If you have ever experienced confusion or concern from a parent about yoga as a religious activity, then I hope this discussion will help. Also, some of you may be working on proposals for yoga clubs in public schools where this question may come up as well. I see no need for it to turn controversial, and I hope I may even be able to offer a logical perspective as to why yoga really can be beneficial to everyone, religious beliefs aside.
For full disclosure, I am a born and raised and practicing Protestant. We are raising our children in the Protestant faith. That said, in all my church attendance, and Bible study, I did not learn how to properly breathe until I started yoga. More importantly, I was never taught how to use my breath as a way of dealing with stress and conflict. I also do not recall ever learning how to stretch my body in unique, physiologically appropriate poses until practicing yoga. While my faith does exhort taking care of myself, it does not suggest specifically (key word!) as to how I do that.
May I propose that the postural, breathing and meditative limbs of yoga be available to any and all as a legitimate form of mind, body, spirit unification (taking care of yourself), regardless of one’s actual specific spiritual beliefs? Gary Kraftsow says it more eloquently “…I think this distinction between yoga as a spiritual journey that supports religion versus yoga as a religion is very useful.”
The oldest texts of the yoga philosophy are the Vedas, and are over 5,000 years old. These songs, mantras, and rituals then eventually became the Upanishads, which ultimately discussed the ideas of karma, jnana (wisdom), self-knowledge, and letting go of ego. What happened next was an organization of these pre-classical ideas into Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutras. The eight limbs of yoga were created here, and the ultimate goal of enlightenment (Samadhi) was introduced.
Quite a bit of time after the Yoga-Sutras, yoga masters put more emphasis on enlightenment attained via physical means, i.e. the cleansing of the mind and body in radical ways. This eventually led to hatha yoga, which is what we Westerners generally recognize as yoga today. The modern yoga movement really began in the late 1800’s, and continued to trickle into our culture until 1947. Indra Devi opened a yoga studio in Hollywood at this time, and the explosion of yoga as we know it, see it, and learn it today began.
I have been to many different styles of classes, some that incorporate what could be considered specific religious ideas, and others that keep the spirituality level high and linkable to any religion. My personal approach is to focus on building skills that help students learn to breathe, to focus, and to think about what they are feeling and doing. I like to introduce yoga as a means to listen to our bodies, as permission to move slowly, and as a way of dealing with chaos (via pranayama specifically).
When approaching children, many times for the first time, with yoga concepts, a suggestion would be to introduce it lightly and broadly, with terms the children do understand. And of course, it’s completely within reason to honor the yogic tradition by introducing new vocabulary that help our sweet kiddos facilitate the union of mind, body, spirit. Vocabulary such as namaste, asana, savasana, pranayama, and more are appropriate and not in any conflict with any religious teachings. In no way is this disrespecting the many religions your students may be practicing. And in fact, it may well be underlining their specific religious beliefs. We need to embrace that teaching and practicing yoga is literally a gift. Yoga gives us the opportunity to take our personal spiritual foundations, and implement physical tools to help us live out our true beliefs. It’s amazing.
What do you think? Has this come up as a concern in your teaching? I’d love to hear what’s happening out there! Leave your thoughts and experiences in the comments. Namaste.
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