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Is yoga religious?

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At the beginning of November, Missouri began a sales tax on yoga studios. The only state in the nation to do so, the move is controversial because many folks in the Show Me State’s yoga community believe yoga is not just exercise but, rather, a spiritual practice.

At the time this happened, St. Louis Post-Dispatch religion reporter Tim Townsend covered the controversy. And I don’t know who was responsible, but I still love one of the headlines that was used:

Yoga studios prepare for a downward dogfight with the state over sales taxes

Well, the Los Angeles Times picked up the story in this week’s “Missouri’s yoga enthusiasts go to the mat over sales tax.”

Written by the awesomely bylined P.J. Huffstutter, begins by looking at a particular studio in Missouri:

The tax, which took effect last month, has roiled the normally serene yoga world, whose supporters maintain that their pastime should be exempt from sales tax as a spiritual pursuit.

“Is this only stretching? No,” said Karen Jones, who opened the Marbles studio in 2003. “I think this is just another way for the state to get money.”

Many yoga practitioners say they are confused about how their ancient practice, which merges physical and mental disciplines with meditation, could possibly be equated with aerobic pole dancing or Tae Bo workouts.

But the state — one of the few in the country to tax yoga instruction — argues that it is not infringing on religious practices and only levying a legitimate tax on businesses.

The story goes on for some 1000 words. But there’s one word that isn’t mentioned once: Hindu. Imagine that.

Variations on “spirituality” are frequently used, however. Now maybe it’s because I follow the Hindu American Foundation, which sends out regular missives on the need for people to understand the connection between yoga and Hinduism — but how can you talk about this fierce religious battle without mentioning from which religion we get yoga?

Yoga is based on ancient Hindu texts and has a goal of spiritual enlightenment. There are fierce debates about whether yoga is a way to spread Hinduism or whether it can be enjoyed apart from its religious basis. And we’ve covered these battles before.

But I don’t see how you can have an article about whether yoga is a form of religious expression or not without mentioning anything about that religious expression. Speak with some Hindus who encourage yoga as a religious practice. Speak with some people who see it as a secular art. But it’s really not fair to give short shrift to the religious dimension in a story debating whether the practice is religious or not.

Is yoga a religious discipline?

94869 004 76DE2BAAOf the many mailing lists I’m on, the Hindu American Foundation‘s is one of the more interesting. An advocacy group, they send out regular emails with news stories relating to Hinduism.

One of the regular topics is yoga and they send out updates anytime it’s reported that the practice of yoga is spreading in the United States or other non-Hindu countries. As believers that yoga is one of the schools of Hinduism, HAF is also interested in discussions of whether yoga can be practiced apart from Hinduism. They’ve also been following a story about public school teachers in New York teaching yoga to students to relieve stress before exams.

The Associated Press picked up the story this week after a group of parents and religious leaders said the instruction violates boundaries between church and state:

“We are not opposed to the benefits. We can understand the benefits. We are opposed to the philosophy behind it and that has its ties in Hinduism and the way they were presenting it,” said the Rev. Colin Lucid of Calvary Baptist Church in Massena.

The program does not have ulterior motives, Julie Reagan, Massena Board of Education president, said Thursday.

The story attempts to put the New York practice in context and give the reader some background. Let’s look at how well they did that:

A hundred schools in 26 states use yoga in the classroom to relieve stress, Reagan said. Federal funds and grants are available to educators seeking yoga certification, [Reagan] said.

According to a statement on the Web site of the American Yoga Association, yoga is not a religion, although its practice has been adopted by Hinduism, as well as other world religions.

There are more than 100 different schools of yoga, which seeks to bring harmony to the mind and body. The most commonly practiced type in the United States is hatha yoga, which encompasses physical movements and postures, plus breathing techniques

That second paragraph is just clunky. It’s like saying, “praying with beads is not a religion, although its practice has been adopted by Catholics.” (Speaking of, one wonders whether there would be an outcry if teachers were encouraging kids to use rosary-type beads for prayer, meditation and relaxation.) Even people who oppose teaching yoga in government schools are not saying that yoga is a religion but, rather, a religious discipline. And whether or not yoga can be divorced from Hinduism, to the Hindu it certainly is a religious discipline. But to say that yoga has been “adopted” by Hinduism is really downplaying the association. The earliest Vedic Scripture mentions yoga. So that adoption, as it were, took place at least 3,000 years ago. And the “other religions” mentioned by the AP must be Buddhism, which is a descendant of Hinduism.
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To the Hindu, yoga unites not just the mind and body, as this article says, but the soul as well. From a Time article last year about an increase in yoga injuries:

“Yoga means bringing together mind, body and spirit, but in Western yoga, we’ve distilled it down to body,” says Shana Meyerson, an instructor in Los Angeles. “That’s not even yoga anymore. If the goal is to look like Madonna, you’re better off running or spinning.”

The worst part about the AP article, though, is that it doesn’t speak with any Hindus. Considering how widespread the practice of yoga is in the United States, it’s somewhat surprising that its relationship with Hinduism isn’t explored more. Sam Hodges of the Dallas Morning News interviewed Swami Mukundananda, who lectured at the DFW Hindu Temple in August and led classes in yoga and they discussed the topic. Certainly there are many Hindus qualified to speak about the matter.

There is a debate about whether yoga can benefit people of different religions or no religion. (Here’s a Times (U.K.) article about a yoga instructor who stopped the practice after she converted to Christianity.) But that debate isn’t even treated in the AP story. It doesn’t really present an informed case for how yoga can be divorced from Hinduism either. It’s just a weak story all around.

But yoga is so hip!

A casual glance at the headlines would indicate that reporters love to cover stories about changes to public school curriculum. Especially changes to public school curriculum that allegedly are motivated by political or religious viewpoints. The debate over inclusion of intelligent design theories in textbooks has been hot for months. Reporters are still going crazy over the big, bad intelligent designers and their Pennsylvania and Kansas curriculum battles.

So how is it possible that reporters have, for the most part, managed to completely miss the dramatic success that Hindu nationalists had this week in revising California textbooks over the objections of renowned scholars? If the Hindu nationalists themselves hadn’t sent me a note (I subscribe to one of their listservs), I wouldn’t have known about it:

California Hindus were celebrating today their victory in yesterday’s meeting of the State Board of Education Curriculum Commission. The Vedic Foundation and Hindu Education Foundation worked for months to have changes made to sections of California textbooks that deal with India and Hinduism. Then there was a hasty intervention by a group of scholars of Indology which threatened to reverse many of the changes. Fortunately, the Curriculum Commission sympathized with the Hindus and allowed only a few changes to what Hindus had requested.

The estimated population of Hindus in America is small but growing rapidly: over 1 million adherents. Like most groups, Hindus have some pretty serious and conflicting divisions. The Hindus who won this victory are Hindu nationalists. The controversial movement got going around 100 years ago in response to British rule, the political victories Muslims were having in certain regions and the success Christians were having in conversions and subsequent subverting of the Hindu caste system. It has gained stature and adherents in India in recent decades.

Hindu nationalists have a few beliefs outside the mainstream of academic thought, including one view that science can prove human civilization has been around for 1,900 million years. They believe Hinduism originated in India and that Aryan culture traveled to Iran from India rather than vice-versa. They also believe Sanskrit is the mother language of every language in the world, including that of Native Americans. These unorthodox views are disputed by most historians and linguists who believe that the Vedic religion and Indo-Aryan Languages came from Central Asia along with the Aryans around 3500 years ago.

Curriculum battles in California are heated not only because the state is the nation’s largest textbok purchaser, but other states tend to follow California’s lead in textbook approval. Religion has been a required course of study in California since 1987 where students learn about Judaism, Hinduism and Christianity in sixth grade, and Islam in seventh grade.

While nationalists are not a Hindu majority even in India, they are a powerful political group. For months they heavily lobbied California’s Board of Education to make changes in the textbooks, such as asserting that Aryans were not a race, but a term for persons of noble intellect.

The lobbying prompted Harvard Indologist Michael Witzel to write a letter to the California Board of Education which said, in part:

The agenda of the groups proposing these changes is familiar to all specialists on Indian history, who have recently won a long battle to prevent exactly these kinds of changes from finding a permanent place in the history textbooks in India. The proposed revisions are not of a scholarly but of a religious-political nature, and are primarily promoted by Hindutva supporters and non-specialist academics writing about issues far outside their area of expertise.

But, if the Hindu Press International report is to be believed, the nationalists won. It seems like this would have been an excellent story for reporters to follow before now, whether from the education, religion, or intelligent design angles. It’s also a great reminder that one of the best things a busy religion reporter can do to stay on top of the beat is to subscribe to religious media.

You say Namaste, I say yoga-blessing-thank-you hands

KerryBowsToward the end of the 2004 presidential election, I grew more curious about John Kerry’s habit of clasping his hands together and bowing to his audience. I’d seen the gesture before, mostly among Episcopal women who would say “Namaste” (which, they said, means “The God [or god] in me bows to the God in you”).

I asked GetReligion FOB Gary Gach, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Buddhism, if he saw potential for a post on any spiritual content behind the gesture. Gach pointed me to this entry on page 156 of his book:

Two basic gestures practitioners use are in bowing and in meditation. Bowing is a meditation, in and of itself, and can be done just by joining palms, a universal gesture of spirit. There’s a famous etching by Albrecht Dürer of two hands praying, as if by themselves. In the East, putting palms and fingers together is a gesture of spiritual greeting, instead of shaking hands. In India and Thailand, you put your palms together at your chest and raise them to your forehead, often followed by a bow, still in that position — eyes and joined hands going outward and down to a spot on the ground equidistant between the greeter and the greeted. A bow can also be a quarter-inch. However done, bow or no bow, “palms-joined” says “The Buddha within me salutes the Buddha within you” (no dualism). “Have a nice day.”

On Wednesday’s edition of Fresh Air, Terry Gross found a humorous pop-culture description of the West’s truncated Namaste greeting. Speaking with Lisa Kudrow and writer Michael Patrick King of the new HBO series The Comeback, Gross remarked on how often Kudrow’s character, former celebrity Valerie Cherish, will bow to a TV crew or director as an assertion of power she doesn’t truly have.

Kudrow: The first thing that always came to mind with her, she’s like that bad old-time ad guy, that if you sell it and you sell it well enough, they’ll believe it, even if there’s absolutely no substance there to support what you’re trying to sell. That’s one thing that I was hoping would be really obvious, that she’s just a little bit over the top with her very assertive demand respect. It only comes up — she doesn’t address it when she’s actually getting pummeled.

King: I also wanted to mention something, Terry, about the hands. You were talking about her bowing all the time, earlier. We call those the yoga-blessing-thank-you hands. We laugh so hard, because that also is a little bit of a virus that’s running rampant in the actress community. Now you’ll start seeing it a lot. A lot of actresses do the yoga-blessing-thank-you hands — to interviewers, to people bringing them their lattes. Suddenly the hands come up. I’ve had actresses do it to me . . . when I say, “That was a really good scene,” they go — here come the hands — “No, you. No, it’s about you.” But it’s never about you. It’s about you saying “It’s about you.” So what we liked about the yoga-blessing-thank-you hands was that it was accurate and goofy. She’ll try to squeeze them in as she’s going out the door. Sometimes you’ll see just the tips of the hands as the door closes.

Kudrow: It’s a phony gesture of grace.

King: Yes! And centered spirituality, which she wouldn’t even know how to spell!

Each time King refers to yoga-blessing-thank-you hands, Gross lets loose with her wonderful chuckle. The segment on yoga-blessing-thank-you hands begins at about 21 minutes in, but the entire 31-minute interview is worth a listen.

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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