Feb 23, 2013

Christianist Group v. "Neopagan" Yoga in Encinitas

Well. I knew it. As soon as I saw that a group was suing the Encinitas school district over its yoga program and claiming it violated the separation of church and state, I knew it was only a matter of time before I could draw a straight line to some Christianist group far more concerned with what religion these kids might be exposed to than with religion in schools per se. And I was right. Both the plaintiffs and the attorney are every bit as supportive of Christian-based school programs as they are derisive of the vaguely Hindu incursion represented by yoga.

One of the parents spearheading the lawsuit, a Mary Eady, works at Truthxchange, a Christian group dedicated to stopping the "rising tide of neopaganism." Attorney Dean Broyles works for the National Center for Law & Policy, or NCLP, whose slogan is Faith + Family + Freedom. It's an affiliate of the Alliance Defending Freedom, or ADF, a conservative Christian advocacy group.

In a broad sense, the plaintiffs could have a point. Yoga is born of religious tradition and has some spiritual overtones, even if, as practiced in the West, those overtones are, dare I say it, spiritual but not religious.

If anything I'm as ambivalent about the idea of yoga as a strictly secular exercise program as I am at the targeting of yoga as if it were equivalent to prayer in the schools. That spiritual lineage is now not only secularized, but trivialized. I'll never forget the sense of horror I felt when I first saw a yoga shirt with the printed slogan "Have a Namaste." Namaste is a mystical concept that roughly translates to "me bow you," and translates idiomatically as "The God in me bows to the God in you." There is something a little sickening about yoga as a commodity, completely devoid of all spiritual context or that subverts the spiritual precepts that underlie it.

I'm not sure that what is being taught in Encinitas, can even fairly be called yoga.

"We're not teaching religion," [Superintendent Timothy B. Baird] said. "We teach a very mainstream physical fitness program that happens to incorporate yoga into it. It's part of our overall wellness program. The vast majority of students and parents support it."

At the same time, I can personally attest to the physical benefits of yoga. When taught properly it is a harmonious practice that encourages students to listen to and respect their bodies' needs and limitations. The movements are fluid and patient in a way that most physical fitness regimens cannot claim. All of that can certainly be gained without religious overtone. But without knowing the specifics of the yoga curriculum being offered in Encinitas, I can do little more than speculate as to either the benefits or the drawbacks, which it would seem, the school district is still evaluating.

To a large extent, it seems that Broyles is arguing a straw man by railing against the religiosity of yoga, writ large, rather than the specific program being taught. And it has brought about some rather comical hyperbole. He has deemed the Salutation to the Sun sequence as "sun worship" -- something that after years of doing yoga would never even occur to me.

But Eady was disturbed by what she heard when she observed one of the classes.

“They were being taught to thank the sun for their lives and the warmth that it brought, the life that it brought to the earth," she said, "and they were told to do that right before they did their sun salutation exercises."

Some of us would consider that an acknowledgment of a basic, scientific fact. Without the heat of the sun, there would be no life on Earth. My daughter learned the same thing in grade school science classes. Kind of a stretch to call that a religious observation, let alone a Hindu teaching. But for all I know, Eady may be anti-science, as well.

Equally risible is her contention that the character-building component is "very different from sports programs."

“It’s stated in the curriculum that it’s meant to shape the way that they view the world, it’s meant to shape the way that they make life decisions," she said. "It’s meant to shape the way that they regulate their emotions and the way that they view themselves.”

I have yet to encounter the sports program that doesn't claim to teach values and life skills: teamwork, leadership, confidence, loyalty, etc.

Said Broyles, "If you research yoga and Hinduism, most people would say Hinduism is yoga and yoga is Hinduism." I don't know who "most people" are but his own employer, the NCLP, said in a press release that yoga is "inherently and pervasively religious, having its roots firmly planted in Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist and western metaphysical religious beliefs and practices."

So which is it? Is it a Hindu practice or a multicultural practice, drawing from numerous Eastern and Western traditions? And how can anything be firmly planted when it derives from that many different influences?

As Superintendent Baird points out, here in the States, 90-95% of yoga practitioners are not Hindu. I don't know from whence he draws that statistic but I, for one, don't know a single practicing Hindu among the many, many yoga practitioners and teachers I count among my friends and acquaintances. I know they're out there and a number of yoga schools trace back to Hindu gurus, but that doesn't mean they require their students to convert to Hinduism. I can't say that's never happened but I've never encountered it. The yoga teachers I've known through the years have been Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and, of course, those who ascribe to no particular religion.

It would appear that the Jois Foundation, which is partially funding the Encinitas yoga program through a grant, is similarly multicultural. Director Eugene Ruffin points out that, “Our organization is made up primarily of people who are members of the Abrahamic faiths." But the Jois Foundation is connected to the K. P. Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute and Jois was a Hindu, even if his yoga practice was very much outside of his family's religious background. A quick scan of his life story illustrates how absurd is Broyles's contention that "Hinduism is yoga." Yoga, as we know it, came out of a narrowly defined sectarian practice and is not something practiced by all Hindus. Hatha grew out of Tantra, which as I recently pointed out is sometimes erroneously and reductively described as a "sex cult." Imagine what Broyles would do with that if he knew it, which he apparently does not. But Hatha and its many derivatives like Ashtanga, have wandered very far from those roots. As practiced, in yoga studios all over the Western world, the Hindu influence is vestigial, at most, and amounts to some Sanskrit words and very general concepts of union with spirit.

It would appear that the curriculum offered in Encinitas is also far removed from Ashtanga "Power" Yoga. Not only is the Jois Foundation legally separate from the K. P. Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute with a different mission, the curriculum is set by the school district, not the Jois Foundation. This is not a rapid sequence of asanas geared towards raising inner heat.

"We are probably using some of the poses found in Ashtanga yoga," Baird told ABC News. "But we have modified this extensively to be done by students of this particular age. And all body types can be successful [with] what we are doing in our classes."

While the program is popular with most of the school district, a number of parents, like Eady, opted their kids out of the classes. According to Broyles, these kids are being unfairly ridiculed and bullied by their peers. If true, that's unfortunate, but it's got nothing to do with yoga.

Kids will bully other kids for being different. Period. That's in no way specific to kids whose parents pull them out of yoga classes. It's also hardly an argument against kids being different, or parents making choices they deem necessary for whatever reason. The problem is the bully behavior which is better targeted by anti-bullying programs. But the ADF opposes anti-bullying programs because they interfere with their Christian right to teach their kids to hate gay people.

The ADF and its allies also invest considerable efforts in seeking to overturn some anti-bullying school guidelines on the grounds that such policies persecute the “Christian perspective” on LGBT rights and that demanding tolerance is a front for promoting  “homosexual values.”

The ADF advocates for a roster of faith-based programs such as abstinence only programs and "character development" programs that are little more than teasers for evangelical events. They are quick to accuse civil libertarians who try to stop them -- like the ACLU -- of a "war on Christianity." I'm betting we won't be hearing from the Jois Foundation that this lawsuit constitutes a "war on Hindu."

Finally, let’s consider fundamentalist Good News Clubs, which are presently in well over 3,000 public elementary schools around the country. Good News Clubs, which are sponsored by an organization called the Child Evangelism Fellowship, are ostensibly after-school “Bible study” programs that require parental permission to join. But that description is misleading. Good News Clubs are not about “study,” they are about religious indoctrination. Further, the clubs produce the false but unavoidable impression in very young children that they are part of the school; they set up shop in public school classrooms immediately after the bell rings, so as to appear a seamless part of the school day. And finally, Good News Clubs instructors tell kids attending the clubs to recruit their peers at school.

It turns out that Encinitas public elementary schools that sparked the national outcry over yoga stretching are rife with Good News Clubs: all nine public elementary schools in the district have a club, reported Assistant Superintendent Miyashiro. And their presence has been made possible by the legal firepower of the ADF and lawyers like Dean Broyles. When it comes to unhealthy entanglement between church and school, a classroom of first-graders stretching their hands to the sky seems to be, for now, a matter of far less concern than the well-organized conservative Christian proselytism that is already making deep inroads into public education.

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