Adharmic Alliance: How the ivory tower helped Yoga Alliance “certify” Yoga as secular and detach it from its Hindu roots

Introduction and background:

The following is Part I of III from a previously published piece (originally written in March of 2016) that focused on the topic of Yoga in the westernized world.  This piece uses a case study as background to reveal the bigger picture of how those in the business of keeping Yoga in business played the system and pulled in the anti-Hindu elite of academia to help strip Yoga of its Hindu roots in order to keep the profit-making machinery in motion.  This piece will be offered in three parts as follows:

  1. Part I: A “who’s who” of the case … and Yoga Alliance’s advocacy that is certifiably anti-Hindu (and three appendices included with Part I that provide information as to the interviews and other research conducted)

  2. Part II:  An education in Yoga that erases its roots and sets up a curriculum for secularized sale

  3. Part III:  The ivory tower’s role in rewriting the history of Yoga and setting academia’s Hinduphobic angle in precedent

  • The case study used frames the issues of Yoga in the west, and specifically the westernization of Yoga, around a case study of “Sedlock v. Baird” (Yoga in Encinitas).  One of the key differences the majority of interviewees noted as a difference between “traditional” Yoga and what they see happening in contemporary, westernized Yoga was secularization (1) of the tradition in the latter.  Much of what branches off in terms of the “anything goes” we see in contemporary Yoga world finds its root in this departure from the sacred.  In addition (and part and parcel), many interviewees’ also noted the attempts to divorce Yoga from its roots, i.e., Hinduism and other Indic traditions. Therefore, some of the interviewees’ quotations will be set against the timeline, conclusions and precedent from this specific case to highlight these key departures. 
  • My decision to begin with this case study as a framework was based upon what I considered very important for the audience to recognize as to the entrenched institutional -- and not just individual -- forces at play.  The individual voices of the interviewees set against this institutional framework provide this context.
  • I also wish to note that the quotations featured in Part I -- as powerful as they are -- only reflect a piece of what was offered up by interviewees throughout the process.  Each one of the interview excerpts included adds something specific to framing the issues, but these voices included here are only some of those who were interviewed -- and further, their quotations are only a small part of what each of them offered within the entirety of his/her specific interview.  To be very clear, not all of the interviewees in the diverse set of voices who were kind enough to participate in the process agree with the important underlying assertion I establish herein that argues Yoga cannot be detached from its Hindu roots (see Appendix III for more context on this). Still, the diverse voices in the entire set of interviews -- whatever their divergent views -- provide incredible context as how we got to this place in westernized Yoga world.  As I mentioned, only a small portion of the interviews are included this particular piece, as it was originally intended to be one part and a “jumping-off” point set within a larger framework of continuing research and dialogue. But is my hope is that more of the information and perspectives they offered can be brought in and put to good use as the conversation around these issues continues. Please see the bio sheet in Appendix I for the full list of interviewees and Appendix II for information as to the questions and process used in interviews.

Part I:  A “who’s who” of the case … and Yoga Alliance’s advocacy that is certifiably anti-Hindu

A Case Study:  The Encinitas Case

“If there is one thing I wish that would stop completely is people saying, ‘Yoga is whatever I want it to be.’”

- Kirthika Chandrasekar, interviewee

 

Key: color references to entities, organizations and individuals referenced

the Encinitas Union School District

“The following puts into place a partnership between the . . . Foundation and the . . . District . . . to deliver a world class mind/body wellness program at all nine Encinitas elementary schools [an expansion following a pilot program in one school]...Assistant superintendent David Miyashiro decided to attempt to secure additional funding from the Foundation in order to expand the yoga program to all of the District's schools.”

The KP Jois Foundation

See above.  Grant partner to the District to provide a Yoga program in schools.

Yoga Alliance

Yoga Alliance is a standards-setting organization for Yoga teachers and schools.  Please read about their history at: https://www.yogaalliance.org/About_Us/Our_History and see their “2015 State of the Union” report for more information as to their mission and initiatives.[1]

As part of their Advocacy work, Yoga Alliance supported the District in this case.

YES! Yoga for Encinitas Students

Parents formed the organization YES! Yoga for Encinitas Students and joined the case to support the District’s program.  Yoga Alliance was a partner to this organization in support of the Defendant’s case.

Dr. Christopher Chapple

To support YES! Yoga for Encinitas Students, Yoga Alliance arranged the expert testimony of Christopher Chapple, PhD and professor of Indic and comparative religion at Loyola Marymount University (expert witness for the Defense’s side)

Dr. Mark Singleton

Mark Singleton, PhD and professor at St. John’s College contributed the expert testimony for the interveners (expert witness for the Defense’s side)

 

Dr. Singleton is now (elected December 1, 2015) a member of Yoga Alliance’s Board.

the Sedlocks

Plaintiff’s in the case.

Dr. Candy Gunter Brown

Expert witness for the Plaintiff’s side.  See Dr. Candy Gunther Brown’s Declaration (link in footnote)4

interviewee quotes (including introductory context)

Quotations from some of the interviewees  juxtaposed next to sections from the history of the case and official court documents, i.e., placed in the columns to the right within the body of this article.

author’s commentary

I’ve offered notes next to certain sections in order to give further context, point out trends and make note of specific errors or misunderstandings in the case history and documents, i.e., placed in the columns to the right within the body of this article.

 

 

 

----------Yoga Alliance:  the means to their ends

 

The following case study evidences how Yoga Alliance’s efforts, in particular in the Advocacy[2] realm (but that also bleed over into all of their work, including their Education, “benefit” of course), depend on defining Yoga as secular and detaching it from its Hindu roots as the means to supports its own endsThat is, order to continue the “business of Yoga” unfettered, their definition of Yoga must be the least restrictive so as to not interfere with the Yoga industry’s growth.  Therefore, it is in their best interest to systematically detach “Yoga” from anything that could potentially damaging to their mission and the work that supports it.

 

 

excerpts from the section on “Prohibiting Yoga Practice” from Yoga Alliance’s website[3]

Yoga Alliance fully supports the practice of yoga and its diversity. We believe that yoga is a personal practice that can be completely secular, spiritual or somewhere in between, and that there is a yoga practice for everyone. Whenever the right to practice yoga is threatened, Yoga Alliance will work to help protect that freedom.

 

In 2011, the Encinitas School District in California implemented an optional yoga program as an alternative to a traditional physical education course. Two parents sued the school district to stop the program in the case Sedlock v. Baird, contending that yoga is religious. In July 2013, the case’s presiding judge sided with the school district and ruled the program was not religious, which was appealed. Parents formed the organization YES! Yoga for Encinitas Students and, alongside Yoga Alliance, joined the case to actively support the District’s program...

 

In October 2014, Yoga Alliance submitted an amicus curiae brief to the presiding judge and compiled expert testimonies from Yoga Alliance board of directors chair Brandon Hartsell and Doshi professor of Indic and comparative theology Christopher Chapple, PhD to outline how yoga is not inherently religious and that it can be practiced in an entirely secular manner.”

 

On March 11, 2015, the case was argued before a three-judge panel in California's 4th District Court of Appeal. During the hearing, most of the judges' questions were directed to the plaintiffs' attorney. The judges seemed skeptical of plaintiffs' argument that the school district's yoga program endorsed Hindu religious beliefs...

 

On April 3, 2015, the court of appeal determined the school district's yoga program to be "devoid of any religious, mystical or spiritual trappings," affirming the trial court ruling. Judges ruled unanimously in favor of the district in this decision, and identified Hartsell's testimony as just one piece of "abundant evidence that contemporary yoga is commonly practiced in the United States for reasons that are entirely distinct from religious ideology..." 7

 

** italics, bold and highlighting added by author

summary and highlights from Yoga Alliance’s amicus curiae brief[4]

 

I. SUMMARY OF ARGUMENT

 

“The trial court...erred in determining that yoga is necessarily religious. The trial court based its determination on the fact that yoga has ancient roots in religions and that, to some, yoga is a form of spiritual practice (as well as a mental and physical practice)...

 

There are two fundamental problems with the trial court's reasoning. First, the trial court's analysis vastly oversimplified the approaches to yoga available today...there are many different styles and traditions of yoga, in addition to the increasing variety of specialty and non-traditional yoga practices.

Second, the trial court's decision rests on faulty logic: that because yoga originally has roots in Eastern religions, and because ‘some...view yoga as a spiritual practice, yoga in contemporary American culture is inherently religious. In fact, the modern practice of yoga generally involves a series of physical movements (poses), combined with breath work and mindfulness practices, none of which is inherently religious or tied to either of the two different established Eastern religions that contributed to the historical development of yoga: Hinduism and Buddhism…”

 

“The Yoga I practice and teach is Bhakti Yoga, the Yoga in service to the Supreme Person.”

 

[and]

 

“Bhakti is the essential component of all systems of Yoga.  Bhakti can also stand alone as both the means to an end and the end in and of itself.  It is therefore, in the traditional sense, the highest form of Yoga and the ultimate goal of Yoga at the same time.”

 

- Hari-kirtana das, interviewee

II. THERE ARE MANY APPROACHES TO YOGA.

 

“The trial court considered only a single approach to yoga - Ashtanga ---- before concluding (erroneously) that ‘yoga is religious. Ashtanga is a specific style of yoga that follows a set sequence of poses. There are many other styles of yoga.”

 

III. YOGA CAN BE PRACTICED FREE OF RELIGIOUS IDEOLOGY

 

...The modern practice of yoga typically comprises a physical system of exercises coupled with breathwork and mindfulness practices, without any formal linkage to either Hindu or Buddhist worship. Even if a yoga practitioner chooses to incorporate personal religious beliefs into...yoga practice, that capacity for accommodation does not mean yoga is inherently religious…

 

“...you cannot divorce Yoga from its Vedic roots; [Yoga] originated from Vedic teachings. Patañjali himself is considered an avatar of Ishvara, and he's considered a Maharishi...Clearly, there has been a very sad attempt in the west and even in India these days to divorce Yoga from its Vedic roots.

 

...Yoga, though it is universal in the sense that everyone is open to practicing it, everybody should acknowledge and must acknowledge...that Yoga has inherently Hindu roots... [A]ssuming otherwise is doing the tradition a great disservice.”

 

- Prashant Parikh, interviewee

A. Yoga is Most Often Practiced for Non -Religious Reasons.

 

Yoga has grown and continues to grow in popularity...Of the motivations for starting yoga, the top five reasons cited by study participants are flexibility, general conditioning, stress relief, improved overall health and physical fitness - motivations one might expect to see for beginning any number of well-being programs...a minority of survey participants identified spiritual development as a benefit of yoga…

 

B. A Physical System of Yoga Poses is Not Inherently Religious.

 

Although their Sanskrit names may be foreign, many yoga poses are similar to stretching or exercise positions seen outside of yoga (including football warm-ups). "Forward fold" (in Sanskrit...uttanasana) is essentially a hamstring stretch…

 

“Yoga is a very, very vast spiritual practices...it took thousands of years to make it this way.  Yoga itself is traditional...Yoga is within Dharma - top to bottom and bottom to top...Something that is so old and that has been practiced for thousands of years, the west has just discovered about 100 years ago, so they are barely entering kindergarten.  And they don’t understand that it is more than just postures…”

 

[and]

 

“Given my belief and understand, one thing I do believe is that everything changes, and it constantly changes -- whether evolving or de-evolving.  But eventually in the bigger picture, I hope that all of this craziness, which seems like we are taking a few steps back as a human race, will help us eventually to explore further. 

 

If now we are in kindergarten playing, we can then say ‘Okay, we are done having fun, and now we are actually ready to move on…’”

 

- Rashmi Tantra, interviewee

C. The Breathwork and Mindfulness Aspects of Yoga Are Not Inherently Religious.

 

...the modern practice of yoga includes breathwork and mindfulness practices. These latter components are not inherently religious either. Yoga includes breathing practices (pranayamas), which can be effective for reducing the stress response, improving lung function and encouraging relaxation.

 

The mindfulness aspects of yoga...can also include a conscious attention to the body. For example, a practitioner may discover that a pose is more challenging on one side of the body than the other...

 

“It is a truism that there is only one system which having consciously completely purified the human body-brain machinery, can deliberately and with complete control, separate the atma from the physical form.  This is the definition and orientation of traditional YogAbhyasa (Yoga practices).  Any practice which is not oriented in this direction is not YogAbhyasa, irrespective of how healthy and rejuvenated it makes the body brain feel.” 

 

-Satish Sharma, interviewee

D. The Trial Court Correctly Upheld the Constitutionality of EUSD Yoga.

 

...Appellants decry the meditative aspect...as ‘religious’ and point to record evidence that some students said ‘om’ during the classes. Even assuming, however, that the chanting of ‘om’ had spiritual or religious significance to any students, chanting was not an aspect of EUSD Yoga. To the contrary, ‘if [the students] said `namaste' or said `om,' they were either ignored or discouraged...’”[5]

 

** italics, bold and highlighting added by author

 

 

 

References:

1. Admittedly, some of the language used in this article is going to be problematic, either:

  1. by virtue of those “lost in translation” cases (which is so much the case especially when trying to express the meaning of Sanskrit terms -- the beautiful complexity and nuance so far beyond “the page”; or
  2.  As is the case here with the use of the term “secular/ization,” recognizing that there are different cultural meanings of such a term.  I will say then that “secular” is used herein to point to that which is not associated with (and moreover deliberately disassociated with) any spiritual or transcendent aim.  Of course this description becomes problematic because of the vagueness of the words “spiritual” and “transcendent” (and the necessary caution that must be used when employing them so as not to venture into the “sameness” realm).  All this said, secular is best described in this specific context as those practices/efforts found in Yoga in the west that are based -- either deliberately or unconsciously -- within a framework of philosophical materialism.

2. https://www.yogaalliance.org/Portals/0/Appellate%20Opinion_04.03.15.pdf

3. Yoga Alliance’s 2015 “State of the Union” report: https://www.yogaalliance.org/Portals/0/member%20benefits%20pdfs/YA%202015%20State%20of%20the%20Untion%20V9%20FOR%20WEB%20V2.pdf

4. http://www.nclplaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/DECLARATION-OF-CANDY-BROWN-FINAL.pdf

5. https://www.yogaalliance.org/Benefits/Advocacy#Practice

6. https://www.yogaalliance.org/Benefits/Advocacy#Practice

7. https://www.yogaalliance.org/Benefits/Advocacy#Practice

8. https://www.yogaalliance.org/Benefits/Advocacy#Practice

9. https://www.yogaalliance.org/Portals/0/Articles/Sedlock%20v.%20Baird%20Amicus%20Brief.pdf

10. https://www.yogaalliance.org/Portals/0/Articles/Sedlock%20v.%20Baird%20Amicus%20Brief.pdf

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