A discussion about yoga with Dr. Candy Gunther Brown, part 1

JUL • 04 • 2013

This is part one of a discussion between Dr. Candy Gunther Brown and Anton Drake about yoga and religion. Dr. Brown is an associate professor of religious studies at Indiana University and is the author of several books, most recently The Healing Gods: Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Christian America (Oxford University, August 1, 2013). She recently played a central role in the Encinitas public-school yoga trial; brought in as an expert witness by the plaintiffs, she testified for a full day on the connection between yoga and religion.


[Anton Drake]: “Dr. Brown, what do you think about the verdict in the Encinitas yoga trial?”

[Dr. Candy Gunther Brown]: “The judge’s ruling surprised me. The really amazing part is that the judge found that yoga is religious, having its basis in Hinduism. That should have been enough reason for him to stop the EUSD yoga program. Prayer and Bible reading programs aren’t allowed in public schools because they are religious; the same reasoning should logically apply here.

“The judge even admitted to finding it ‘troublesome’ that EUSD got funding (not to mention ‘trained’ and ‘certified’ teachers and help with curriculum development) for an ‘Ashtanga yoga’ program from a religious organization, the Jois Foundation, whose leaders teach that just doing yoga poses is enough to lead practitioners to the eighth limb of Ashtanga—Samadhi, or union with God.

“But the judge was convinced that EUSD taught such a watered-down version of yoga that kids would not recognize it as religious. One problem with this reasoning is that in America’s cultural context, yoga is closely associated with religious ideas that don’t disappear simply because teachers stop talking about them in the public-school classroom. The district’s witnesses admitted that many EUSD kids had already learned religious associations (such as chanting Om) before arriving in P.E. class. Psychology research (on ‘extinction and relearning’) shows that once a person learns an association, the memory of that association doesn’t go away, even if one tries to extinguish it or replace it with new (e.g. ‘secular’) associations. Even if the old association is temporarily suppressed, it doesn’t become extinct. It’s still there and can be reactivated, or relearned, very quickly. Retrieval cues (such as familiar yoga postures) bring former associations to mind. This is actually how advertisements work–by creating associations that you can’t forget even if you try.

“The district’s witnesses testified that kids did make religious associations to what they learned in the P.E. classroom. This is why ‘many’ of them chanted Om and put their hands in symbolic gestures (such as jnana mudra, or wisdom seal—representing union with the divine) while meditating in the lotus pose (the ‘new’ EUSD curriculum and promo video use the religiously-laden term ‘lotus,’ not ’criss-cross applesauce’). The ruling ignores some pretty basic facts in evidence and fails to follow judicial precedent.”

[Anton Drake]: “Yes I found the ruling very confusing also. I’m not a legal expert, however it appears as if there was a general intuition or consensus that yoga is a wholesome beneficial activity and not explicitly religious and that barring it from the Encinitas public schools would have been too extreme, opening up a very complicated can of worms that the court just didn’t feel like dealing with. Although the ruling probably has some legal merits, it really  seems like they kind of punted; labeling yoga as ‘religious’ in the process of sanctioning it seemed odd and unnecessary, and incongruous with the overall theme of the defense. It would’ve made more sense to me if the judge said that the techniques of yoga are not intrinsically religious in and of themselves, and that although it is possible to present or practice them in any number of religious contexts or formats it is equally possible to abstract them from religion completely and present them to students in a secular or ‘non-spiritual’ format. Labeling the totality of yoga as religious in the context of this particular legal judgment seems impossibly obtuse and shallow, insisting on the narrowest religious interpretation of yoga, almost as an act of local political appeasement, while sanctioning yoga based on more conventional legal notions and precedents of what constitutes religion. I really believe that yoga is not inherently religious and can be practiced in a secular way, even if traditional names for asanas are used or if meditation is practiced, and so I found the way the judgment as rendered to be peculiarly unsatisfying.

“I know that we actually disagree on this point and that, ironically, you actually agree with the judge in considering yoga to be inherently religious. Again, while I am definitely aware that yoga can be combined or fused with religion, I feel that it is at bottom intrinsically grounded in humanism and can therefore be practiced in completely non-religious  ways, centered around consciousness or the mind instead of the idea of transcendence or a supreme being.

“I’m curious as to how you might view the spiritual impact of yoga on an individual’s mind: do you see this impact as inherently negative? For instance is yoga spirituality, as you see it, necessarily incompatible with Christian spirituality? And since you presumably view Christian spirituality as good, does this mean that yoga spirituality is bad? Or can this be made sense of in terms of different population groups, that perhaps Eastern spirituality might be suitable for Asians but prove to have a deleterious or corrupting effect on Americans or Europeans? I ask this because you seem to have a genuinely mystical or spiritual viewpoint, and you don’t seem to be primarily concerned with moral or social concerns. I’m also curious what you might think about the new forms of Christian yoga that are springing up: in my view, from a Christian viewpoint these should be perfectly valid, as I see yoga itself as a neutral medium. However, based on some of your comments during the Encinitas trial I’m wondering if you think that the teachers of Christian yoga are being led astray spiritually by an inherent spiritual quality or effect of yoga’s techniques themselves.“

[Dr. Candy Gunther Brown]:  “You make a number of fascinating points, and raise some really intriguing questions—several of which point to the need for me to clarify what I am and am not saying.

“First, regarding the basis for the judge’s decision, I agree with your interpretation that the court ‘punted’ because the judge didn’t want to open up what you aptly describe as a ‘very complicated can of worms.’

“I don’t, though, think the judge followed ‘legal consensus.’ He did this only in so far as previous courts have defined yoga as religious (e.g. Self-Realization Fellowship Church v. Ananda Church of Self Realization, 1995; Powell v. Berry, 1988; Cotton v. Cate, 2012; Garvins v. Burnett, 2009). Previous courts have also ruled against prayer and Bible reading in public schools on the grounds that they are religious. The legal ‘test’ (the ‘Lemon’ test and subsequent qualifications) is whether a public-school program (as an agent of government) advances or inhibits religion, entangles government with religion, or directly or indirectly coerces participation in a religious activity. If yoga is religious, then it follows that a yoga program advances religion, entangles government with religion (especially the way the EUSD and Jois Foundation ‘partnership’ was set up through formal, signed documents) and indirectly coerces religious participation.

“Whether yoga is a ‘wholesome beneficial activity’ is irrelevant from a legal standpoint. There is actually a lot of scientific evidence that prayer and Bible reading produce physical and emotional health benefits. That doesn’t make these practices non-religious, nor appropriate for public schools. Yoga may be excellent for health and also religious.

“Based on my review of the scientific literature, the evidence for yoga’s health benefits is actually pretty slim, especially for children, and there is evidence of health risks, including injuries, death from stroke, and psychotic episodes. On this issue, I was interested in a point you make in your book that doing yoga creates a ‘risk of self-damage’ and ‘fractured psyches,’ can ‘rip’ the ‘protective scabs’ off painful memories, and requires ‘a strong Ego and a solid sense of self’ to practice safely. Are you concerned about the risks yoga might pose for children who may not have developed a strong Ego/sense of self, especially if yoga teachers have not had training specific to children’s emotional/psychological development?”

[Anton Drake]: “Well, I think you may be juxtaposing some references from my book here in a way that is somewhat out of context. The book does emphasize that a healthy Ego and a strong sense of self is necessary for advancement in the practice of yoga; while there may seem to be a touch of irony in emphasizing the need for something as fundamental and self-evident as the individual sense of self, this emphasis is in part a counterpoint to the forms of Eastern spirituality and mysticism that view the ‘Ego’ or ‘ahamkara’ as an obstacle to ‘liberation’ or enlightenment, which exists in some kind of supernatural or super-existential nonphysical domain. Part of what I was saying there is that if serious yoga is practiced for a long period of time with the concerted aim of dissolving the individual Ego in a quest for enlightenment, this can harm an individual person in the real material world. For instance if a person treats their physical body as an illusion—starving it, overstretching its muscles, ignoring pain and fatigue—this is bound to have a negative effect on  the body  and the mind, objectively, in the real world. A strong Ego or sense of self is also helpful in advanced meditation, in a psychological sense, as it allows one to stay grounded while exploring the psyche; the  key factor here is consciousness and self-awareness, and I would venture to say that teaching children to meditate and to become more aware of themselves should in general also strengthen their individual sense of self. There will of course eventually be hurdles and challenges in the practice of meditation, and it is possible that contemplation is not for everyone, but in general meditation is something quite natural and beneficial, especially when freed from superstition and mysticism, and thus poses no risk to children.”

[Dr. Candy  Gunther Brown]: “Now we get to the question of whether yoga is ‘inherently’ religious. As I told the defense attorneys, I don’t like to use the word ‘inherent’ because it is essentializing. I agree with the defense (and judge) that context matters. The term ‘yoga’ embraces a lot of diverse beliefs and practices—though the root meaning of the term is ‘yoking’—and as you yourself say in your book, this is often understood (not just historically, but also today) as yoking to a ‘hypothetical Supreme Being.’ Historically, most schools of yoga have shared the goal of human salvation, and in the contemporary yoga scene as well, religious and spiritual ideologies are ‘pervasive,’ to quote the American Academy of Religion Yoga Theory and Practice Group. National surveys show that a quarter of Americans consider yoga a ‘spiritual’ practice. K.P. Jois, the inspiration for the Ashtanga yoga program funded at EUSD, said that the goal of yoga (even if only the postures are practiced) is Samadhi, or becoming one with God. You seem to be making a similar point about the pervasiveness of religious ideologies when you describe in detail the religious views (i.e. ‘superstition and magical thinking’) you have heard expressed by fellow yogis (and from which you want to distance your idea of how yoga should be understood).  Would you agree that religious views of yoga are common, or even pervasive, in the contemporary American yoga scene?”

[Anton Drake]: “That is a very interesting question. I’d say that in America the religious or spiritual elements of yoga tend to not be taken very seriously, except by a small percentage of more serious practitioners who live in ashrams, spiritual groups or religious communities. The average American yoga practitioner or ‘yoga consumer’ is more or less aware of yoga’s ancient spiritual significance but tends to simply overlook it, focusing instead on its more tangible benefits. It’s interesting though, because certain elements of yogic or tantric mysticism, the concept of the chakras for instance, are definitely part of yoga’s popular image but are not often analyzed or closely examined. In my early yoga days living in an ashram I had internalized the idea that the chakras were a part of my body, both physically and ‘spiritually,’ and I really wasn’t able to see this clearly and begin disentangling myself from such concepts until I read Jung’s lectures on Kundalini yoga. In that sense there are probably some very ‘casual’ aspects of yoga culture in America that nonetheless affect people’s self-image and concepts of spirituality without their being totally aware of it. I’d qualify this however by saying that we could say the same thing about almost everything that makes its way into popular culture; in this sense, the art of yoga deserves to be part of the American cultural pastiche as much as anything else, and will certainly evolve and be assimilated in new and unpredictable ways going forward.”

[Dr. Candy  Gunther Brown]:  “You say that even ‘mantra meditation’ can be useful from an atheist standpoint—‘so long as it is clearly understood that no word or mantra actually can possess any ‘magical’ or mystical power.’ Would you agree then that—given the pervasiveness of religious ideologies in the contemporary yoga scene—a ‘secular’ public-school yoga program has a positive responsibility to teach children that mantras etc. do not have mystical qualities, and not just a negative responsibility to avoid teaching that mantras help one to become one with Brahman (or other mystical ideas)?”

[Anton Drake]: “Well, actually that would be ideal. Children would be taught to view the world in terms of reason and empiricism, and would learn to dispense with superstition or mysticism in every context. Teaching advanced or esoteric yoga techniques, however, would likely be outside the scope of what should be taught to children in a public school regardless; if instruction in mantra repetition were to be offered, though, it would be essential to demystify it and present it as a psychological technique or else it would essentially be a form of prayer. This might be problematic, however, because such rigorous demystification might be seen as explicitly teaching atheism—something not unreasonable in my view but likely to be objected to by some parents.”

[Dr. Candy  Gunther Brown]:  “I found it very interesting that you seem to make essentialist claims about what yoga is (inherently is?). You say yoga is ‘subjective and reflective in its deepest essence,’ meditation is ‘unquestionably the heart of yoga,’ and yoga is ‘altogether different from, for example, dance.’ So, yoga, when practiced properly, is more than physical exercise—it is essentially meditative? Yoga is not essentially equivalent to other practices that are conducive to physical fitness, such as dance or dodge ball?”

[Anton Drake]: “Hatha yoga is rooted in the practice of meditation, and we could think of meditation as having various aspects: concentration, self-awareness and contemplation, inner absorption, one-pointed focus and so forth. All of the techniques of yoga kind of orbit around the central technique of meditation, whatever one’s particular understanding of meditation might be, and so this is what I meant by saying that meditation is the core essence of all yoga techniques. Many of the attributes of meditation or yoga practice could theoretically be applied to activities such as dance or dodge ball, however the techniques of yoga have some special characteristics. The quality of identical repetition and stillness, for example, is something quite integral to hatha yoga practice—doing the same pose or sequence over and over and over, and thus cultivating introspection and self-awareness; applied to dodge ball this kind of thing would likely ‘deepen’ the sport and begin to make it something more like a form of kung fu, as silly as that sounds, where the students would become more aware of the techniques of throwing and dodging and begin to slowly refine them and polish away inefficiencies, using that practice as a way of centering the mind.”

[Dr. Candy  Gunther Brown]:  “You do not seem to portray yoga as a purely ‘neutral’ physical activity. Instead, you say atheism ‘differs radically’ and materialism is ‘diametrically opposed’ to metaphysical ideas like those found in Buddhism or Hinduism. You view yoga, and everything, ‘through the clear eyes of godlessness and unbelief,’ such that ‘the mind exists and God does not,’ and embrace a philosophy that assumes the ‘innermost nature of an individual is at its core good.’ So, in some sense you seem to be forwarding an atheist yoga worldview as an alternative to religion—a worldview that functions something like religion, though constructed as its opposite?”

[Anton Drake]: “Well, I have at times thought that it would be possible to offer atheism as something like a form religion, playing by the same rules that other religions do, although most atheists tend to have a very keenly developed sense of science and fair play, if you will, and would probably find such a suggestion abhorrent. As you are aware, in the book I actually raise the possibility that on an unconscious level various forms of religion, transcendentalism and mysticism may actually be drawn to the idea of nothingness itself; I realize that kind of thing is really ‘speculating into the void’ however in answer to your question it is not inconceivable that something like a ‘religion of nothingness’ could be ginned up in such a way as to create a very strong emotional appeal. In a more general sense, however, I don’t think that there is any need to present atheism as a kind of alternative religion; if scientific values of reason and logic are promoted and if there is an absence of religious training or coercion, especially in early childhood, then something like atheism is probably the natural human state.”

[Dr. Candy  Gunther Brown]:  “You ask several questions about how I view the ‘spiritual impact’ of yoga. As I tried to explain to the court, I am not making an ‘ontological’ statement about the impact of yoga or expressing a ‘mystical or spiritual viewpoint.’ In other words, I’m not making metaphysical assumptions about whether there is or is not a ‘spiritual’ realm that might be affected by yoga practice. I am instead drawing upon scholarly theories of how ritual performance and sensory perception affect beliefs and behavior. Doing things (especially doing things repeatedly in ritualized fashion) and sensing things with one’s body can affect religious dispositions (or moods and motivations)—and one can employ purely naturalistic explanations of how and why this happens. And I’m drawing on sociological research showing that people who start doing yoga for non-religious reasons often come to embrace the kinds of religious ideas that you describe in your book as ‘superstitious.’ (You say something similar—that a yoga practitioner ‘who may have actually begun the practice solely for the pursuit of increased health…eventually begins to realize’ deeper truths about ‘reality’ and ‘If one practices yoga and meditation long enough, eventually one encounters the necessity of having to let go of oneself completely.’) I actually find it interesting that you didn’t just discard the religious ideas you encountered among yoga practitioners, you embraced their ‘opposite,’ and you even seem to suggest that practicing yoga helped you to arrive at your new worldview.

“I’d make a similar point about ‘Christian’ yoga, which you also ask about. There is empirical evidence which suggests that re-labeling yoga as Christian may make relatively little difference in terms of the sociological effects of yoga. In other words, there is the same kind of sociological evidence of people who start off in Christian yoga classes (especially, as they move on from there to studio yoga classes) coming to embrace metaphysical, monistic worldviews that have more in common with Hinduism or Buddhism than historic Christian theology. I find it interesting, moreover, that promoters of ‘Christian yoga’ are not arguing that yoga is just exercise. They explicitly view yoga as more than exercise—as a mind-body-spirit practice that cultivates both physical health and religious devotion in a way that running (or church attendance) does not.

“You might think back to what I said earlier about psychological theory of extinction and relearning–trying to replace Hindu with Christian associations by relabeling may have a temporary effect. But if the former associations do not become extinct, but simply latent, they may resurface. There’s another psychological process, of transitive inference, at play here as well. Christians (or public-school children) who associate yoga with postures with feeling good, may come to associate yoga with feeling good, and be more inclined to seek out yoga, regardless of whether it is labeled as Christian or secular education or has other religious associations.

“This gets us back to a point you made earlier that it may not matter whether ‘traditional names for asanas are used’ or not in determining whether yoga is religious or what kind of religion it tends toward. I agree with this point. Focusing on the language used (as the judge did in his decision) reflects a Protestant Word/belief bias that fails to account for religions that are expressed and instilled through practice and experience.”