This past January, I set aside my university teaching load for a day so I could hang out at an alternative school in Pittsburgh.
There, my friend Joanne Spence was holding a yoga teacher training for teachers of at-risk students. The founder of Yoga in Schools, Joanne teaches schoolteachers and P.E. teachers how to incorporate yoga skills into their lives and their classrooms as mood management techniques.
Joining her that day was Dr. Bidut K. (B.K.) Bose, founder of the Niroga Institute in Oakland, CA, who calls the same yoga skills “Transformative Life Skills.” Throughout the day, Joanne and B.K. taught the teachers how to use their breath to change their moods, move their arms in ways that release stress, and how to teach their students to do the same.
That night, I went back to campus to teach an editing class. During the break, I asked my students to stand up and reach their arms up to the ceiling. “Just try this yoga stuff,” I said, explaining where I had been. “Humor me. We’ll be silly together.”
Then I asked them to breathe, saying, “Simply breathing like this has changed my life.” I counted aloud: two counts on the inhale, four counts on the exhale.
Two weeks later, one of my students thanked me. “I’ve been using that breath,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of tests lately, and it’s helping me calm down and study.”
When we get nervous, our breathing becomes weak, which only increases our nervousness. When the exhale is shorter than the inhale, hyperventilation happens. “If your mood can change your breath,” Joanne asked at the training, “do you think your breath can change your mood?”
That day in January, I needed the reminder, which is silly, because I’m a certified yoga instructor. I should know these things. But I needed to be reminded of the power of my own breathing and the tools I have to keep the stress out of my neck.
I’ve been thinking about this training lately because of a court case in California: Sedlock v. Baird. In this case, parents of students attending Encinitas Union School District claim that yoga in schools violates religious freedom and the separation of church and state. The parents are concerned that the K.P. Jois Foundation, the organization providing the yoga, is performing a “religious experiment.” The parents are Christians who want to protect their children, and they want yoga out of the schools.
I can’t specifically speak on behalf of the Jois Foundation and the kind of yoga they are offering to the students in California. They paid half a million dollars to conduct yoga classes in the Encinitas Union School District while they establish their curriculum. One of the parents observed a class, and didn’t like what she saw, as reported by an NPR article:
“They were being taught to thank the sun for their lives and the warmth that it brought, the life that it brought to the earth and they were told to do that right before they did their sun salutation exercises,” she says.
Those looked like religious teachings to her, so she opted to keep her son out of the classes. The more Eady reads about the Jois Foundation and its founders’ beliefs in the spiritual benefits of Ashtanga yoga, the more she’s convinced that the poses and meditation can’t be separated from their Hindu roots.
This description does not categorize the same kind of instruction that I’ve seen Joanne and B.K. give—at all. I have a feeling that if Eady had walked into one of Joanne’s classes, this lawsuit wouldn’t be happening. And while I understand that without the sun we would not be alive, I’m not sure that I want to thank it. I am thankful that it exists, but that’s a bit different.
Thus, before I continue with my discussion here, I need to make clear that I don’t know what went on in the yoga classes under scrutiny. I do know that the yoga in schools training I’ve seen is beautiful, physical and psychological work.
Unfortunately, the people against yoga in schools are Christians, and the press around the case makes it seem that all Christians are against yoga. This is not true.
I was at the Yoga in Schools training because I’m writing a book profiling Christians who practice yoga. Joanne Spence is the subject of one of the chapters. Her work in schools is helping students get in touch with their bodies, which is one of the most sacred relationships that they have.
The case of Sedlock v. Baird hinges on a variation of a question I’ve been thinking about a lot as a Christian, a yoga instructor, and a writer: “Can yoga be taught apart from its Hindu roots?”
In her yoga classes in the schools, Joanne never mentions God. Nor does she mention any other deity or form of worship.
Joanne’s classes focus on the breath. “If you can breathe,” she says, “you can do yoga.”
Think about it. Right now. Stop and breathe. Do nothing else. Just breathe for ten breaths. See if you can make your exhale longer than your inhale.
Seriously. Stop and breathe. Then come back.
That was yoga.
How do you feel?
Honestly, I had a hard time stopping writing. Then I felt anxious. I felt bad because I wasn’t doing anything productive, my exhale was only a little bit longer than my inhale, my writing sucks, and…
I have all that judgment inside me. I live with that critic hanging out just below the surface. Yoga lets me know it, and helps me get rid of it.
There’s really nothing mysterious to it—yoga is a mind-body centering tool. “Yoga is a methodology, not a theology,” says DeAnna Smothers of Yahweh Yoga in Chandler, AZ.
A methodology can be used by any religion or psychological practice or physical training or anything. Like prayer. Fasting. Eating bread and wine.
Now, the philosophy of yoga and the religious texts do come from India and the Hindu culture—this is true. It’s also a really beautiful tradition that advocates peace and non-harming and many of the same things Jesus stood for, but that’s not the point of this article.
Recent scholarship has found a difference in origin between the postures in contemporary yoga classes and the philosophy of the yogic texts.
In Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, Mark Singleton—one of the key witnesses for the defense in this court case—demonstrates that the modern yoga practiced in North America today stems from a variety of influences: “Scandinavian gymnastics on the model of [Pehr Henrik] Ling, the bodybuilding techniques and ethos of [Eugene] Sandow, and the various methods promoted by the Indian YMCA, headed by H. C. Buck” (22). Postural yoga, as it developed in India, had distinctly Western influences.
When he examines the yoga of Krishnamacharya, one of the yogis who profoundly impacted modern yoga, Singleton finds it “a powerful synthesis of Western and Indian modes of physical culture” (23). The way in which we practice yoga today has Western influences.
In his statement to the court, Singleton makes it clear that not only is yoga a methodology now, it has always been one: “The Dattatreyayogasastra, an earlier text teaching hatha yoga, is clear on this matter: anyone can practice this yoga, no matter what their belief.”
The founder of Holy Yoga, Brooke Boon, explains, “It has only been in the last couple of centuries, and particularly the last few decades, that the world has become ‘smaller’ and cultures have more readily mingled and borrowed traditions from one another” (Holy Yoga, 15). The instructors of Holy Yoga regularly lead yoga classes in churches as a form of spiritual discipline, very obviously pulling the two cultures together.
Yoga came to the West marketed more as a practice with health benefits than spiritual benefits, writes Father Thomas Ryan: “Thus, by making a judicious selection from the postures and methods of training, an autonomous system of physical culture has been built up to serve ends which, for many practitioners, have no conscious relationship to their spiritual life or religious experience” (Prayer of Heart and Body, 130-131). It’s a physical culture that stands on its own.
However, Father Ryan acknowledges that yoga is, in fact, a spiritual practice: “Yoga seeks to cultivate a focused awareness of one’s deepest being, one’s Self, and in that Self, God. Physical exercises are but the skin of yoga; its sinews and skeleton are mental exercises that prepare the way for a transformation of consciousness which is always a gift of God and a work of grace” (131). This is why Christians can and do use yoga as a method for their own spiritual practice.
This is also why yoga is NOT a religion (for more information here, see Father Ryan’s article “Addressing the Fears: Yoga and Christianity”). It’s also why many people like yoga—the mental exercises—the psychological transformation, the circumvention of the ego, and the awareness of the Self. It’s a psychosomatic practice.
In fact, that’s why yoga is fantastic for adolescent students.
Adolescent bodies go through a TON of changes, many of which are hormonal and neurochemical. The Foreword to the Yoga Ed. High School Curriculum outlines these adolescent changes and details how yoga balances adolescent hormonal mood swings: “Yoga Ed. focuses on postures and practices that help regulate the endocrine system and thus the production and balance of these neurotransmitters” (Thomson and Khouri, iv). Yoga Ed. created a yoga curriculum for P.E. classes that matches current educational standards, and Joanne Spence is one of their trainers.
Frankly, this psychosomatic training is also why yoga is good for my inner judgment. To shut up the critic, I need to breathe. To move. To step away from the students and the grading and the computer. To step away from the stress and balance my brain. When I go back to work, I’m more effective. When I’m in class and a student is making me upset, I breathe. Again, with yoga I’m more effective as a teacher.
After less than a week in court, Sedlock v. Baird is now on hiatus until June 24. Both sides will be calling more witnesses and making final statements. At stake is not just the program in California, but also, potentially, funding for programs like Yoga in Schools and Niroga Institute—both of which have been effectively and a-religiously teaching yoga in schools for years. I know which verdict I’m hoping for.