Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Why can't yoga be a spiritual practice that is not a religion?

Earlier today, I read (and commented on) Carol Horton's very insightful and incisive post on the latest development in the whole Jois-Yoga-Encinitas-Union-School-District vs. conservative-people-who-believe-Jois-has-violated-the-separation-of-church-and-state case. I'm sure most of you already know the ins and outs of this case (if you don't, the Confluence Countdown has been giving a blow-by-blow account of the whole thing from the case's beginning last September (or was it October?) to this point, so I won't repeat what they have already reported over there.).  

Anyway, I have to say that I find Carol's incisive post to be a breath of fresh air in the blogosphere's treatment of this case thus far. Thus far, almost all of the coverage I have read about this case in the blogosphere mainly consist in people talking past each other: Conservatives charge that yoga as taught by the Jois Yoga Foundation is religious and violates the separation of church and state. Yoga nuts (which include yours truly) respond, in turn, by stressing the health and stress-reduction benefits of yoga, giving the rest of the world the impression that we either do not understand the conservatives' concerns (in which case, we really might be nuts) or simply refuse to listen to them. Sigh.... is it really any wonder that popular media often projects this stereotype of yogis as blissed out, ommed-out zombies who are either too brainwashed or too oblivious (maybe they amount to the same thing, in the final analysis) to listen to what others have to say about what they do?  Actually, sometimes I also wonder if this is why I seem to be losing interest in blogging lately. I mean, if blogging is simply about reinforcing the tape that is playing in our heads (and thus reinforcing and enabling this zombic state), what is the point?

Seen these people at yoga lately?
[Image taken from here]

But this is neither here nor there. Anyway, Carol's post is a breath of fresh air precisely because she engages the concerns of these conservatives head-on, thus giving me (and perhaps, you too) hope that we are not all a bunch of ommed-out zombies. In particular, Carol brings our attention to the fact that in this latest episode of this ongoing case, the conservatives have brought some serious big intellectual guns onboard. Specifically, the conservative National Center for Law and Policy (NCLP) have enlisted the services of Candy Gunther Brown, an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University. Brown, who has authored three books concerning religious experiences, has this to say about the term "religion":

'Although “religion” has been defined in many ways . . . there is agreement among many of today’s scholars that religion should be defined broadly enough to account for the diversity of human experience and the variety of ways people set apart that which seems sacred from that which seems profane . . . 'religion' by definition includes not only theistic beliefs - like those found in Christianity - but also bodily practices perceived as connecting individuals with suprahuman energies, beings, or transcendent realities, or as inducing heightened spiritual awareness or virtues. I include “spirituality” within my definition of religion - rather than distinguishing the two - because both religion and spirituality (derived from the Latin “spiritus”) make metaphysical - that is, more than physical (including suprahuman or supernatural) - assumptions about the nature of reality.' (excerpted from Brown's Expert Witness Brief supporting her claim that Ashtanga yoga is a religion.)   

Long story short: If Brown is right, then there is no such thing as "spiritual but not religious". If she is right, then everything that is spiritual is also religious.

Well, is she right? Although I know shit about religious studies, I would like to boldly disagree with her here. In other words, I believe that it is possible to have a spiritual experience that is not religious in nature. And I think this is true, even if we accept her broad definition as religion as involving anything that makes metaphysical assumptions about the nature of reality. Here's one everyday example: Making and listening to music. Many people who have spent serious time making music or making serious efforts to appreciate any kind of music will tell you that the experience is spiritual: It puts them in touch with a part of themselves that lies beyond the intellect, beyond the merely emotional. And yet many of these people will also tell you that having such an experience does not involve making any metaphysical assumptions about the nature of reality: You do not need to believe that there is a higher being or power that has given you this wonderful experience, or that you are somehow able to make music because some higher power or agency has given you this power to make such music. To be sure, perhaps some people conceive of their musical experiences in this way. But not all do.

Anyway, what I'm getting at is this: If we can make music without making metaphysical assumptions, why can't we "make yoga" without making similar metaphysical assumptions? In other words, why can't music (and yoga) be spiritual without being religious? I can't speak for anybody else, but I really feel that this has been my experience with my own yoga practice thus far. In my best moments on (and off) the mat, I feel that the practice brings me to a place that is beyond my intellect or my emotions. And yet I do not need to believe in any being or power greater than myself in order to get to this place. I do both the opening and closing invocations in Ashtanga, but I'm not doing those because I'm worshiping Patanjali or anybody else that has a thousand white heads: I mainly do the chants out of reverence and respect for whoever it is that came before me that made it possible for me to do this wonderful practice. And I certainly don't see myself worshiping Ganesh or Krishna anytime soon (well, maybe you can check back with me ten years from now on this :-)).

Anyway... I'm not sure what else I can say here. I'm not trying to convince anybody of anything here. But I do think that if the conservatives have their way, and yoga either gets banned from schools or gets relegated to this soul-less routine of "just stretching", many many children that would otherwise take benefit from this wonderful practice would miss out on this wonderful product of a great ancient civilization, and be so much the poorer for it.     


  1. All I know for sure is that Sharath (& Guruji before him) referenced God quite frequently. I'm wondering if the people who are arguing that yoga is secular have much of a connection with AYRI. If so, I think they're being disingenuous if they argue Ashtanga is religion-free. I believe one can practice without being religious, but I don't believe the practice is secular.

  2. i like your point about making music being spiritual but not religious. one other thing- music performance at public schools generally includes religious music (at least it did when i was in school) - does singing the lord's prayer, the halleluhah chorus, christmas carols plus a few hannukah songs to "balance" it out(all things i sang in high school) make me more religious? does it not promote a christian-judao idea of education, and/or the religions themselves? where are the people suing the school district for violating the distinction between church and state in probably every district in the country?

  3. I thought at the time that the big mistake was just to dismiss those who were complaining about the Ashtanga in Schools. they might not have been sure about what it was they were uncomfortable with or struggled to articulate it but it's clear there is an argument there, certainly a discussion.

    I wanted to throw this in the mix, came at the end of the Krishnamacharya movie I reviews yesterday, this is Krishnamacharya's youngest son speaking

    "Yoga is coming from a country in which God is very important, ever present in our life. So in one way it's easy for us to think of god, to keep him in our mind in whatever we do. But in the west it's not so. And as my father did not want to impose his personal religious beliefs to you he had to find a way in which he, let us say, develop in you the thirst for God or creator...

    The more you practice this session, the more you come to shirsasana and sarvangasana, bhujangasana, you reduce your mental activities and since you've already reduced your sense perceptions from the external world your emotional activities also come down and you end up with maha mudra and paschimottanasana, which look like yoga postures but where the concentration is so deep that you are...already, knowing what the peace of mind is. And it finishes, naturally, with concentration on the spiritual heart. That is where, whatever our religion is we consider our soul resides. So, with a peaceful mind and the mind directed at the heart naturally you have a glimpse of what your own spiritual life is, even if it is for a few seconds. By practice you learn to live (experience this?) for a long time"
    TK Sribhashyam

    isn't that what schools are for to give us the tools to find our own way, the thinking skills to think our won thoughts, the language skills to express them and perhaps the tools/skills to discover our own take on the spiritual/divine even if that turns out to be a purely aesthetic sense. perhaps yoga creates the space to discover that.

    and then this also where Krihnamacharya was asked what about those who don't have bhakti, religious devotion

    "Q: What does the bhakti mean to a person who has no belief in Isvara?

    Krishnamacharya: Love is bhakti for them".

    the old hippy : )

  4. Sribhashyam lives in Europe btw, us heathen euros! He might have a different view if he lived in the midwest ( I lived in Kansas for a while).

    I do think they forget sometimes in India and Japan etc. that we have quite the religious tradition in the west, might not seem so these days but we have a few thousand years under our belt, great meditative traditions too, we called it prayer though. I know many traditional Zen and Vipassana teachers thought we were not ready for such practices (many still don't, Suzuki however said we have beginner's mind, a good thing) just as P. Jois and Sharath seem to have thought/think we're not ready/suited to meditation practice... a certain unintentional arrogance there perhaps, slightly patronising.... they'd be surprised....us too perhaps.

  5. The Jois family are smarta Brahmins. Their family guru is Adi Shankarya, the foremost figure of Advaita Vedanta. This is the source of remarks from Guruji or Sharat along the lines of "everything is God." Advaita Vedanta is completely different from yoga in its philosophical assumptions. Completely different.

    That said, Ashtanga by definition includes ishvara pranidhana as part of the practice. To quote Guruji again - "this is Patanjali yoga" - would seem to conclude the discussion of whether our practice involves religion.

    1. Krishnamacharya taught Ramaswami and Ramaswami taught me that in the Yoga Sutras devotion to Ishvara was an option an alternative fast track approach to Samadhi. If you were not religiously inclined then that was ok because the method Patanjali laid out could be seen as quite secular. Also my understanding of Ishvara was that it could represent your own personal deity. Both Ramaswami and Krishnamacharya are and we're deeply religious as well as being quite scientific, Krishnamacharya supposedly planted seven coconut trees in his garden to represent the seven planets. No doubt Krishnamacharya had many heated arguments with other scholars concerning his interpretation of the Ishvara passages. Luckily my teacher provides me with wiggle room.

  6. Well I'm no vidvan or anything, but doesn't it seem a little arbitrary to declare a niyama optional? I think they're talking about ishvara as Patanjali describes in the first chapter, sutra 23-29, which is offered as an alternative. The ashtanga method laid out in the second chapter doesn't mention anything about optional niyamas.

    Good point about "ishvara" being open to interpretation.