Of the many mailing lists I'm on, the Hindu American Foundation's is one of the more interesting. An advocacy group, they send out regular emails with news stories relating to Hinduism. One of the regular topics is yoga and they send out updates anytime it's reported that the practice of yoga is spreading in the United States or other non-Hindu countries. As believers that yoga is one of the schools of Hinduism, HAF is also interested in discussions of whether yoga can be practiced apart from Hinduism. They've also been following a story about public school teachers in New York teaching yoga to students to relieve stress before exams.
The Associated Press picked up the story this week after a group of parents and religious leaders said the instruction violates boundaries between church and state:
"We are not opposed to the benefits. We can understand the benefits. We are opposed to the philosophy behind it and that has its ties in Hinduism and the way they were presenting it," said the Rev. Colin Lucid of Calvary Baptist Church in Massena.
The program does not have ulterior motives, Julie Reagan, Massena Board of Education president, said Thursday.
The story attempts to put the New York practice in context and give the reader some background. Let's look at how well they did that:
A hundred schools in 26 states use yoga in the classroom to relieve stress, Reagan said. Federal funds and grants are available to educators seeking yoga certification, [Reagan] said.
According to a statement on the Web site of the American Yoga Association, yoga is not a religion, although its practice has been adopted by Hinduism, as well as other world religions.
There are more than 100 different schools of yoga, which seeks to bring harmony to the mind and body. The most commonly practiced type in the United States is hatha yoga, which encompasses physical movements and postures, plus breathing techniques
That second paragraph is just clunky. It's like saying, "praying with beads is not a religion, although its practice has been adopted by Catholics." (Speaking of, one wonders whether there would be an outcry if teachers were encouraging kids to use rosary-type beads for prayer, meditation and relaxation.) Even people who oppose teaching yoga in government schools are not saying that yoga is a religion but, rather, a religious discipline. And whether or not yoga can be divorced from Hinduism, to the Hindu it certainly is a religious discipline. But to say that yoga has been "adopted" by Hinduism is really downplaying the association. The earliest Vedic Scripture mentions yoga. So that adoption, as it were, took place at least 3,000 years ago. And the "other religions" mentioned by the AP must be Buddhism, which is a descendant of Hinduism. To the Hindu, yoga unites not just the mind and body, as this article says, but the soul as well. From a Time article last year about an increase in yoga injuries:
"Yoga means bringing together mind, body and spirit, but in Western yoga, we've distilled it down to body," says Shana Meyerson, an instructor in Los Angeles. "That's not even yoga anymore. If the goal is to look like Madonna, you're better off running or spinning."
The worst part about the AP article, though, is that it doesn't speak with any Hindus. Considering how widespread the practice of yoga is in the United States, it's somewhat surprising that its relationship with Hinduism isn't explored more. Sam Hodges of the Dallas Morning News interviewed Swami Mukundananda, who lectured at the DFW Hindu Temple in August and led classes in yoga and they discussed the topic. Certainly there are many Hindus qualified to speak about the matter.
There is a debate about whether yoga can benefit people of different religions or no religion. (Here's a Times (U.K.) article about a yoga instructor who stopped the practice after she converted to Christianity.) But that debate isn't even treated in the AP story. It doesn't really present an informed case for how yoga can be divorced from Hinduism either. It's just a weak story all around.