Instead of trying to change his mind directly by trying to convince him that yoga does not involve yoking with the devil (like I would know what that means, anyway... I mean, does it involve having visions of a smirking creature with big horns sticking out of his head?), I took a gentler, more non-confrontational tack. I explained to him that first, yoga scholars do not all agree that yoga means "union" or "yoking"; for every yogi out there that subscribes to the "yoga means yoking" line, there is at least one other who believes that yoga really means "separation", as in separating purusha, or soul, from prakrti or conditioned existence (if I'm not mistaken, Srivatsa Ramaswami is among those who subscribe to the separation thesis). I also explained to my friend that we can think of yoga as being a set of mind-body fusion tools. The tools themselves are neutral; it is what you do with the tools that make the difference.
After listening to my explanation, my friend said that he will think about what I said, and do his own independent research into yoga before deciding whether to start a yoga practice.
The above exchange between me and my friend may strike a familiar chord if you have been following the ongoing legal battle between the Encinitas Union School District and evangelical Christian parents backed by the conservative National Center for Law and Policy (NCLP) over the teaching of yoga in Encinitas elementary schools by the Jois Foundation.
Indeed, one of the key reasons why the entire legal battle has been so intractable is that the NCLP does not believe that there can ever be such a thing as non-religious yoga. According to Candy Gunther Brown, an associate professor of religion at the University of Indiana whom the NCLP has recruited to bolster their case, even if one were to strip away from the yoga practice all the Sanskrit names, references to Hindu gods, and all other assorted trappings that might ordinarily cast doubt on the non-religious status of yoga, the physical practice (i.e. the postures themselves) would still constitute a religious practice in and of itself. As Erik Davis observes in a recent article on this legal battle:
"Brown claims that the Encinitas yoga curriculum advances Hindu and American metaphysical religion ‘whether or not these practices are taught using religious or Hindu language’. In other words, the spiritual power — and threat — does not lie within the discourse packaging the moves, but in the moves themselves...
She claims that, in contrast to Protestant concerns with the word, Eastern religions express devotion directly through practices that fuse body and mind. The physical practices drawn from those traditions can never be stripped of religion, because the religion — others would say ‘spirituality’ — already lies in the embodiment."
All of which is to say that if Brown is right, then the millions of people in this country who practice "gym yoga"--i.e. yoga classes taught at gyms and health clubs which involve no Sanskrit terms or chanting at all, and in which the participants see themselves as "just stretching"--would be practicing a religion, whether or not they know it!
Which, in a way, is precisely what Brown is saying. Furthermore, Davis also observes that "Brown notes that, in much apparently ‘secularised’ yoga, novices first enjoy the physical benefits of the workouts and then begin to receive ‘spiritual nuggets’ from teachers, nuggets that lead deeper into the Hindu worldview." So, according to Brown, even the apparently innocuous "stretching" yoga classes at your local gym or health club are really just the first step--the gateway drug, if you will--in an elaborate journey of Hindu brainwashing.
But, Hindu brainwashing or no, Brown's view of the religiosity of yoga is far more radical. For her, one does not even have to consciously understand or accept any Hindu concepts (whatever that means) in order to practice yoga as a religion. For her, one starts practicing yoga-as-religion from the very first moment one takes one's first mountain pose or downward-facing dog. This is so, because the religion "already lies in the moves themselves." Which is another way of saying that anybody (yes, anybody) who puts their bodies in any of these positions is already practicing yoga-as-religion, whether or not they know it... Really? Well, consider this:
Is she practicing yoga-as-religion?
[I can't seem to locate the original website from which this image came. If this is your baby, please let me know, and I will acknowledge the source accordingly. My apologies in advance.]
In any case, I'm not going to get into an argument over whether or not putting one's body in particular positions constitutes a religious practice in and of itself, although I suspect you can probably already see how ridiculous this entire notion is if you just run it through your head a few times... (and maybe also take a few more looks at that cute baby picture above, while you're at it)... Ha! Maybe we really do need smart yoga, after all. Hmm... maybe I was too quick to dismiss Yoga for Smart People the other day. Ah well...
But anyway, as I said, I'm not going to argue over whether or not putting one's body in particular positions constitutes a religious practice in and of itself. The whole thing is just too ridiculous to even bother to refute. What I'm going to say is this: Any person or group of persons that tries to tell people that they shouldn't put their bodies in this or that position because doing so would constitute practicing this or that religion or even devil worship are probably not persons you would want to trust your bodies, souls or babies around. I mean, if you are advocating that putting one's body in a certain position constitutes devil-worship, you are advocating nothing less than a doctrine of hatred for the body. Which, in a way, isn't all that surprising, considering where many evangelical conservative Christian groups are coming from.
But in any case, what it all comes down to is this. Whether or not yoga is ultimately a religion, we have to make a choice between two worldviews: A worldview that loves and embraces the body for what it is, versus a worldview that sees the body as a depraved vehicle, a vehicle of whom even the most innocuous movements could be the work of the devil.
Which shall it be?
P.S. No babies were harmed in the writing of this post.