Is Yoga religious? That is what a California judge sought to determine. Like so many arts and practices, yoga began as a religious practice – clearly of Hindu origin, but being expanded and adapted by Buddhists and Taoists as well. When a school district hired full-time yoga teachers to teach at their schools, some parents were angry. They were not perhaps as virulent as certain Christians were in the 60s and 70s when they claimed Yoga was a method for channeling Hindu gods, but they managed to exasperate the judge on hand.
The San Diego Superior Court Judge John S. Meyer said that “It’s almost like a trial by Wikipedia” the way parents relied on Internet searches to express their position, “which isn’t what this court does,” as quoted by ABC News.
The school is funding a three-year grant from the K.P. Jois Foundation, expending $533,720, because, as Superintendent Timothy Baird says, yoga is “21st century P.E.” giving “amazing” health results.
Though the judge took almost two hours explaining how yoga in itself can be a secular health practice, despite its origination in religious practice, Dean Broyles, who was an attorney for Encinitas parents Stephan and Jennifer Sedlock, and who was not seeking money, but a discontinuation of the program, said he would probably appeal.
“It was the judge’s job to call balls and strikes and determine the facts. I think he got some of the facts wrong.”
But just as choir has antecedents in Catholic religious choirs, yet is offered as a secular class in which things like show-tunes are sung, so can yoga as a physical exercise be shorn of its religious emphasis. In this case, the “lotus position” was renamed the “crisscross applesauce” pose.
Though the parents were seeking the case in terms of a “separation of church and state,” claiming that the school was propagating Eastern religion, this may merely express a cultural conservatism that is made nervous by the introduction of foreign forms. The 70s and 80s saw an increase in the tolerance of “martial arts” which were often originally religious forms developed first in India, and later in places like Japan, under the influence of Zen Buddhism, so too has yoga been secularized in the West, not imposing much of an ideological threat to Christians.
This, at least, seems implicit in the judge’s take on the case. Things like “the Olympics” began in a system of Greek religion as well, but now the Olympic games are secular, with no reference, for instance, to Mt. Olympus, and with such forms as “the flame” having a special meaning for us different, perhaps, than its original use.