Catholic yes to yoga?

I have been waiting for the American press to pick up an article found in Saturday’s edition of La Stampa, the Turin-based Italian daily, on the Catholic Church and yoga. But as five days have passed with no mention of Bishop Raffaello Martinelli I expect we will not be seeing anything for the moment.

This is shame really as the the intersection of yoga and state, as GR’s editor TMatt has described it, is a live issue. My colleague, Mollie Hemingway, has written about the intersection of yoga and American culture — noting the consternation Hindus feel when its non-Hindu devotees reject claims they are appropriating a spiritual exercise of their faith.

Last December the New York Times ran a detailed article on a dispute in a California school system that had introduced yoga classes for students. On 20 Feb 2013 the Associated Press reported the dispute had now become a law suit with parents suing the school district saying their children are being taught religious doctrine by public school teachers. The school district’s response to the lawsuit is to deny that yoga is religious and that the ends justify the means.

Superintendent Timothy B. Baird said he had not seen the lawsuit and could not directly comment on it, but he defended the district’s decision to integrate yoga into its curriculum this year. The district is believed to be the first in the country to have full-time yoga teachers at every one of its schools. The lessons are funded by a $533,000, three-year grant from the Jois Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes Asthanga yoga. Since the district started the classes at its nine schools in January, Baird said teachers and parents have noticed students are calmer, using the breathing practices to release stress before tests.

“We’re not teaching religion,” he 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.”

The kids are calmer after practicing yoga and therefore it is a good thing. Would the superintendent have been willing to accept money from a Catholic charity to hire someone for each school to teach kids Christian meditation? Or if the issue is movement of the body, would it have engaged a Falung Gong instructor to teach Dharma Wheel Practice if the group had put up the cash?

Into this mix  comes Saturday’s La Stampa article entitled “Vescovo Italiano apre a Yoga” [“Italian bishop open to Yoga”]

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Serious story on separation of yoga and state

When I saw this story come in (clicking on a URL from a reader), I immediately thought, “Here we go again.”

But the reader was right. This is not another story that simply assumes that yoga is a practice that can be stripped of all specific religious content. That’s the kind of story that, alas, comes up pretty frequently in the mainstream press. Surf around in this GetReligion search file and you’ll see evidence of that syndrome that pretty quick.

Once again, the goal is not for journalists to assume that all critics of yoga know what they are talking about, when covering a story in which yoga is introduced into taxpayer-funded environments in which other forms of spiritual discipline would not be acceptable. In short, the goal is to try to cover the church-state separation — or yoga-state separation — issues as they are seen by activists on both sides of the story. Let me state the obvious: The goal is to take the conflict seriously, instead of wishing it away.

So here is the set-up for this ABC News story on the West Coast (naturally):

Parents in a southern California community are considering legal action over the constitutionality of a form of yoga being taught to their children, which they claim is introducing religion into public schools.

Last month, half of the students attending classes in the Encinitas Union School District K-6 elementary schools in San Diego North County began taking Ashtanga (Sanskrit for “eight-limbed”) yoga for 30 minutes twice per week. In January, the other half will begin the lessons. Concerned parents have now retained constitutional first amendment attorney Dean Broyles, who says that Ashtanga yoga is a religious form of yoga, and that religious aspects have been introduced into the schools.

“The poses and positions are acknowledged by Ashtanga and Hindi yoga as forms of worship and prayers to Hindu deities,” he told ABC News. “They have a spiritual and religious meaning behind them.”

Now, it helps to know where the money is coming from this. The story gives readers that information very early, which is normal journalistic practice.

You know. When in doubt, follow the money.

The yoga, which is being taught in all nine of the schools in the district, is being funded by a $533,000 grant from the Jois Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes Ashtanga yoga across the world. All of the instructors teaching the students are certified and trained by the Jois Foundation in Ashtanga yoga.

Broyles points to hedge-fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones and his wife Sonia Jones, who is a known dedicated disciple of Sri Pattabhi Jois, the recently deceased master of Ashtanga yoga, as the money behind the EUSD yoga program. The district’s program will be studied by the University of Virginia and University of San Diego to look at benefits of Ashtanga yoga, as outlined in a letter sent to parents by EUSD Superintendent Tim Baird.

“The study will look at the way that public school systems can impact student learning, health, positive relationships, and overall wellness through the implementation of a holistic approach to student wellness,” Baird said in the letter.

Calls placed by ABC News to Superintendent Baird were not immediately returned.

Calls not returned? That is not a surprise. Try to imagine if a wealthy Catholic funded a program that used, oh, prayer beads to teach a tweaked form of spirituality that evoked specific Catholic doctrines, by name. This ABC News story actually quotes a critic asking if the school would accept money from wealthy Pentecostal Christians to do similar work in the same classrooms.

This is where the story struggles to get voices on the other side into the debate, because the leaders on the other side do not want to answer questions at this time.

This often happens to journalists, when covering controversial stories? When in doubt, you try to quote fact claims that can — with some effort — be verified. In other words, try to avoid opinion and get the basics down. Thus, in this case, readers are told, via Broyles the lawyer:

Broyles says that it has been argued that the in-school yoga programs have been stripped of their spirituality. But he says that kids in EUSD are being exposed to Hindu thought and belief within the school.

“On the wall there was a poster that showed the Ashtanga, or 8-limbed deity. There are words showing what the limbs are,” he said. “The ultimate goal is to be absorbed into the universe, which is called Samadhi. They had a poster depicting that. Fundamentally it is a Hindu religion being taught through Ashtanga yoga.”

Children are also being taught eastern meditation techniques to calm themselves, where one clears the mind of all thoughts, poses that were imparted by Hindu deities, and in one class were trained in drawing mandalas, according to Broyles.

Parents also raised specific concerns about the program aside from the religious aspects, saying that the fact that kids are taking 60 minutes of the 100 mins per week allotted for physical education to do yoga is inappropriate. Broyles said that for 40 minutes per week the kids are not getting PE, and that they’re not offering anything for kids that are opting out of the program.

Did ABC News personnel attempt to verify this information — by which I mean the information that could be confirmed by sight — at the schools? Did the schools refuse admission to a camera crew? That would be good, basic information to know.

The story leaves us with half of the equation on the record. However, it’s clear that a conflict is taking place and that it involves practices that, in a Christian context, would be unacceptable in public schools. The conflict is taken seriously. At this point, that is enough. Now, ABC News has to get the other side on the record.

God, sex, ‘military values’ and the U.S. Naval Academy

Most weekday mornings, as I make my short drive to the train station for my ride to Capitol Hill, I hear at least one plug on talk radio for the Navy Federal Credit Union. Part of the liturgy in these advertisements is an appeal to the “military values” that are said to make this financial institution so trustworthy.

Since I live on the south side of Baltimore, at the north edge of the Anne Arundel County military-security-industrial complex, I am used to hearing quite a bit debate about “military values” and what that term means, these days. Much of this news comes from the U.S. Naval Academy, which has seen more than its share of trouble in recent years.

Most of this news, logically enough, appears in The Baltimore Sun. However, the dominant newspaper in Beltway land printed a massive feature story the other day that clearly was meant to dig down into the heart of one of the nastiest of the recent scandals. That Washington Post story ran under the dry headline: “Naval Academy sexual assault allegations change the lives of four midshipmen.”

As implied in those words, this was one of those features that offered snapshots of the major players in this particular sexual assault case in the military, looking for common themes. This case — which received extensive coverage on ESPN and in other national news outlets — was summed up like this:

All three of the accused midshipmen insisted that any sexual contact with the alleged victim was consensual. All three — and their accuser — stood accused of lying to investigators about what had happened at a “toga and yoga” party thrown two years ago. The alcohol-soaked evening at an illicit off-campus football house nicknamed “the Black Pineapple” had profound consequences for all four of them. And in some ways, the fallout is just beginning.

So what was the common theme? What was the big idea in this provocative feature about — like it or not — military values? I have absolutely no idea, even after multiple readings.

On one level, this is simply another meditation on the role of alcohol in modern academic life, especially the ways in which binge drinkings blur the lines between hook-up culture and sexual assault. However, since I am writing about this “values” story at GetReligion, I was also interested in another unexplored angle in this feature. Here are a few clues.

First, there is this note about Eric Graham, who agreed to leave the academy after sexual-assault charges were dropped against him.

What remains of Eric Graham’s life at the Naval Academy sits inside a box in the middle of his childhood bedroom. The box is standard issue, given to midshipmen when they ship out, he explained. On the side, there is a place to write a destination. Normally, it would say Pearl Harbor or San Diego. His read: Mobile, Ala.

When he was at the academy, Graham worried that he would be sent home for different reasons. He’d struggled in his classes, especially as his legal troubles intensified. He quit football his junior year to concentrate on his grades. Economics had turned out to be a less-than-ideal major for him, but he picked it partly because his teammate Tra’ves Bush had. Like him, Bush hailed from a close-knit religious family in the South. They also played the same position: safety.

File that background information away, as we read on.

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Baby boomers and (some) traditions for ‘green’ funerals

The other day I wrote a post noting that, in addition to sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, the so-called “Woodstock Generation” also had a taste for spiritual adventure that has helped shape American life and culture ever since. Basically, without the Age of Aquarius, you don’t end up with a parade of scholars and gurus teaching Oprah how to raise her hands up to the heavens while praying to the Universe, with a big “U.”

Some GetReligion readers were a bit miffed that I seemed to think that all Baby Boomers (me too, I guess) could fit under the same Woodstock banner.

That wasn’t my point, of course. I was simply saying that the alternative approaches to life explored in the late 1960s and early ’70s have had a major impact on shaping how all Americans think and live. Part of that cultural wave was captured in the sexual revolution, part was popular culture that soaked into the soul and part was an openness to alternative forms of spirituality (some of it serious, some of it fleeting), often from the Far East.

Truth be told, some Baby Boomers have also turned into strong believers in traditional forms of faith. Ask any megachurch pastor about that. There are also Baby Boomers who have switched brands and churches, looking for alternatives to the faiths in which they were raised. Some of them (ask your local Orthodox rabbi) ended up digging back into ancient forms of faith. Some have explored traditional forms of Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, etc., etc.

Once people start searching their paths can go all over the place.

This leads me to that New York Times feature that traced some of these trends right to the final acts of seekers’ lives. The headline was:

The Rise of Back-to-the-Basics Funerals

Baby Boomers Are Drawn to Green and Eco-Friendly Funerals

The New York City opening — in trendy Park Slope, of course — sets the tone. Spot all the key elements, one at a time:

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Baltimore Sun prints a plug for ‘meditation’ — one form of it

Long ago, I worked in for a newspaper that published a large, large feature story in its style pages about divorce recovery. The package included — this was at the dawn of the “news you can use” era — a list of local divorce-recovery groups similar to the ones discussed in the story.

This directory included at least two dozen such groups, many offering unique spins on this painful subject. There were feminist divorce-recovery groups and New Age groups. There were groups for those interested in outdoorsy activities that would aid recovery. I seem to remember that there was a group for gays and lesbians recovering from the break-up of straight marriages. There were groups for those struggling with addiction issues, as well as a divorce.

What was missing? Well, for starters, the list did not include the region’s largest divorce-recovery groups and networks. For example, there was a major evangelical megachurch that had an large ministry — 100-plus people at least, at times more than that — for those struggling to avoid a divorce or to recover from one. There were other churches in various traditions with similar ministries. The newspaper’s list included none of the local Catholic ministries linked to divorce recovery.

In other words, the story said it was about divorce recovery. Period. In reality, it was about every imaginable kind of divorce recovery except for those linked to traditional religious faith groups.

I asked the editor who worked on the story how she would feel, after reading the story, if she was the head of that massive megachurch ministry for those struggling with divorce. She thought that over for a second and she said that she would probably assume that the newspaper staff was biased against the church’s work. In reality, she had never heard of any of these traditional religious groups and their divorce-related ministries. None of her friends had gone to those groups.

Birds of a feather, you know. The editor didn’t know what she didn’t know and, well, no one thought that that there was a religion angle to a story about divorce.

This was a classic GetReligion ghost, long before I created that term.

Now, I flashed back to that case study while I was reading the recent Baltimore Sun story that ran under this double-decker headline:

Getting into the groove of meditation

As practice goes more mainstream, experts offer insight into what it is, how to start

Veteran GetReligion readers can probably tell where this is going.

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Bubbles, Lutherans and the Wall Street Journal

Can colored soap bubbles blow up church attendance? Can giant crossword puzzles spell success?

If you said “Wow, what great ideas!”, not only will you get a big hug from the Lutheran bishop of New York — you just might be Wall Street Journal material.

Yes, that Wall Street Journal. The staid, reserved chronicle of conventional urbanity gets all rah-rah over some of the wilder attempts by Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, to bring up the numbers in his churches — or at least to stop them from falling further.

The WSJ article could be great for a journalism class on how not to write and report. Much of it is jarringly jumbled. The parts that do make sense don’t always match facts on the ground. And some statements contradict one another.

And the story wastes no time in, well, wasting our time. High up, we get:

… Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo may be the only spiritual leader trying to rebuild his flock with giant crossword puzzles in the subway and interactive art projects involving dye-filled soap bubbles.

‘We need to find the places where we’re not present and reach out…whether that’s on social media or elsewhere.’

“New York is different from the rest of the country,” said Bishop Rimbo, 63 years old, in an interview from his expansive office near Columbia University, complete with Hudson River views. “The younger demographic wants a religion that won’t divide,” he said, referring to social issues like gay marriage.

“Look at Pope Francis, he’s so humble and he’s removed the trappings of the papacy and made it more inclusive,” Bishop Rimbo said. “We need to find the places where we’re not present and reach out…whether that’s on social media or elsewhere.”

To that end, Bishop Rimbo has made a point of speaking his mind on several hot-button social issues and has worked with area pastors to create alternative church services throughout the New York City area.

Given the crucial lack of copy editors in newspapers these days, I won’t make a big deal of the repeated sentence about reaching out where they’re not present. It is worth noticing, though, that the topic of social media is brought up nowhere else in the story. So the bishop isn’t following his own advice, or the reporter didn’t ask a follow-up question, or he did and then deleted the answer.

But we have bigger deals to deal with here:

* What metrics make New York different from the rest of the country? Do New Yorkers want their religion packaged in giant crossword puzzles and colored soap bubbles? Or did the bishop mean something else?

* If younger New Yorkers want a religion that “won’t divide,” why does Rimbo make a point of speaking on “hot-button social issues”? Such issues would seem to be divisive by definition.

* If Rimbo considers gay marriage one of those divisive issues, why does he plan to perform one himself, as the article says later? Or are people being divisive only when they don’t approve of something?

* If Pope Francis is a good model for what Rimbo wants, how is Francis doing? American Catholics told a pollster they’re giving more, but another survey found “no statistically significant rise in the number of Americans who identify as Catholic; in frequency of Mass attendance by Catholics; in Catholics going to confession or volunteering in their churches or communities.”

Despite the ELCA’s wish to get everyone together, in fact, the denomination has dwindled in New York, as the WSJ reports: falling by 20 percent over the last decade — more than half of that time during Rimbo’s tenure as bishop, starting in 2008.

It’s funny that Rimbo “has styled himself as the right man to reverse that trend,” according to the article. It’s even funnier that the Journal didn’t ask why he hasn’t yet done so.

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LATimes pours out its love for the ‘spiritual’ Williamson

A positive news story about a political newcomer isn’t unusual. Newspapers and television outlets do these sorts of things regularly, and for all sorts of reasons.

So on one level, it’s not all that surprising that the Los Angeles Times offered a rather complimentary — some might even say “fawning” — profile of New Age authoress and teacher Marianne Williamson, who is challenging longtime area Congressman Henry J. Waxman in the 2014 elections. Here is a sample of the prose:

It was a Thursday night, normally a slow time for churches and synagogues, but the sanctuary of The Source Spiritual Center in Venice was packed.

When a diminutive woman stepped to the front of the room, people paused in their scramble for a chair or purchase of a T-shirt and engulfed her in cheers and applause.

She called for a moment of silence. The audience stilled. She dedicated the evening ahead “to all that is good … to the fulfillment of love” in everyone.

“And so it is,” concluded Marianne Williamson — friend of Oprah, associate of Hollywood elites, best-selling author and charismatic spiritual leader.

Williamson has spent three decades offering a path to inner peace for those who seek it. Now she’s entering an arena in which inner — and outer — peace seems in particularly short supply: She’s challenging Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) for the congressional seat he first won when Gerald Ford was president and the country was preparing to celebrate its bicentennial.

“This is a journey we’re all taking together over the next few months,” Williamson told the crowd of 200 or so who had shown up that night to volunteer for her campaign. In the cadence of a revival-meeting preacher, she talked of a corrupt system in which the two major parties and the corporations that fund them have “locked out” citizens and ignored some of the country’s most pressing problems.

There’s no doubt that Williamson has a following, and that many, if not most, of those followers appreciate the spiritual aspect of her work, which often centers on “A Course in Miracles,” the so-called “Third Testament” and New Age tract that is popular with a large number of readers. Her own books have often been best sellers, including “A Return to Love,” which appears to have catapulted Williamson into national prominence. Williamson also appears to have some solid credentials in terms of community service and activism, so her entry into politics is a bit more serious than some celebrities’ ventures might have been.

The Times discusses all this and includes a bit more about Williamson’s spiritual journey:

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Where’s the religion at Washington’s National Cathedral?

The financial difficulties facing the Washington National Cathedral were the subject of a local news item in the Washington Post this week.

The basic story line is valid: “cathedral short of cash seeks creative ways to generate income.” But as  GetReligion editor tmatt observed in an an impromptu story conference, this piece had journalistic “holes you can drive a ’60s VW Microbus through… .”

The few errors in Anglican polity found in the story would likely distress only the perpetually aggrieved, but the real difficulty is that the Post declined to ask or explore the question: “why?”

It assumes the worldview of the liberal wing of mainline churches, making this the measure of all things religious. By not asking “why” this story could just as well be written about the troubles facing the local symphony orchestra or art museum.

I was hesitant in taking this story, however, as my theological sympathies are not with the cathedral’s leadership. The Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean of the Diocese of Washington’s cathedral, last year told the Post he was a “non-theistic Christian.” The Aug 1, 2013 story in the Style section penned by Sally Quinn quoted him as saying:

Jesus doesn’t use the word God very much,” he says. “He talks about his Father.”

Hall explains: “Where I am now, how do I understand Jesus as a son of God that’s not magical? I’m trying to figure out Jesus as a son of God and a fully human being, if he has both fully human and a fully divine set of chromosomes. .?.?. He’s not some kind of superman coming down. God is present in all human beings. Jesus was an extraordinary human being. Jesus didn’t try to convert. He just had people at his table.”

It is the glory, or the curse, of Anglicanism that the ranks of its clergy contain men and women who think this way — and others who see this as nonsense.

The divide is not merely local or new — in 2009 I interviewed the Argentine leader of the Anglican churches in southern South America and he told me that meaningful debate between left and right was not possible. He and his conservative colleagues from Africa, India and Asia believed the leader of the American Episcopal church was “not a Christian” as they understood the term.

The disdain does not go one way. Liberal American and English Anglicans have described the theological and intellectual worldview of their third world confreres as being one step above witchcraft.

The split between left and right, liberals and conservatives, progressives and traditionalists — none of these terms adequately describes the combatants — did not arise in 2003 with the election of a “gay” bishop in the Episcopal Church. While there have always been factions within the Anglican world for centuries — high/low, Evangelical/Anglo-Catholic — the latest Anglican wars began in the 30s and hit their stride in the 60s.

Fights over women clergy, premarital sex, abortion, euthanasia, contraception/family planning, divorce and remarriage, pacifism, the revision of the Book of Common Prayer, Vietnam and the civil rights movement and its various permutations of race, gender, class, ethnicity and sexual orientation have been debated ever since.

The temptation I faced was to cloak my criticisms of the underlying issues in the story with the cover of discussing proper journalism and write about bad religion rather than bad journalism. Hence, my reluctance to jump on this story.

What then is the GetReligion angle? What holes are there in this story through which I may drive my VW microbus? The lede states:

When Congress authorized the creation of Washington National Cathedral in 1893, it envisioned a national spiritual home. Decades later, it became a setting for presidential funerals, sermons by the likes of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and worship services for epic national tragedies such as Newtown and Sept. 11.

But would it have thought of tai chi and yoga mats?

The article describes a program of events and activities designed to bring people into the cathedral. The story then moves to context:

As mellow as it all sounds, the week-long public program — “Seeing Deeper” — is part of a highly orchestrated drive by the nation’s second-largest cathedral to remake itself and survive in an era when religious institutions are struggling. And what’s more institutional than a huge cathedral?

Washington National Cathedral, one of the Episcopal Church’s three major U.S. cathedrals, was already forced to halve its $27 million budget in the mid-2000s because of falling revenue before an earthquake in 2011 caused damage tallying an additional $26 million. Although it is now in the black, it must raise its roughly $13 million annual operating budget as well as the remaining $19 million for earthquake repairs.

And then moves to a discussion of the dean’s plans to raise income and attendance and to be a voice for progressive values in Washington.

What is missing from this story, though, is a nod to the reasons for the cash shortfall — apart from the occasional earthquake and economic downturn.

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