encinitas yoga case was welcome, but not surprising. Having perused the testimony and read the defense's legal brief, it seemed obvious to me that the judge would rule in favor of allowing the school system to continue offering yoga classes to students. The designers of the program had removed anything that could conceivably be construed as inherently religious in nature, or as advancing or inhibiting religion -- the criteria on which the case rested. That meant dispensing with elements commonly seen in the most secular of yoga classes, like greeting students with "Namaste," chanting "om," and using traditional Sanskrit names for postures -- in other words, anything associated with Hinduism, or even Indian culture.
So, does this settle the issue for all time? Does it mean that yoga can now be considered inherently non-religious? Does it throw open the doors for yoga teachers everywhere to march into to public institutions with their yoga mats? Not really.
The parents of participating Encinitas students should be grateful that their children will reap the benefits of the routine offered by the school system. A growing body of research suggests they'll be healthier, happier, and more productive than they would be without it. And parents elsewhere may now find it easier to establish similar classes in their school districts. But, as Tip O'Neil famously said, all politics is local. Yoga programs in other locations will be challenged, and how those cases play out will depend on demographics, prevailing cultural values, and, most of all, exactly what is being taught in the name of yoga.
The Encinitas program consists almost entirely of asanas, the postures and movements most people think of when they hear the word yoga. Traditionally, however, those exercises have played only a small role in the lives of yogis. Asana is merely one of the eight limbs of classical yoga, as delineated by the sage Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras, where it is mentioned in the context of proper sitting posture for meditation.
But the inventory of ideas and practices that can legitimately be labeled yoga is vast. Someone living in Encinitas, for example, can go to any number of classes, in several locations, and find practices that bear little resemblance to the public school routine. They will also find, on the southern end of town, the Self Realization Fellowship's beautiful hermitage and, close by, its temple. The organization's founder, Paramahansa Yogananda, was instrumental in putting yoga on the map in the U.S., and his iconic memoir, Autobiography of a Yogi, leaves no doubt about his link to the yogic tradition. But a visitor to those facilities will find a different kind of yoga from the one in most modern yoga studios.
A short drive inland from the Encinitas coastline, the yoga tourist will find a Transcendental Meditation center. The founder of that movement, which played a huge role in making meditation a mainstream practice, was also a yogi, as his name indicates: Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. And down Interstate 5 from Encinitas is the Vedanta Society of San Diego, part of a network of centers founded by Swami Vivekananda, whose books, now over 100 years old, defined the four paths of yoga (karma, bhakti, jnana, and raja) for generations of Westerners. Notably, at all three locations, asanas play only a minor role in the available offerings, if they are offered at all. And those are just three examples.
It should be noted that a significant portion of the yogic repertoire would not be permitted in most public school systems, because aspects of Hindu philosophy, symbolism, and sacred texts would be readily discernible. One could argue that those features are not necessarily religious in nature; in fact, many see them as elements of a science of consciousness or as "spiritual but not religious." True enough, but it would be as hard to win that argument in court as it would be to argue that reciting verses from the New Testament is a literary exercise with no religious content.
The bottom line is: If you want to bring the physical and mental benefits of yoga to public school students, you pretty much have to eliminate everything but asanas and pranayama (breathing practices). But if you want the deeper, more profound and transformational yoga, you need the full package.
Versatility, adaptability, and universality of application are among the hallmarks of the yoga tradition. The teachings can be embraced by the secular and the spiritual alike, as they always have been. I'm hoping that in time we'll find a different name for the subset of practices that can survive a church-state challenge. Call it yogic fitness, or asana stretching, or yoga therapy (a new, emerging discipline in itself), and bring it to students, hospital patients, and anyone else who can benefit from it. But let's not, in the name of expediency, lose sight of the traditional meaning of Yoga (upper case preferred) as the union of individual consciousness with the Ultimate Reality, however one may define it. We need to adapt the teachings liberally without compromising their integrity.