My wife is a Catholic who teaches yoga, and I can tell you that her classes — as most yoga classes — are about as religious as, say, racquetball.
But, still, evangelical Christians around the country keep trying to paint yoga as something religious and alien to their conception of America’s (read: Christian) “way of life.” Yes, yoga’s roots are in ancient Indian Hinduism, but as the art is generally practiced in present-day America by soccer moms, harried executives, Baby Boomers, Millennials, etc., it’s all about secular stuff: mindfulness, relaxation, stretching and health.
Even atheists do it, for God’s sake.
But, still, this silly bias persists nationwide and has for a while.
Keep in mind that a 2018 USA Today ranking of U.S. educational facilities reported that Alabama, ranked 43rd at the time, had “one of the worst performing public school systems in the country.”
Alabama’s anti-yoga code, defining the practice as a “Hindu philosophy and method of religious training … that allegedly facilitates the development of body mind spirit,” states:
“School personnel shall be prohibited from using any techniques that involve the induction of hypnotic states, guided imagery, meditation or yoga.”
The code further directs school officials to “take great care to emphasize” to students that not abiding by this and other laws “is not appropriate in a civilized society” and “is highly likely to result in harmful consequences to the health of a person.”
What this curiously coercive language tells me is that Alabama is terrified that its children might learn something even only religious-like in school that is not Christianity, especially if kids are taught to do anything remotely meditative or, say, prayerful. It’s ignorance enfolded with paranoia.
In truth, yoga is a widely varied, thousands-of-years-old cornucopia of physical, mental and spiritual practices originating in India, and one of six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophical traditions. Some yoga practices focus entirely on physical postures, stretching and relaxation.
However, whereas some yoga aficionados undoubtedly practice more religious versions of the art, most yoga classes in America — as in schools and universities — are laser focused on challenging postures, stretching and relaxing, which are all practical, not religious, meditative and physical techniques.
Of course, religious-style yoga as well as mystical Christianity train practitioners to reach deep states of meditative detachment in which gurus hope to find “nirvana” (a sense of one-ness with the universe) and Christian monks hope to touch the face of God.But in modern America, yoga enthusiasts are generally just hoping to touch their toes. They couldn’t tell you the difference between sanscrit and the third eye.
The latest iteration of this anti-yoga nonsense is in Cobb County, Georgia, where Bonnie Cole, an elementary school assistant principal who in 2016 was harassed and reassigned to a far distant, lower-performing school because local Christian parents objected to the yoga-based relaxation techniques she and other teachers were teaching to help students deal with stress. Cole filed suit.
This month, the Cobb school board voted 4-3 to settle the suit out of court with a $150,000 payment to Cole for back pay and court costs, to end the matter and release the board from further liability.
Board member Randy Scamihorn, who voted against settlement, chastised the board for caving and contended it did “absolutely nothing wrong” in reassigning Cole to an inferior school that added an hour a day to her commute because Christian citizens complained.
Although Scamihorn claims the reassignment “had nothing to do with religion” and was simply executed to restore order to the school, the impetus for the board’s action was protesting Christian parents, some of whom prayed outside Cole’s office to call attention to what they viewed as alien yoga religion.
The school board should have rebuffed the indefensible protest and backed its assistant principal.
Curiously, the school district argued that because Cole, ironically a practicing Christian, employed techniques in her yoga classes that “were not at all religious in nature,” she was not protected in her suit under the Constitution’s First Amendment clause governing religious freedom.
A judge decided in March to allow the case to proceed, whereupon the school board ultimately caved.
To give a sense of how Christian organizations feel about yoga, here is a passage from the Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry in answer to the question: “Should Christians practice yoga?”
“No, Christians should not practice yoga since the intention of yoga is a path to attain salvation through union with a false deity. Some Christians practice yoga and say that all Christians can practice yoga. But that is incorrect. Christians should not be involved in any meditative methodology that deals with energy balancing, focused energy movement, chakras, etc. of which yoga advocates.”
The danger, of course, is that if anyone gets too relaxed and deep into their own thoughts for too long, they may accidentally, without Christianity or any other religion, feel divine.