Yoga as Religion

Over at aeon, Erik Davis has posted a fantastic piece that addresses the apparently simple question: Is yoga a religion? Your answer to this question will probably depend on what yoga is for you personally. Most people, I’m guessing, will readily say that yoga is nothing more than exercise. But this subjective kind of response doesn’t get us very far, and it ignores the historical and metaphysical issues which swirl around yoga like so many Hindu gods and goddesses.

Davis’ story — which is about evangelical parents in California who are litigating to prevent yoga practice in public schools — reminds me of a conversation I had with a close friend back in 2003. She had discovered yoga in its American commercial-secular form and was quite enthusiastic about it. As she was extolling the myriad mind-body benefits, I observed that yoga was embedded in a spiritual or religious tradition and that delving deeply into the discipline would might eventually lead her to this tradition. She vehemently rejected this suggestion and told me I was nuts. She was neither spiritual nor religious. For her, yoga was nothing more than exercise.

Within a few years, she had become a yoga instructor and was devoting nearly all her time to yoga practice, retreats, teaching, and study. She eventually traveled to India and spent time at an ashram. Upon her return, she changed her name and openly declared her new Hindu spiritual or religious affiliation. The transformation was total.

Davis deftly notes that yoga can work this way and that physiologic discourse can easily give way to metaphysical discourse. In the historical tradition in which yoga is embedded, the latter undergirds the former. Present-day practitioners who inquire or wish to learn more will almost invariably encounter, through reading or instruction, the underlying metaphysical matrix which provides the ultimate explanation or justification for yoga as practice, action, or discipline.

This brings me to the only quibble I have with Davis’ article, prompted by this passage:

[I]n a sense the key to the Christian evangelists’ fear of yoga goes beyond religious discourse entirely. [They claim] 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.

Davis suspects this idea is wrong. Emile Durkheim would disagree. Durkehim’s intellectual predecessors (and successors) all rejected purely discursive or doctrinal approaches to religion and emphasized the primacy of practice. For them, activity and practice comes first — ideas and doctrines are secondary. The former leads naturally or ineluctably to the latter. Or as they put it, ritual activity comes before mythical justification.

Because Protestants (and intellectuals) tend to be focused on words, ideas, writings, and doctrines, they often overlook this ritually embodied aspect of religion. While I have little or no sympathy for the evangelical parents that Davis describes in his story, they have some legitimate cause for concern. Kids who practice yoga today may really like it, decide to explore, inquire more deeply, and find themselves sliding down the slope toward a metaphysics that horrifies their intolerant parents.

Here is the photo that accompanies Davis’ article; it shows the California kids at issue practicing their yoga:


While this may just be exercise or action, it may also be something more:


This is one of those issues that can’t be resolved in any definitive way. Everyone involved will have their own personal view of what yoga is or isn’t, and that perspective will drive the debate. In fact, the judge in the case has already announced that he practices yoga and (for him at least) there is nothing “spiritual or religious” about it. It sounds to me like he has pre-judged the issue in a rather simplistic way (which may be grounds for recusal). I heard the same statement from my friend back in 2003; she is now a shimmering white spiritual lotus.

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One thought on “Yoga as Religion

  1. Sabio Lantz

    Anything as religion, is a huge question since ‘religion’ seems an artificial abstraction with blurry edges that almost reach the center.

    You make fantastic points. My thoughts:

    (1) Having done martial arts for years (I think you have too), I am surprised when I meet martial students who know absolutely nothing about ideas of the etheric body. That is because tons of folks don’t teach it and thus they don’t get into it. Yet many folks do, even though they are not taught it but only because it is in the outside reading they do. It ain’t in the moves, however.

    Also, people drawn to martial arts fall into several groups (especially adults who go on their own — not dragged by parents) and some of those groups contain traits of seeking identity or power or niche and so even if not taught something to make give their belief-systems a securer niche, they will seek it out — ie, read.

    (2) I totally agree that evaluating religion on doctrine only is mistaken. Practice can lead to opening the mind to other ways of thinking and feeling — even without doctrine. You don’t have to teach open-marriage to folks, just let them practice a few ‘accidental’ successful spouse-swappings and they may come up with the idea themselves without any indoctrination.

    (3) I agree, Yoga is dangerous for evangelical kids. It is linked by culture to stuff they would be tempted to read OUTSIDE of their particular class — but not because there is something in the cat-pose. They may also find it amazing that they can relax and find calmness or an inner voice meditating and not just saying the Lord’s Prayer.

    (4) I just talked to 2 families who kids went to non-overtly Christian summer camps and yet came out interested in the Bible. Both those families were Christian. Stuff leaks in — and it wasn’t through the way they kicked the soccer balls — it was through all the associations: the web of connections of practices, ideas and culture.

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