Yoga is either religious instruction or the “wussification of America.”

At least that’s what two stories I ran into this week are saying.

First, there’s a Fox News story that I came across via Media Matters in which the fine folks at Fox & Friends discuss the new “trend” of children practicing yoga with guest and parenting guru (no pun intended) Larry Winget. The whole segment is based around a frame of “yoga vs. sports.” While he initially praises the benefits of yoga (in order to satiate the “yoga nazis”-now there’s an image), the segment devolves into Winget lecturing the audience on why yoga isn’t a sport-it doesn’t have a ball, you can’t win or lose, you don’t keep score.  The lowest part comes when Winget tries to link children doing the downward dog with the “wussification” of America.

Sports, according to Winget, has a character building value because it teaches winning and losing and is interactive and social. Yoga, on the other hand, does not teach a child how to compete or socialize with others, but instead, is an individual and isolating practice. This distinction is not new. Americans have long imagined yoga as an isolated practice. Some saw this positively, such as Thoreau. Meanwhile, 18th and 19th century European accounts of the “Hindoo fakir” that circulated in America imagined yoga as the individual practice of heathen holy men. For more on this see Kirin Narayan’s excellent article “Refractions from the Field at Home: American Representations of Hindu Holy Men in the 19th and 20th Centuries.” Cultural Anthropology 8 (1993): 476–509.

Now neither Thoreau’s yoga at Walden Pond nor evangelical missionary reports looked anything like preschoolers striking warrior pose, but the discourse of Western social activity, capitalist competition, and work ethic contrasted with Eastern isolation, asceticism, and navel gazing is embedded in our thinking about yoga today. Yoga is “wussification” insofar as it replaces the aggressive, communal, and competitive sports with its individual navel gazing and austere, individualized, and quietest practice.  I also thought there were hints of an almost Robert Bellah-like argument against “sports Sheilaism,” for lack of a better term. If this yoga trend (is it really a trend?) keeps up we may see the downfall of our treasured social-sport institutions. We might all become “exercisers but not athletes.” The rise of the athletic “nones.” Little Leagues and Pop Warners will crumble. I’m being tongue-in-cheek, but I think this story does get to the role of sports in American culture and the major apologetic for child sports, that they build character and teach life lessons.

But what if yoga taught character and life lessons? Over at NPR a story from Encinitas, California does just that. The K. P. Jois Foundation, an Ashtanga yoga group, supports wellness program in the school district there that gets elementary students to hit the yoga mats. But at least one parent objects to the yoga classes, claiming that they are an establishment of religion.

“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.

“It’s stated in the curriculum that it’s meant to shape the way that they view the world, it’s meant to shape the way that they make life decisions,” Eady says. “It’s meant to shape the way that they regulate their emotions and the way that they view themselves.”

For their part, the Jois Foundation maintains that the program teaches character, not religion.

Jois Foundation Director Eugene Ruffin, however, maintains that the yoga program is typical of athletics programs for kids.

“They provide you with the exercise and the motivation for children,” Ruffin says. “And then they give you character exercises — ‘Thou shalt not steal, thou shall be honest, thou shall be respectful to adults.’ ”

Ruffin says those ideals aren’t specific to Hinduism and don’t conflict with his own Catholic upbringing.

Apparently those character exercises are in King James English. Here yoga is lauded for teaching life lessons on the one hand, and derided for doing so too well, on the other. Note the divergent definitions of religion between Ruffin, the yoga apologist and Eady, the parent. For Eady yoga is religious because it teaches them how to make life decisions and how to make meaning in the world. Ruffin counters both Eady and even Winget by claiming that yoga is like sports. It builds character. It teaches life lessons.

And so now we are back where we started: life lessons. Both of these stories highlight the question of how best to instill “character” in our children. This is a long standing question that goes back to nineteenth century school reformers like Noah Webster and Horace Mann. These Protestant educators sought to instill virtue, what we might now call “life lessons,” into children and thought this could only be done with a non-sectarian Protestant education. Now, in the plural 21st century, educators are still wrestling with the question of how to instill character and virtue in young hearts and minds, but instead of the King James Bible and the Lord’s Prayer they are turning to yoga mats.

What are the kids getting out of all of this yoga? A deeper knowledge of Hinduism?

“Absolutely not — no. What my daughter tells me is she did the pancake today and she lays down and then she cracks up because it’s so funny,” Cocco says.

Ah yes, Patanjali’s infamous pancake asana.

Yoga and the Protestant Public Sphere; Or, Taking Back Yoga Where?

Thanks to NPR, the debate about white people doing yoga is back in the news:

About 20 million people in the United States practice some form of yoga, from the formal Iyengar and Ashtanga schools to the more irreverent “Yoga Butt.”

But some Hindus say yoga is about far more than exercise and breathing techniques. They want recognition that it comes from a deeper philosophy — one, in their view, with Hindu roots.

Many forms of yoga go back centuries. Even in the U.S., the transcendentalists were doing yoga in the 1800s.

William Broad, a reporter for The New York Times and author of The Science of Yoga, has been practicing since 1970. He says people pursue yoga for all kinds of reasons, from achieving health and fitness to seeking spirituality, energy and creativity.

Yoga, Broad says, is an antidote for a chaotic world.

The story goes on to quote Sheetal Shah of the American Hindu Foundation, the force behind the “Taking Back Yoga” campaign, who argues that yoga has its roots in the Vedas and therefore in Hinduism and so it is a problem to divorce the practice from the “lifestyle” and “philosophy” of nonviolence, truthfulness, and purity-all admirable qualities.

The NPR piece prompted my colleague at Emory, Deeksha Sivakumar, to ask over at the Bulletin for the Study of Religion  “do religious practices become irreligious when they travel across national borders?” I think Deeksha is on the right track, and her post over at the Bulletin makes some important points, but we need to ask another question first. Is modern transnational yoga religious? How and why? Or to put it another way, where do we need to take yoga back to?

Missing from all of the debates about yoga in the past year and half or so (see here and here) is a thoughtful look at the history of yoga in India and in the West.  Last January, Roman Palitsky, writing at Religion Dispatches, wrote the only essay I’ve seen taking a historical approach to modern yoga. In his piece he referenced a group of books that had recently been published and how they challenged the HAF and the “yoga is essentially Hindu” argument:

A corpus of literature has emerged over the past ten years, including David Gordon White’s “Siddha” trilogy, several volumes by Joseph Alter, Elizabeth DeMichelis’ A History of Modern Yoga and just last year Stefanie Syman’s Subtle Body and Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body, all of which oppose the straightforward message of the Take Yoga Back movement.

These works reveal the formative influence of (wait for it) Buddhism, Jainism, Sufism, television, military calisthenics, Swedish gymnastics and the YMCA, as well as of radical Hindu nationalism, upon today’s postural yoga practice. There is no doubt that the Vedas, Upanishads, and folk traditions of India have been formative toward yoga: yoga is almost inseparable from them. Nevertheless to assert that yoga is essentially and primarily a Hindu practice means to ignore millennia of generative influence from other quarters. Worse still, it means to step blindly into a political fight for the heart of India that has simmered for over two hundred years.

Of the books Palitsky names, Mark Singleton’s stands out as wonderful history of transnational yoga that traces the connection between Hindu thought and practice, European physical culture, and Indian nationalism. Singleton writes in his final chapter:

This chapter and those which precede it have outlined some of the ways in which the early modern practice of asana was influenced by various expression of physical culture. This does not mean that the kind of posture-based yogas that predominate globally today are “mere gymnastics” nor that they are necessarily less “real” or “spiritual” than other forms of yoga. The history of modern physical culture overlaps and intersects with the histories of para-religious, “unchurched” spirituality; Western esotericism; medicine, health, and hygiene; chiropractic, osteopathy, and bodywork; body-centered psychotherapy; the modern revival of Hinduism; and the sociopolitical demands of the emergent modern Indian nation (to name but a few). In turn, each of these histories is intimately linked to the development of modern transnational, anglophone yoga. Historically speaking, then, physical culture encompasses a far broader range of concerns and influences than “mere gymnastics,” and in many instances the modes of practice, belief frameworks, and aspirations of its practitioners are coterminous with those of modern, posture-based yoga. They may indeed by at variance with “Classical Yoga,” but it does not follow from this that these practices, beliefs, and aspirations (whether conceived as yoga or no) are thereby lacking in seriousness, dignity, or spiritual profundity.

That’s a tangled web of influence for what we call “yoga” today and it is not a simple story of Vedic texts through Patanjali to Vivekananda and the West. Following Singleton’s analysis, the “Take Back Yoga” campaign is yet another chapter in the unfolding of transnational yoga. The HAF’s reimagining of yoga as an essentially Vedic and essentially Hindu practice and their entire campaign to proclaim this to America is part of their program for political self-representation and power. It is necessitated by the demands of American diversity and by the resurgence of a public conservative Protestant establishment. As religion has taken a greater role in the public sphere post-1965 (and here I’m thinking of the conclusion of Kevin Schultz’s Tri-Faith America) the need for minority communities to make public claims to religious relevance and authenticity has increased. “Take Back Yoga” is more than a claim for a religious practice, it is the claim for power within the de-secularizing public sphere and an increasingly empowered Protestant establishment.

So, there is no where to take yoga back. There is only a pressing forward as Hindus and other minority religious communities assert themselves in the public sphere in the face of an encroaching Protestant establishment.

Evangelical Theologies of the Body: What About John Wesley?

I wrote the following as a sample blog for my REL100 course this fall. The goal is to give students an example of how to write a simple blog post that takes an article, links to it, summarizes it, and then offers one good critique drawn from class (the examples of Shepp and Wesley come from Marie Griffith’s Born Again Bodies.) I’m going to put it up on the course blog we’ll be running (set to launch soon!) but I thought I’d put it up here in the meantime. 

Evangelical Christians are doing yoga and reading sex manuals and for some evangelical leaders that is a problem. As Matthew Lee Anderson argues at Christianity Today, the real problem is that evangelicals do not have a substantive theology of the body:

The downside is that evangelicals have sometimes been clumsy in our efforts to see how the Word should shape the flesh. Our approaches to the body have often proceeded in rather piecemeal fashion. Whatever trend happens to be in vogue at a particular moment, Christians readily respond with a “Jesus approved” version. When dieting became the rage, Christian dieting shortly followed. As yoga gained popularity, Christian yoga started up. And as the sexual revolution unfurled its banners, Christians sought scriptural warrants for indulging the pleasures of the flesh.

In search of an evangelical theology of the body, Anderson turns to an odd place, Pope John Paul II. Specifically, Anderson looks to John Paul’s Theology of the Body, a compilation of radio addresses given between 1979 and 1984. Anderson especially appreciates John Paul’s theology of sexuality that affirms sexual pleasure within the larger meaning of the human body as “a witness to creation as fundamental gift, and therefore a witness to Love as the source from which this same giving springs.” Such an approach to sexuality strikes a balance between sexual pleasure for its own sake and a prudish anti-sexual stance that renders sex a necessary evil or sinful.

While John Paul II does offer a complete and “deep” theological understanding of the body, Anderson’s assertion that American evangelicalism has lacked a theology of the body misses some key historical evidence. He argues that Christians have taken to diets and yoga as reactions to cultural fads. He dismisses these approaches as “piecemeal” and shallow. Whether he means to or not, Anderson is dismissing a history of evangelical thought and practice revolving around bodies that has seen the body as a means for devotion to Jesus and read spiritual progress in fleshy terms. For example, in 1957 Presbyterian minister Charlie Shedd published Pray Your Weight Away in which he equated obesity and fat with sin. Shedding pounds was an act of righteousness and self-discipline. Even one of the founders of American evangelicalism, John Wesley, argued against overeating and promoted fasting as an embodied practice of spiritual discipline.

Anderson is most interested in  the role of a theology of the body in discussion of sexuality, so it makes sense that he would be less interested in Shedd and Wesley. Anderson also wants to find a theology that avoids disciplinarian tendencies of previous evangelical ideas about bodily control. To that end, maybe evangelicals like Anderson may have to turn to new sources, perhaps even Catholic sources, to escape their history of bodily self-discipline.

Review: American Veda by Philip Goldberg

While I was traveling over the last few days, Religion Dispatches published a review I wrote of Philp Goldberg’s American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West. Here’s a bit of it:

A Methodist church near my house advertises for “Gentle Yoga Classes” on one of those church signs usually reserved for witty and redemptive one-liners like “Jesus: Your Get Out of Hell Free Card.” Meanwhile, a local pizza place lists a “Kosmic Karma” pie on its menu. Indian spiritual language has crept into American vernacular culture. But where did it come from? Is there some connection between karmic pizza and yoga in church?

In American Veda, Philip Goldberg tells the story of a new American tradition, derived from both the practices of yoga, and the philosophy of Vedanta. He names this “Vedanta-yoga,” as distinguished from other aspects of Hindu religious culture (such as the worship of multi-limbed deities) that might be less meaningful for Americans.

For Goldberg, it all adds up to the slow “Vedicization” of American spirituality. By this he means that Americans have become more comfortable with a view of the world ultimately found in the ancient literature of India—the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita. First, there is the idea that the self and the ground of Being (or the Divine, God, Brahman, Consciousness, etc.) are one. The full realization of this truth leads to liberation and the cessation of suffering. Second, there are a number of paths toward this realization and no single path works for everyone. Third, it follows then that, at bottom, all religious and spiritual traditions, while looking different, share the same goal of divine realization. Vedanta-Yoga is thus a monist, pluralist, and perennialist tradition of American spirituality built from Indian religious sources.

Continue reading at Religion Dispatches>>>

The Colonial Roots of Modern Yoga

Wendy Doniger reviews Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body: The Origin of Modern Posture Practice (Oxford, 2010):

Contemporary postural yoga was invented in India in the nineteenth century. This is Singleton’s most provocative assertion. He argues that a transnational, anglophone yoga arose at this time, compounded of the unlikely mix of British bodybuilding and physical culture, American transcendentalism and Christian Science, naturopathy, Swedish gymnastics, and the YMCA, grafted on to a rehabilitated form of postural yoga adapted specifically for a Western audience. The Swedish gymnastics came from Pehr Henrik Ling, the physical culture from a number of people including Eugen Sandow, Bernard MacFadden, Harry Crowe Buck and Charles Atlas. Most influential was the YMCA, in the hands of which physical culture was eventually elevated to a position of social and moral respectability.

There is an ancient Indian yoga, but it is not the source of most of what people do in yoga classes today. That same history, however, also demonstrates that there are more historical bases for contemporary postural yoga within classical Hinduism than Singleton allows. The Europeans did not invent it wholesale. But they changed it enormously. They changed it from an embarrassment to an occasion for cultural pride, and from a tradition that encouraged the cultivation of “aversion to one’s own body” to another, also rooted in ancient India, that aimed at the perfection of the body. The modern Indian and American yogis didn’t take their methods from European physical culture; they took them back from physical culture. What Mark Singleton does prove, with massive, irrefutable, fascinating and often hilarious evidence, is that yoga is a rich, multi-cultural, constantly changing interdisciplinary construction, far from the pure line that its adherents often claim for it.


“Yoga Wars,” William James a (Post?)Modern, and Finland’s Education System

- This is the best analysis of the “who owns yoga?” question I’ve read so far.

- Poland just built a gianormous Jesus statue, but is it becoming more secular?

- Andrew Hartman over at U.S. Intellectual History discusses how modern or postmodern William James was.

- On the ground with anti-nuclear protesters via The Historical Society.

- I know nothing about Finland but this interview with Pasi Sahlberg, a former adviser in Finland’s  Ministry of Education, covers most of the current problems in American education.

The Sacred & Profane: Buddhism and Science, Gold’s Gym and Scientology, Jesus and Yoga

Buddhism and Science: Problems and Perils

My colleague at Emory, Kenny Smith, compares the function of authenticity in Scientology and Gold’s Gym

Apparently, most U.S. pastors don’t think Obama is a Christian…or Glenn Beck, for that matter.

Stephen Prothero asks who owns Jesus and Yoga. I wonder when religions became a matter of ownership.