Monday, July 29, 2013

Yoga, dodgeball, spirituality

It's been almost a month since the conclusion of the Encinitas yoga trial. As most of you know, the judge in that trial ruled that there is nothing unconstitutional about teaching yoga in schools; yoga, Judge John Meyer said, "is similar to other exercise programs like dodgeball." Therefore, yoga has nothing to do with religion or spirituality. Therefore, the teaching of yoga in schools does not violate separation of church and state. Therefore, children can go ahead and enjoy yoga in schools without fear of spiritual or religious indoctrination. Yay.

But things are a bit more complicated than that, as most of you know. Many thoughtful observers of this trial have concluded that this verdict represents a Pyrrhic victory; Carol Horton, for instance, has written a very thoughtful post on the implications of such a victory. The victory is Pyrrhic, because while the court has ruled that yoga may be taught in schools (which is great), it has also, by characterizing yoga as being no different from something like dodgeball (along with all the unhappy memories of grade school P.E. classes that this word brings up for those of us who were not-so-socially-well-adjusted non-jocks), thrown out the yogic baby with the bathwater (which is not so great). Yoga, as most of us who have had any exposure to it will attest, is anything but non-spiritual: I suspect that even casual yoga "users" who only attend one yoga class a week at their local gym or health club will readily attest that yoga is more than just stretching (or dodgeball). To simply say that yoga is just stretching (or dodgeball), then, is to seriously misrepresent what yoga is about.

But with the legal-political culture of this country being what it is today, the only way to make yoga kosher within the legal structure is to characterize it as a spirituality-free and all-religion-friendly exercise/stress-reduction modality (this blog, incidentally, has also been lauded as a Transcendental Site for Stress Reduction. I'm still not sure what the "transcendent" means here... but anyway.). The only other alternative, it seems, would be to admit that yoga is spiritual. And therefore religious, according to Candy Gunther Brown. And therefore in violation of separation of church and state.

Something has gone very wrong somewhere. But what exactly? Well, for starters, we get the sense that this kind of (falsely) dichotomistic thinking ("Yoga is either only exercise, or it is spiritual and therefore a religion") fails to do any justice to the richness and complexity of lived yoga experience. I could be wrong here, but I'm pretty sure that the average person who decides to start yoga at her local gym or yoga studio does not walk into her first yoga class thinking, "This yoga is ONLY exercise and stretching. If I should start feeling anything during or after class that cannot be reduced to or explained in terms of the effects of exercise, I'm going to stop doing yoga. Because I only signed up for exercise and stretching; I didn't sign up for any spiritual-religious indoctrination."

Hmm. Or maybe what all this means is that yoga studios need to start getting all new students to sign a spirituality waiver form before they start classes ("I, the undersigned, acknowledge that in doing yoga, I am willingly exposing myself to possible transformation that goes beyond and cannot be explained in purely physical terms. If said transformation occurs, I will accept full personal responsibility for it, and will not hold X Yoga Studio liable for said transformation or any effects thereof.").

But here's something else to think about: What is so bad about spirituality or spiritual transformation in the first place? Well, one might say that spirituality is "bad" because spirituality is religion, and the teaching of religion violates the separation of church and state; or, perhaps, violates the freedom of religious belief of the individual, in the case of the unsuspecting student who walks into a yoga studio or gym expecting to get only exercise, and gets more than what she signed up for.

Hmm... fair enough. But what if one cannot truly be a human being without first being a spiritual being of some sort? To be truly human (as opposed to being only biologically human) is, among other things, to recognize that all these other blobs of flesh and bone that I am surrounded by are persons of moral standing. And it seems to me that no amount of scientific analysis can explain why I should treat these blobs of flesh and bone in a way that accords with their moral standing as human beings: Why, for instance, I should not steal from this particular blob even if I am pretty sure I can get away with it, or why I shouldn't torture that particular blob even if doing so will give me great pleasure.         

So if we assume that the purpose of education isn't just to cram scientific and technical knowledge into students' brains, but to foster individuals who can function productively and constructively as human beings in human community and civilization, and if one cannot function in such a way without being a moral being who recognizes the moral standing of oneself and one's fellow human beings, and such recognition is ultimately a fundamental conviction that cannot be reduced to scientific terms, wouldn't this mean that cultivating a sense of spirituality, far from undermining the goal of education, is actually an important--arguably, the most important--ingredient to any process of education that is worth the name? And wouldn't this mean that cultivating a sense of spirituality that enables the student to recognize and respect the human-ness of everybody around her is (or should be) a key component of educational systems?

What does all this mean for the doctrine of separation of church and state, that doctrine which we Americans--no wait, you Americans (I've lived in this country for so long, I often forget I'm not a citizen)-- hold so dear? Well, it probably means that spirituality can and should be taught in schools, even if it violates the separation of church and state. After all, what is more important: Fostering true humans beings, or adhering to some abstract doctrine? But this is probably not going to fly. After all, what self-respecting parent would willingly risk exposing her kid to the dangers of Hindu indoctrination in the guise of spirituality cultivation?

But maybe there is another alternative, one that would, admittedly, require us to get outside the only-exercise/only-religion dichotomy box that the legal system has put us into. Maybe, just maybe, there is such a thing as non-denominational, religion-free spirituality? But to have this kind of spiritual, we--or any rate, the legal system--would have to accept that there is such a thing as spirituality that is not religious; we would have to accept that something can be spiritual without being religious. Are we ready for this?    

P.S. It just occurred to me that there is actually yet another alternative. Maybe exercise in itself is spiritual. Which means that dodgeball is spiritual. Come to think of it, there are probably important spiritual lessons to be learned from being terrorized by your more socially-well-adjusted grade-school peers during P.E.. Dodgeball as spirituality? Zen and the art of dodgeball maintenance? Somebody should write a book...   


  1. Spirituality waiver :) Like it.

    I just want the term "spiritual repression" to get some currency, because it's definitely a real condition. I've definitely been sensitized to the condition of late.

    1. As you may have guessed, this post is actually inspired by your most recent post about spiritual repression. Yes, I do think that spiritual repression is a great notion that deserves to get some traction/currency. I can't help but think that this repression is an unintended byproduct of our--well, I mean *your*--articles of constitution, with all the emphasis on separation of powers and all that. At some point, political institutions are a reflection of what is going on inside our collective soul/spirit. If you separate things too rigorously on the outside, you end up separating and compartmentalizing things on the inside as well. Ergo, spiritual repression.

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