POV: Strike a pose for hypocrisy

Roman S. Koenig

Foes of yoga are in a twist over an innovative Encinitas Union School District program that brings the practice into the classroom as part of a physical fitness regimen.

The foes of the program – mostly parents crying foul over bringing “religion” into the curriculum – are attacking the practice because they fear Eastern indoctrination of their children. Such fears seem to bubble up in North County every five to 10 years.

The core of the conflict seems to center around what defines religious practice in yoga, Ashtanga yoga in particular. To be fair to irate parents who see this as religion in the classroom, Ashtanga yoga is generally regarded as a practice with religious aspects. The question is, can those religious aspects be removed from the practice to make it a more secular physical fitness activity?

Encinitas Union School District officials appear confident that they can strike such a balance. The district, working with a grant of more than $500,000 from the Jois Foundation, is incorporating Ashtanga yoga into the physical fitness curriculum. In a patch.com report, district Superintendent Timothy Baird is quoted as saying that any religious component is excluded, focusing solely on the practice’s physical aspects.

Concerned parents have made it clear through a petition and speeches at district meetings, however, that they don’t trust the district to strike that balance. And while I believe they are overstating concerns of religious indoctrination, the issue of Ashtanga as religion is one that the district might have a hard time justifying.

Here’s why.

Ashtanga Yoga Boston addresses these concerns at its website, explaining: “The origins of yoga lie within Hinduism. Although yoga has come to be known and practiced worldwide in a more or less secular context, its religious aspects are inalienable, and permeate the physical practice.”

A look at the Jois Foundation website clearly indicates the spiritual or religious aspects of Ashtanga yoga.

Still, can those religious aspects be removed from the practice?

Of course they can. The fact is, schools and youth organizations have done it successfully when it comes to other physical activities we wouldn’t give a second thought to. But yoga’s detractors won’t tell you that, or they’re unaware of the facts.

The players in this current religious vs. secular game are generally the some folks who would take up arms if the word “God” were to be removed from the Pledge of Allegiance, the same people who would rather see prayer in the classroom. But begin a yoga program? That’s when they’ll scream “separation of church and state.”

Two parents who addressed the school board made their impressions clear, according to patch.com.

“Ashtanga yoga is inherently religious and does not belong in our schools,” one is quoted as saying. “It is undeniable that yoga is spiritual,” another said.

Ultimately, their argument is based mostly in hype and hypocrisy, though. But that’s my opinion, to which I have just as much right as they do to sue the school district. But if these people are going to attack yoga in the schools because of its supposedly pagan ties – and force the district to spend scarce taxpayer money to fight a possible lawsuit – then I insist they also go after following …

Lacrosse, a competitive athletic program offered at San Dieguito Union High School District campuses for years, has its roots in Native American spiritual practice. According to Issaquah Youth Lacrosse, “These games were played as part of ceremonial ritual to give thanks to the Creator.” Tribal games once included rituals overseen by shamans.

What did that parent say? Undeniably spiritual?

Now Encinitas yoga fiends might argue that the supposed paganism of lacrosse has been removed from the sport over time. I’ll let them take that argument up with the tribes who created the sport and play it to this day. I counter, however, that one could claim the same about yoga. The practice holds equal footing now in the yurt or the local gym. And I don’t consider 24 Hour Fitness, Frog’s and the like to be churches.

Arguing that lacrosse is a religious sport in our public schools is just as silly as claiming the same over yoga in the context of this argument.

The sport of wrestling, also offered in the San Dieguito district, can trace ties back to ancient Greece and Rome, and the Bible and other religious texts. The sport figures prominently in tales of gods and spiritual struggle.

It would be considered silly to see this as a form of religious invasion in schools today, though. Another point to ponder for yoga contrarians.

I would be curious to know how many yoga contrarians take their children to martial arts practice of some form every week. This column could run for thousands of words tracing the spiritual or religious roots of many martial arts systems practiced worldwide.

Many forms of Asian martial arts can trace their roots to Buddhism in some form or another, or have spiritual roots of some kind. Shaolin monks (yes, monks) are famous for their skills in kung fu, for example. Tai chi is another martial art with ancient spiritual traditions.

The website faithfulword.com is highly critical, in fact, of martial arts’ Eastern ties: “The Martial Arts all have an underlying occult philosophy. In the martial arts, the practitioner exercises ‘mind over matter’ and through meditation taps into a consciousness of greater power. Surprisingly, many Christians miss the connection between karate and the occult. They see it as mere physical exercise but are blinded to its spiritual and philosophical aspects, all born of the ancient Orient.”

I hear no uproar when martial arts or other sports with supposedly religious ties are offered in schools, at the local YMCA (which has Christian in its name) or other youth programs.

But yoga? It’s a topic of obsession in Encinitas that has drawn national headlines, petitions on both sides of the controversy, and threats of litigation.

Strike a pose for hypocrisy.

Roman S. Koenig is editorial director and publisher of the North Coast Current. Columns are the opinions of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of North Coast Current ownership.