Mark Movsesian observes an interesting distinction between the rulings of two courts on the status of yoga. In California, plaintiffs alleged that a public school system imposing yoga classes on its students violated the First Amendment, given that yoga is religious in nature. The court disagreed, saying that as conceived by the school, it amounted to nothing more than a stretching class.
In India, on the other hand, the Supreme Court there appears to take more seriously the argument that imposing yoga on public school students would be an intolerable burden for non-Hindus, precisely because it’s impossible to separate the practice of yoga from its religious origins in Hinduism. Movsesian says:
What explains the different reactions of the American and Indian courts? Much has to do with the different cultural understandings of yoga. Here in the U.S., most people who do yoga don’t think of it as religious. Spiritual, yes, in the sense that it creates a sense of inner peace, but not religious. Oh, people may understand that yoga has Hindu roots and that some elements, like the salutation to the sun god and chanting the word “Om,” have religious meanings. But these aspects of yoga intrude very little on their experience. “Sure, yoga is religious for some,” they might say, “but not for us. Maybe other people think they’re greeting the sun god, and that’s fine. But we’re just stretching.” So when a public school says it has removed the religious elements of yoga and retained the secular, most Americans would find that position plausible.
The difficulty is that yoga, as traditionally understood, doesn’t work that way. In traditional understanding, yoga is itself a religious act. The postures themselves lead the practitioner to God, whether the practitioner intends this or not. In traditional understanding, in other words, one can’t separate the religious and secular aspects of yoga and one really shouldn’t try. Indeed, some American Hindus object to the way our popular culture treats yoga as a designer gym routine. Much as many American Christians seek to “Keep Christ in Christmas,” the Hindu American Foundation has mounted a campaign to “Take Back Yoga” for the faith.
I am with the Hindus on this. I don’t see how it is possible to separate yoga from religious practice — and as a practicing Christian, I would not participate in it, nor would I allow my children to participate in it. To do so would be a violation of conscience. I have friends who are either Christian or secular who practice yoga, and don’t believe there is any spiritual content to it. I respect that. But I disagree. In Orthodox Christianity, there are some prayer rules that involve the Jesus Prayer, and many prostrations. That is, they involve the meditative use of the phrase “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” or some version thereof, along with making the sign of the cross, and bending and moving in ways that look like calisthenics. You could claim, I suppose, that following such a prayer rule is not really religious, if you just use the Jesus Prayer as a kind of contentless mantra. The idea would be not that the words are an actual petition to Jesus, who may or may not exist (the argument would go), but that these words were simply used as a way to calm and focus the mind.
I practice the Jesus Prayer daily, as part of my prayer rule, and I can tell you that there really are tangible benefits to the lengthy meditation it requires. I believe that these benefits come primarily through opening up one’s nous to the Holy Spirit through the prayers, the repetitions, the mindfulness, and the gestures, but I could understand a non-believer attributing the more serene mind I experience as having nothing at all to do with God, but rather with the scientifically proven positive effects on the body from meditation. Plus, if you did as many prostrations as the monks do, you would unavoidably be in better physical condition.
From an Orthodox Christian perspective, though, it is impossible to separate religion from the particularity of the prayers and physical movements. They are all designed to bring one closer to God — the Christian God. It would be beyond absurd to claim that these prayers and physical movements are only religious if people say they are intended to be so.
I once had a long conversation with a young American who had spent a long time in India as a spiritual seeker. He never converted to Hinduism, but engaged in a lot of Hindu spiritual practices. By the time he left India, he was seriously freaked out by many of the supernatural things he had seen and experienced there. They eventually led to his conversion to Orthodox Christianity. The point he was making to me is that many Westerners naively fail to understand that there are spiritual realities behind practices like yoga — spiritual realities that Indian practitioners recognize and accept. That’s the whole point of the practice.
What we have here is a critical metaphysical difference, which we might call The Nominalism Of The Yoga Mat. We see the conflict between nominalism and realism play out all the time in our public and private lives, whenever religion comes up. Does religion embody transcendent realities, or does it merely express how individuals feel? In this case, the question is: does yoga embody a transcendent reality, which would make its practice inextricable from religion; or are there no transcendent realities for yoga to embody, which means it’s religious if you mean for it to be religious, but otherwise mere stretching and meditation?