Wednesday, July 3, 2013

When Yoga Meets the Law

The title of this blog, Is Yoga Legal, was sort of a joke. A friend in yoga teacher training said she had it open on her browser, and her daughter looked at it and said, “Mom, is yoga legal?” as if there were an actual question of its legality. We all laughed and thought such a question would never arise.

But it did. In Encinitas, California.

A brief overview in case you are unaware of the case: Encinitas, California began to offer yoga in its schools. This yoga was funded by the Jois Foundation, the group that promotes Ashtanga yoga. Some Christians in town got upset by this and sued the school district for allowing religion in schools, something that, if true, would be a clear violation of the First Amendment if it is the school promoting that religion. The parents said yoga has a Hindu origin, and therefore, by allowing yoga in schools, the schools were promoting Hinduism.

To make a long story short, there was a several-day trial, with experts, and the judge ruled earlier this week the yoga in the school did not violate the First Amendment. Yoga is just exercise. YogaDork has a great post with some great quotes from the ruling. The Jois Foundation spokesman said the yoga was a way to keep children away from sugar and video games. Of course, the school district took out any reference to Sanskrit and called the postures by English names.

Here is the overarching sentiment from the judge’s ruling:

“Yoga as it has developed in the last 20 years is rooted in American culture, not Indian culture,” San Diego Superior Court Judge John Meyer said. “It is a distinctly American cultural phenomenon. A reasonable student would not objectively perceive that Encinitas school district yoga advances or promotes religion.”

So, I guess the answer is, sort of. Yoga is legal so long as it is not really yoga. The Jois Foundation “Ashtanga Yoga” webpage says Ashtanga yoga “is an ancient system that can lead to liberation and greater awareness of our spiritual potential. The eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga (aṣṭāgayoga) can be described as eight disciplines.” I have discussed the yamas and niyamas on this blog. I have said over and over again there is more to yoga than asana, the postures.

But does that make it a religion? Does that mean it should not be in schools? Can yoga have a benefit when the spirit is removed?

Honestly, I do not have an answer. We had yoga in my high school. It was offered as part of our Physical Education program. No one thought twice about it. And no, I did not take that class (I was a band geek in the marching band instead of doing other PE). But several times since I have started getting into yoga more for myself, I have wondered whether that is where it should have been.

Just like the Pledge of Allegiance, children in the Encinitas School District may opt out of the yoga classes. But the parents argue that makes them feel ridiculed and somehow different, which is a test the Supreme Court uses for whether a school is endorsing a religious belief.

And if the Judge and the School District are correct, why do I have this blog? Why are there literally hundreds, if not thousands, of yoga blogs on the interwebs? They are not all talking about stretching. There are enough blogs and websites for that. And if we take the yoga out of the yoga, why not just call it a relaxation/stretching class? Is that not cool enough?

Yoga is a billion-dollar, secular industry in the United States. It is also an ancient spiritual practice of which asana is a small part. Both sides in the Encinitas argument are right. And based upon the facts of this particular case, the judge seems to have made a correct decision (I have not read the entire ruling, nor did I follow the case all that closely, but based upon the arguments and ruling I have seen, that is my early-morning, pre-coffee legal analysis opinion.)

But perhaps we need a different discussion. No one does it better than Linda over at Linda’s Yoga Journey. Perhaps mindfulness and deep breathing and stretching should be in our schools, but calling it yoga does create a possible assumption of something more. Do I really think schools are indoctrinating schools with Hinduism? Of course not. But do I think we lose something in the yoga world when judges rule that yoga is nothing more than exercise? Absolutely!

What do you think of the case? Did you follow it closely? Do you think the judge ruled correctly? Do you think the Jois Foundation is speaking double speak? I’m curious. Because, as I said, I certainly do not have the answers, but at least one judge in America thinks yoga is legal.


© Rebecca Stahl 2013, all rights reserved.

The post, When Yoga Meets the Law, first appeared on Is Yoga Legal.


  1. thanks so much for the compliment! just saw this! metta!

  2. The NY Times article stated that the Sanskrit name of Lotus pose was changed to Crisscross Applesauce(!), so that there would be no allusion to any " religious" concepts.

  3. Just think of the possibilities of re-naming asanas after food groups. Trikonasana could be called Hot Pockets and Garudasana could be re-titled Pillsbury Dough Boy. I realize that the classes are being taught to children, but is it really necessary to dumb it down to this extent.

    1. Yeah, that is why I don't think it is really yoga. It's great exercise, perhaps. And maybe it helps children calm down a bit. But is it yoga without the sanskrit and the rest?

  4. I know a woman yogi who was also a high school counselor. She lost her job because she had a yoga class for students. This was 15 years ago, maybe closer to 20 years.
    -- She went quietly...

    1. Yikes. We had yoga in my high school that many years ago. But I don't know how it was taught because I never took the class.

  5. This case has raised alot of interesting questions about what Yoga is and is not, whether it is inherently religious or spiritual (if you differentiate this from religious), or if parts of it can be effectively separated from the latter and can be deemed secular.

    It also brings up questions about whether symbols, techniques or an entire language are religious in and of themselves or if they are only so depending on whose point of view you take. Essentially there's a question here about whether the Yoga of India (even though throughout India it's fair to say Yoga was approached in different ways and even understood to be different things) is fundamentally different from the Yoga of the West (which is party influenced by the Yoga of India, partly by the New Age movement and partly by exercise physiology and gym culture), if the latter is an evolution of the former, and if this evolution is a part of Yoga's history. Or perhaps they are exactly the same thing, which people perceive to be different simply because of their point of view.

    I think what the plaintiffs were after and the judge ultimately disagreed with, is that to teach asana to school children is to subject them to religious indoctrination. Few in the U.S. who practice asana have changed their religious affiliation as a result of practice. Many of us who started this journey with asana for well-being and eventually were drawn deeper, though, understand that the asana practice opens us up to understanding of the subtler concepts. Some people go deeper, some people don't. I don't know what determines which way you go. I suspect some of it is where you are and what you are after. To remove the chanting and the Sanskrit our practice is to remove some of the elements that may make later exposure to the subtler teachings more familiar. To call this "stretching" and not "yoga" (or even "asana," which frankly would have been more appropriate) will reduce that familiarity further. I can see why the school district would be interested in this. A little more intriguing is how many yogis have responded with the desire to change the name of what the school kids are doing because "it isn't really yoga." Is what the kids are doing helping to still and focus their minds? Everyone in the courtroom, including the plaintiffs, seemed to agree this was the case. And if it does so, isn't it then considered yoga practice by Patanjali?

    Thank you, Rebecca, for this great post. You have had me thinking quite a bit on this matter.

    1. Well stated. And I think this is a long discussion. If the only point of yoga is to still and focus the mind, then running can do that as well. And yes, I actually believe running is a form of yoga (though not for me, I hate running, and it does quite the opposite of stilling and focusing my mind). I think this discussion will continue for quite some time, and we may never have an answer. In fact, we probably will never have an answer. But thank you for being part of the discussion.