yoga in alabama

Quoting from Newsweek:

The Alabama board of education in 1993 voted to prohibit yoga, hypnosis and meditation in public school classrooms. The ban was pushed by conservative groups, and some schools have reported complaints from parents who say the practice endorses a “non-Christian belief system”.

From The Guardian:

The ancient practice of yoga has its roots in Hinduism though it is now a common form of exercise practiced across the world, including in private gyms in Alabama. 

A bill brought by Representative Jeremy Gray, a Democratic legislator from Opelika, is on the proposed debate agenda Tuesday in the Alabama House of Representatives. If the bill passes with a two-thirds majority, it will then go to the Senate for further debate. 

Gray’s bill seeks to dissociate yoga from its religious roots, and says that local school systems can decide if they want to teach yoga poses and stretches. However, the moves and exercises taught to students must have exclusively English names, according to the legislation. It would also prohibit the use of chanting, mantras and teaching the greeting “namaste”.

From CNN:

“Critics of the bill often see yoga as a part of the Hindu religion that can’t be separated”, Gray said. “The exclusions are part of the political compromise”, he said, “and are better than not allowing students access to any of the emotional or physical benefits of the practice.” 

That sounds like cultural appropriation, but I’m not going to concern myself with deciding whether it is.

Yoga is very much a part of Hindu religion. It originated as part of Vedic religion thousands of years ago. In Sanskrit, yoga is derived from yuj meaning ‘union’ – union with the divine after quieting the five senses. It is not just an exercise routine but is used as one outside India.

Like haldi doodh, an Ayurvedic treatment for balancing the three doshas, is now called turmeric latte and sold at Starbucks!

Yoga is good. Haldi doodh is good. Ordinary people don’t have to acknowledge the origin of anything they use. That’s only for academics. So why these disclaimers, distortions and little deceptions?

In a hyper-connected world people from distant countries are exposed to other cultures. That’s unavoidable. Throughout history people have tried to alter or influence other cultures to be more like theirs, never realising the other culture is subtly rubbing off on them too! That’s how yoga has entered the lives of non-Indians.

Christian evangelism by Americans has been going on in India for many decades now. Here are a couple of excerpts reflecting dissatisfaction with it.

  • In India, evangelism has always been a cause for concern as it poses a severe threat to the demographic stability of the country. In this report, we elaborate on the zeal of the missionaries and the extent of their efforts to convert people to the worship of their ‘One True God’. The Joshua Project is a ‘research initiative’ that seeks to ‘highlight the ethnic people groups of the world with the fewest followers of Christ’.
  • Joshua Project focuses on catalyzing pioneer evangelism and church planting. 

If you haven’t heard of the project, this is from wikipedia:

  • The Joshua Project is a Christian organization based in Colorado Springs, United States, which seeks to coordinate the work of missionary organizations to highlight the ethnic groups of the world with the fewest followers of evangelical Christianity. To do so, it maintains ethnologic data to support Christian missions.
  • The goal of the project is to identify people who “do not have enough worshipers of Jesus Christ” and provide the needs and support to evangelize about Christianity and Jesus.

Not so strange, is it? Everybody has misgivings about ‘the other’ infringing on their territory and trying to alter their way of life.

All human beings want to keep their tribes safe and cohesive. They like who they are and don’t want to change. Not unlike the parents of school children in Alabama, Hindu Indians don’t like the propagation of American religion in India. They have the same worries about Christian missionaries as Mr. Gray and the parents of the kids in Alabama have about yoga being taught in American schools.

Are India and the US both religious democracies rather than secular democracies then? In which case, why are we pretending to be secular?

There is a small point I need to add. Even if American children are taught yoga using English translations they are still exposed to yoga per se. Won’t they explore it further if they benefit from it, as the school and Mr. Gray intend them to? Isn’t it pointless to shield kids from something they will question anyway, given the inbuilt BS meters that all kids are blessed with?

I would think it’s simpler to tell them that this is not a Christian thing but it’s good for them. Hindu children in Indian cities enjoy decorated Christmas trees and gifts and cake at home on X’mas Day, minus the religious underpinnings, knowing that Christmas honours the god of many of our friends.

a pillar in an ancient temple at Hampi with carved figures in yoga asanas