American Muslim Yogi (by Valentia Khan)

Valentia Khan

This post is written in conjunction with the Religion and Law in the U.S.” course dialogue project and is directed by Grace Yia-Hei Kao.

Upon reflecting on the topic “What is Religion”, particularly in regards to the Malnak v. Yogi case, I thought back to my days of going through Yoga Teacher training.  It was something I took up after my challenging law school days. I was a bit apprehensive because I was a mediocre practitioner, and was not at all interested in the spiritual or meditative aspects of yoga. I repeatedly told my teachers, “I’m here for the strength training, I can’t wait to achieve that ‘yoga’ look!” They would look at me quizzically and almost sympathetically as if I were a lost soul. Only 3 years ago, after I finished my training, I came to understand the true meaning of yoga – which is really quite different from my original idea that it is just about physical exercise.

Now I teach yoga six days a week as a part-time job, although it is more than just a job: it is my passion. Teaching in suburban North Tustin, Orange County has had its challenges. Some students are open and willing to embrace yoga for all its components, including the sanskrit words, the sun salutations, and the meaning behind the “asanas” or poses.  Others just want to come for the workout with little reflection as to the origins of yoga.

After reading about the Malnak v. Yogi case, I reflected back to my yoga students and how uncomfortable they get when I end the class by saying “namaste”, which translates as, “I salute or recognize your presence or existence in society and the universe.” But within only one year of teaching, I started to notice a transformation in my students. Everything from the dedication to their practice, the devotion to spreading positivity, to the responses I am quietly hearing back when I say “namaste” has led to a generally positive experience for people who would otherwise never have been open to yoga.

I have to wonder if the parents of the students at the public schools where the Yogi was to teach transcendental meditation (TM) actually gave it an opportunity before rejecting it. Perhaps they could have seen an improvement in their children’s performance in school, better attitudes, and healthier outlooks on life. It seems to me that our society as a whole ends up giving into one of two extreme positions: we either turn our backs on anything new and different without any exceptions or flexibility, or we zealously embrace and go over the top accepting something new. If the parents experimented with TM as a pilot project, maybe they could have seen positive outcomes and benefits.

To some extent, I am disappointed that the parents did not give TM a chance, but I also remember how I felt when I heard my very first Sanskrit chant in teacher training. The teacher was invoking a sage “Patanjali” to come and bless the class, and in my head I was thinking, “I did not sign up for this!” I don’t want some guy named Patanjali to rise from the dead, and then float over oceans and bodies of land to come join us in Costa Mesa for training. How weird! Because of these kinds of experiences, I can understand the parent’s hesitation in the Malnek case, but also because it was in a public school setting with minors being exposed to an unfamiliar eastern tradition in a foreign language with unusual rituals.

As for my own personal experience, after many days of releasing my preconceived notions, I realized the meditation, the chanting, the Om’s and Namaste’s are what an individual makes of it. The only “religion” it can trace back to is an individual’s own, whether a person has one or not. In the Malnek case, if someone had proposed another solution, such as parents and students meditating together, or even completely taking out the rituals and providing an English translation for the Sanskrit, perhaps then the program would have been embraced!

Below you can find a link to an article that discusses one woman’s attempt to encourage California public schools to incorporate Yoga as part of the physical education requirement. She neutralized the practice by only teaching poses, nothing else, yet she still faced resistance from parents:

Click here to read the article.

Valentina Khan was born and raised in Southern California to a Persian mother and Indian father. She has a legal background and is now pursuing her Masters in Muslim Leadership. She teaches yoga and believes it is the perfect vehicle to a healthy life, mind, body, and spirit.  She is the co-founder of a non-profit group called “I Am Jerusalem” that works to collaborate with Jews, Christians, and Muslims for peace, understanding, and friendship. She also sits as a Board Advisor for the Interfaith Youth Council of Orange County, which aims to bring awareness to youth about religious and cultural diversity while training them to become community leaders.

  • Kile Jones

    Valentina–I really enjoyed this post. I like how you manage to navigate and incorporate different “identities” (Muslim, Orange County, Yoga, Woman, etc.). Being from San Diego, I have observed the New-Age, Eastern, and Yogic influences in Southern California. While I appreciate their existence, I do not know how I feel about bringing them into public classrooms. If it is brought in as one-amongst-many religious and/or spiritual traditions, and if it “taught about” not “taught from,” than I have no problem with it. This tension comes out in your post, and I wonder how we can better address it in the classroom.

  • Lawson English

    My understanding of the Malnak v. Yogi was that it was decided primarily on the question of whether or not TM (practice) + SCI (theory) was religious in nature.

    In fact, the David Lynch Foundation has taught many thousands of kids in public schools in the USA to do TM as part of the Quiet Time program, and thus far, there have been no successful court challenges that I am aware of.

  • Katie Kubitskey

    Valentina- Thanks for your story! I think it raises a really important issue of the way “Eastern religions” or “traditions” are seen in the school system in the U.S. Referencing your comment that the only “religion” was found in the person’s use of yoga, and not in the teachings themselves, I notice the inability for the term “religion” to translate to any other culture outside of the predominantly Christian Western tradition.

  • Mahmoud Harmoush

    It is wonderful to have many talents, however, mixing religious traditions with public interest is not what Muslims seek in the USA. The cases we studied showed that our system of separation between church and state is better served by not mixing religious entities or practices into the public life. I admire that Valentina is well rounded on many theoretical and practical issues of life. Thank you

  • Grace Kao


    This is a really interesting angle to take. As I understand your blog, you weren’t really commenting on the legality of public school-supported TM classes (i.e., you weren’t making a comment about “rights”), but you were making a point about the “good” to be had by being exposed to different religious and cultural ideas or practices. It’s a great point to make. Of course, the legal concerns (of the Establishment Clause) will have to control how courts will render their judgments, but as readers of these court cases, we can always use them as launching pads to discuss other issues that the court cases raise.

  • Drew Baker


    Thank you for this wonderful reflection. I have thought about the question of yoga as religion as well, and I find it a difficult and thorny issue to tackle. While I was critical of the Christians that attacked (and still attack) yoga as a “religious” practice, I am also critical of those that think that yoga can be completely secular and separated from its “religious” roots. I think you discuss this ambiguity well in this piece. The best solution I see is embracing yoga as religious, but encouraging pluralistic attitudes that acknowledge the value of yoga as a religious expression. Christians criticize yoga out of a deeply problematic exclusivism. On the other hand, I think it is a mistake to think that yoga does not have religious elements, just as (in my own context) I think it is a mistake to think that Buddhist meditation can be secularized. Of course, this still leaves the problem of the establishment clause – if these practices are religious, under the traditional view, they cannot be taught in schools. I’ll certainly have to think more about the questions raised in your post.

  • Katrina

    Valentina, I enjoyed your reflections on yoga and how it has become an important part of your identity. I also think this is an interesting angle to this case. Malnak v. Yogi was problematic because TM was being taught as a science, when, in fact, the court found it to be a religion. That said, I think the court ruled rightfully so in preventing the establishment of religion. I do, however, agree with your proposal that SM could have a place in the schools, if it were to be taught in an intro to religion course. I think public schools should offer comprehensive religious studies courses. If students could be introduced to different religions from a secular point of view, they could come to appreciate these religions in their own terms. This could go a long way of reducing fear about a lot of unfamiliar religious traditions. What has been interesting about a lot of establishment clause cases is that they are very strict at ruling against establishing religion in public schools. However, children are often far more tolerant of people who are different from themselves when exposed to these other identities. It would seem to me, then, that teaching children about other religious traditions is essential for creating a more tolerant America. I am weary of this prospect however, given how often people want to preach their religion rather than teach about it. I wonder what it will take to make acceptable religious studies courses (which include discussing practices such as TM) a part of public school curriculum.