Separation of Yoga and State?

As the United States prepares for the upcoming election, the issue of separation of church and state has once again reared its controversial head. It may not seem like a major issue, but elections have been lost on things as seemingly minor as prayer in schools. This sensitive topic has touched people of all beliefs, but the latest victim of the debate is somewhat surprising: people are arguing about yoga’s ties to religion.

Just a few weeks ago, a high school in northern New York was forced to shut down a successful yoga program after parents associated with a local Baptist church raised questions about yoga’s Hindu roots. A spokesperson for the parents, Rev. Colin Lucid, explained to The Oneida Daily Dispatch that while the group understood the program (which was intended to help students conquer stress prior to exams) had benefits, “We are opposed to the philosophy behind it and that has its ties in Hinduism and the way (the teachers) were presenting it.”

This is certainly not the first time that yoga has been accused of being “too religious”. Parents in Colorado and Alabama have brought lawsuits against other schools attempting to offer yoga to students during school hours. And it’s not just American who get their yoga pants in a bunch over yoga’s religious connotations – in 2007, Muslim and Christian groups in India, the very birthplace of yoga, argued in court that a measure requiring all public school students in one Indian state to perform yoga exercises (although to be fair, in this case the yoga was to be accompanied by Hindu chants) “violated India’s constitutional separation of religion and state.” (New York Times Upfront, 3/12/2007)

No matter what your personal opinions are regarding religion in schools, these court cases spark an interesting quandary: just how religious is yoga? Certainly, many of us commit to lifetime practices while maintaining a separate but equally important faith in some other form of religion. Plus, most Westernized yoga classes focus very little on the spiritual side of yoga, keeping references to things that could be construed as “religious” to a bare minimum. Even when a yoga instructor talks about Shiva (the god of the yogis) or Brahman (divine consciousness), it is usually in broad terms not related to a central belief system.

Writer Phil Catalfo discusses this very issue in a fascinatin editorial for Yoga Journal. He explains that while the practice of yoga does involve strict moral codes and take direction from ancient yogic texts, considered “holy” by some, most Westerners turn to yoga for its health benefits. Still, there is no denying that meditation and the focus yoga places on connecting with one’s inner consciousness have some spiritual overtones. Catalfo suggests examining the difference between spirituality and religion:

“Spirituality, it could be said, has to do with one’s interior life, the ever-evolving understanding of one’s self and one’s place in the cosmos—what Viktor Frankl called humankind’s “search for meaning.” Religion, on the other hand, can be seen as spirituality’s external counterpart, the organizational structure we give to our individual and collective spiritual processes…”

Does your practice intersect, compliment, or contradict your religious beliefs? If we look at yoga as an inward, personal type of spirituality, perhaps it can easily go hand in hand with other religious beliefs. But regardless, yoga can be – and should be, at least in its most basic form – a wonderful way to connect body and soul, regardless of creed. For most of us, there should be a way to incorporate the physical, calming benefits of yoga into our lives without interfering with our beliefs. It’s just a matter of finding the right path for you, and you alone.

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