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Pose Problem

Kids, do the pancake pose

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A conservative group in California is protesting the introduction of yoga in schools. This despite millions of Americans having adopted and adapted yoga to their lifestyles.

Is it fitness? Is it a religion? Is it about spirituality ? It is about all of these and it is about yoga. A civil suit, the first of its kind in the US, has challenged the idea of yoga. A group of parents in a school district in California, backed by a well-established, conservative organisation, The National Center for Law & Policy (NCLP), has opposed the introduction of yoga in the Encinitas Union School district (EUSD) that manages nine state-run schools.

The complaint by the plaintiffs against the practice of yoga as a physical education element (Ashtanga yoga programme), which was introduced in these schools last year in August, is that the practice violates California state constitution's freedom of religion clause and that it promotes Hindu indoctrination. "Public schools should not be using taxpayer resources to promote transparently religious beliefs and practices like Ashtanga yoga, " said NCLP president and chief counsel Dean Broyles, in a press release. "Physical education in our public schools should be an inclusive activity that brings children together, not one which fosters religious segregation and division. All fairminded citizens should be deeply concerned about this obvious promotion of Hinduism and shameless indoctrination by EUSD of impressionable young children with what are clearly religious beliefs and practices. "

The suit has ruffled feathers equally on both sides. While the complainants view this as an attack on the separation of church and state, yoga practitioners, trainers and academics have said that such a case can have long-ranging implications for yoga and used to leverage antiyoga propaganda in the future. This, however, is not the first case to attack yoga's intentions. Last year, a church and a seminary asked Christians to stay away from yoga as it might lead them away from their faith.

Carol Horton, a US-based yoga practitioner and a former social science professor, who has authored and edited books on the politics, culture and practice of 21st-century yoga, says that in her experience, the average American starts studying yoga to improve health and relieve stress.

"Most Americans think of yoga in terms of exercise, stretching, and stress relief, " says Horton. "The belief that yoga is a tool of Hindu indoctrination is quite marginal, mostly limited to extremely conservative, fundamentalist Christians. However, there is certainly some unease about the religious dimensions of yoga among mainstream conservative Christians and their counterparts in other non-Hindu faith traditions more generally. In the vast majority of cases, such concerns can be easily addressed. If the health benefits of yoga are emphasised and the practice adapted as necessary to respect different cultural traditions (for instance, substituting English words for Sanskrit), most Americans will happily embrace it. "

According to the Yoga Journal, 2012, the top five reasons Americans start studying yoga is for flexibility (78. 3 per cent), general conditioning (62. 2 per cent), stress relief (59. 6 per cent), overall health (58. 5 per cent) and physical fitness (55. 1 per cent). At least as beginners, they have little interest in yoga as a spiritual or religious practice. While exact estimates about the practice of yoga in schools are foggy, it's no doubt a growing trend with many schools adding programmes to teach children yoga.

Tim Baird, the schools' superintendent, defended the yoga classes when he told the New York Times, "That's why we have an opt-out clause. If your faith is such that you believe that simply by doing the gorilla pose, you're invoking the Hindu gods, then by all means your child can be doing something else".

Yoga has long been a rage among the relatively affluent, college-educated Caucasian women in the US, and most yoga teachers fit this demographic. According to the Yoga Journal's 2012 study - 20. 4 million Americans practice yoga, compared with 15. 8 million in 2008, an increase of 29 per cent. Practitioners spent $10. 3 billion on yoga classes and products, including equipment, clothing, vacations and media in 2012 compared with $5. 7 billion in 2008. What is more significant, however, says Horton, is that the Encinitas case isn't framed as a narrow complaint but rather designed to make it emblematic of yoga in general.

The NCLP in its suit has Candy Gunther Brown as an expert witness, a Harvard-trained scholar who has excellent academic credentials. Professor Brown's brief, for example, claims "there is evidence that even 'secularised' yoga promotes Hinduism and related religions" whether participants realise it or not. In this sense, the Jois programme (the EUSD programme is sponsored by the Jois Foundation that promotes Ashtanga yoga) serves as a springboard for an attack on yoga in public schools in general. Horton balances the issue. She says, "There are legitimate issues to be raised about teaching yoga in public schools - not because it 'promotes Hinduism' (it doesn't ), but rather because it's a practice that can and often does have a spiritual component. I don't see yoga as 'just stretching'. Rather, I understand it as a mindbody integration practice. While yoga is extremely effective for improving physical health and reducing psychological stress, it can also be used for spiritual exploration and growth. I agree with the plaintiffs that the deeper, spiritual dimensions of yoga should not be taught in public schools.

Therefore, I think that there's a legitimate question about whether the practice can be adapted to work in this setting. I believe that the answer is 'yes', and that there are good models for this in the field already. What we're lacking, however, is a historically grounded, theoretically sophisticated explanation of precisely why yoga has the capacity to be adapted in this way. "

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