Saturday, May 18, 2013

More on the yoga and religion debate; spiritual pragmatism

I just read this recent article by Richard Karpel in USA Today. In this article, Karpel briefly reports on the ongoing legal case between the Encinitas Union School District and the NCLP over the teaching of yoga in the school district. Karpel also cites the views of a few yoga scholars, who explain the non-sectarian nature of yoga. Here are a couple of excerpts from the article that are worth taking a look at:

"Like many scholars of yoga and religion, Christopher Chapple, professor of Indic and Comparative Theology at Loyola Marymount University, says that yoga is a non-sectarian practice. The Yoga Sutras, the most commonly cited classical text that forms the basis for both traditional and contemporary yoga philosophy, make no specific theological claims, according to Chapple. It is the non-sectarian nature of this text that has allowed it to resonate for more than 1,500 years, he says...

Mark Singleton, a yoga scholar who teaches at St. John's College in Santa Fe, notes that many of the influential pioneers of modern hatha yoga insisted on its non-sectarian, democratic and secular nature, and sometimes had an aversion to the association of yoga with religion. This, says Singleton, is in keeping with the anti-sectarian spirit of early Indian hatha yoga." 

If you read this blog regularly, you will know that I have written a few posts expressing my personal views about this ongoing legal case and the issues of spirituality vs. religion that it brings up, so I won't repeat myself here. But I just want to point out that it is significant that a mainstream national newspaper like USA Today has published an article which reinforces the view that yoga is not a religion. Hopefully, this will have a positive impact in shaping public perception and the direction of conversations around the country on this matter.  


Well, I said I wasn't going to repeat myself by saying too much more in this post. But after thinking about this matter a little more, it turns out that I do have more to say anyway. So here goes.

In the USA Today article above, Mark Singleton notes that in keeping with the anti-sectarian spirit of early hatha yoga, many influential pioneers of modern hatha yoga insisted on its non-sectarian and secular nature. I am no yoga scholar, but I can't help speculating that a big part of this insistence on the non-sectarian secularism of yoga is also driven by what I would call "spiritual pragmatism". The idea is that it doesn't matter where a particular spiritual practice comes from or what its specific doctrinal origin is: If it benefits you and helps you to function more effectively as a person in the world, why not adopt it?

I have noticed that this spirit of pragmatism informs much of eastern thinking, and not just in spiritual matters. For instance, it famously finds expression in Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's maxim, "It doesn't matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice." It was this spirit of pragmatism that allowed Deng to incorporate extensive economic reforms in a China that was reeling from the effects of the cultural revolution, and reform the Chinese economy without ostensibly deviating from Marxist/Maoist doctrine.

Applied to spiritual matters, this means that so long as a particular physical or spiritual practice helps you to function more effectively as a person in the world, the fact that it originated in a spiritual system that is alien to your own is secondary. If it benefits you, you would do well to adopt it (and maybe find a way to fit it within your spiritual system further down the road).

I also can't help observing that this spirit of pragmatism is rather lacking in much of Judeo-Christian thought. I have noticed that there is a tendency for much of Judeo-Christian thinking to be rather binary in nature. I'm actually not sure if this is because Judeo-Christian thought is itself inherently binary in nature, or if it is because westerners who grew up in this tradition tend to be binary in their thinking (I suspect it's a combination of both.). In any case, such a way of thinking goes like this: Something either fits into my system, or it doesn't. If it doesn't, then it probably goes against some basic belief of my system. Therefore, I should reject it, no matter how beneficial it might otherwise be to me. To use a very specific example, I believe that it is this lack of a pragmatic spirit that led my Christian friend to hesitate about starting a yoga practice for fear that it might involve yoking with the devil.  

Well, I think I have rambled enough for today. All of my views here about spiritual pragmatism are strictly my own subjective musings; I have not conducted any systematic research to back these claims up. But since this is my blog/personal soapbox, I've decided to air them here anyway: What else are blogs for? As always, if you have anything to say, I'll love to hear from you.     


  1. for what it's worth, the perspective of somebody who makes no bones about regarding his own yoga practice as religious: just because something is nonsectarian doesn't necessarily mean it's non-religious, though, right? can it not also suggest religious pluralism as well as, or as opposed to, secularism? and what does dr. chapple say about chapter one, sutra 24? regarding the binary nature of christianity, in matthew 12:30 jesus does say "whoever is not with me is against me" but he also says in john 14:2 "in my father's house are many rooms." and don't forget mark 12:17-- "render unto ceasar what is ceasar's and unto god what is god's" i just don't think christianity is quite as simple as you make it out to be here. the example of your christian friend is not only very specific, i feel it's too specific. my wife is devoutly catholic and practices yoga with no hang-ups, so i can't help but feel you're being unfair to her and many christian yoga practitioners. some of them are hip.

    1. Hello Patrick,
      I do apologize if I come across as being unfair to your wife and other, well, hip Christians. I relate the incident with my Christian friend because it really happened. And something tells me that he is not the only Christian out there who holds such a view; there may well be lots of people out there who hold similar views, but do not express them publicly.

      The interesting thing about the Bible, as you know, is that it is subject to so many interpretations, depending on which passages one gives more emphasis to. For example, could it be that while your wife uses John 14:2 and Mark 12:17 (btw, Mark 12:17 is one of my favorite Bible passages; to me, it shows that Christ is very much a pragmatist at heart) to guide her life, other people may focus more on Matthew 12:30, and choose to dwell only in one or two of the many rooms in "my father's house"?

      Yes, I suppose you are right that non-sectarian doesn't necessarily mean non-religious. In my conversations with Kino, for instance, we agree that "Isvara" can refer to a plurality of belief systems. In that sense, yoga philosophy can be religious in a pluralistic way without making any specific theological claims.

      All of which is well and good. But I have a bad feeling that the NCLP isn't going to buy this line of thinking. If I understand them correctly, for them, there is no such thing as religious pluralism. Something is either purely "physical exercise" and therefore non-religious, or it is religious in nature, and is therefore an attempt at religious indoctrination. And if the religion being indoctrinated is not Christianity, then it must be some other eastern religion (Hinduism, for instance). Which violates the separation of churach and state.

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  3. I am what I would call an equal opportunity spiritualist. By that I mean that I was raised by a high priest of Judaism who is a non conformist and his convert-Catholic wife, who was part Greek Orthodox and enthralled with Greek mythology ... my longtime boyfriend was agnostic ... you get the picture.
    It is, in that respect, interesting what I've seen in religion and in yoga from a multi-faith (and even apocryphal) perspective. Yes, there are certain Christian churches that teach a very rigid dogma which encourages, among its members, an exclusion of learning from other sources. There are many in the Jewish community who are (understandably) wary of all others; yet at the same time, are often unschooled in the depth of Torah content and the historical and cultural motivation behind Talmudic law. Your categorical dismissal of Judeo-Christian thought is on the same level as this lack of true understanding of those who choose not to learn the truth behind their own faiths, or simply assume they know. In the study of Judeo-Christian writings, apocryphal texts, biblical archaeology and ancient Hebrew culture, there are strongly embedded ties to Karma, reincarnation, Eastern philosophy, and more. More often than not the problems lie in a lack of investigation of functioning society at the real historical time of biblical events, translation (and often mistranslation and reinvention) of Hebrew and Greek, and the now popular revised rewrites of ancient texts to fit specific sects' contemporary congregations.
    I believe it's important, when these religions move nations powerfully, and yoga has become popular and rampant in the West, to find these intersections and reveal them. The results may be the greater than any asana on a mat. They may be the greatest enlightenment of all.

    1. Interesting thoughts, Shelley. Thanks for chiming in. I am not categorically dismissing Judeo-Christian thought (though perhaps, in my attempts at generating conversations, I sometimes make claims that come out more strongly in a certain direction than I intend). But I am saying that there does seem to be a certain rigidity and lack of a pragmatic spirit in the way many present-day adherents of Christianity approach practices that they deem to be foreign to their belief systems. I suppose such rigidity is not confined to Christians; it is very possible that some adherents of eastern spiritual traditions also suffer from such rigidity. But all I can do is observe and remark on instances of rigidity that I see around me in my immediate environment.

      "I believe it's important, when these religions move nations powerfully, and yoga has become popular and rampant in the West, to find these intersections and reveal them."

      I couldn't agree more with you here.