Encinitas Yoga Trial: the defense asks Dr. Brown about Atheist Yoga

JUN • 16 • 2013

By Anton Drake

[From court transcript taken May 21st, 2013]:

[Mr. Sleeth]: “Have you read a book by Anton Drake called Atheist Yoga?”

[Dr. Candy Gunther Brown]: “I read the interviews with him, and I thought that was a really interesting book. I’d be happy to comment on that. I found this really interesting. I’d be happy to talk about it.”

[Mr. Sleeth]: “Is it possible to do yoga — his book is essentially that Atheists can do yoga without it being
spiritual, isn’t it?”

[Dr. Candy Gunther Brown]: “Yes and no.”

[Mr. Sleeth]: “All right. Why don’t you tell us what the essence of his book, as you understand it, is.”

[Dr. Candy Gunther Brown]: “ My understanding — I haven’t read the entire book, but I’ve read the interviews with him — is he had been doing yoga for 20 years. And I can’t give you an verbatim quote on this, but he said, ‘There was so much metaphysical language of gods and goddesses, and I was so confused going into meditation when I was doing all of these yoga practices that I was trying to figure out how I could rationally say that an Atheist could do yoga.’ Because he identifies himself as a dogmatic Atheist. That’s approximately his language.

“And so he’s trying to come up with a way to fit these together. His ultimate answer is dogmatic Atheists assume that everything is materialistic. Therefore, yoga must be materialistic, because my first assumption is that everything is materialist, which is an interesting circular kind of argument. And so the way I read the book is he’s trying to justify and rationalize how he could do yoga as an Atheist, and his point of writing the book is his perception is that yoga is pervasively spiritual and religious. And he needs to make a case for how Atheists could do yoga. And he’s saying something along the lines that, ‘We should be able to — we should change how yoga is usually being done so that we can have a fuller understanding of it as dogmatic Atheists.’ And so I actually see Drake as supporting the very claim of the Yoga in Theory and Practice Group, that yoga is pervasively spiritual and religious and is very much confirming the kind of information that I’ve been providing over the last couple of days.”

[Mr. Sleeth]: “Is there any way to strip — if you take away the history and take away the Sanskrit, is there any way that you can take away whatever remains, in your mind, of a spiritual nature in yoga so that it’s cleaned of that?”

[Mr. Broyles, attorney for the plaintiffs]: “Objection; lacks foundation, is an incomplete hypothetical.”

[The Court]: “Overruled. I mean, unless I misunderstand the question, I think that’s why we’re here.”

[Mr. Sleeth]: “I thought so, too.”

[Dr. Candy Gunther Brown]: “Okay. Well, the wording of — it’s a very complex question.”

On first reading this section of the transcript, the first thing I thought was that Dr. Brown had incorrectly summarized my entire book based on a single sentence given in an interview, in which I had been referring to some of my early experiences practicing meditation in a yoga ashram, something that is quite different from mainstream or commercial hatha yoga. However, when I reached the section of her testimony where she summarizes what she calls my “circular argument” from materialism, at that point I honestly felt that Dr. Brown truly “gets me,” because she seems to have truly understood one of the major point of the book, which is that if we start from the assumption that we live in a real and material universe, we can conclude that if yoga is effective it must have also be material in nature, based solely on the physical and mental merits of its techniques and certainly not on any kind of “mystical progression” or supernatural agency. Following this line of thought, we could go further and say that it is therefore not only true that can yoga be scrubbed or “sanitized” of any superficial religiosity or spiritual meaning, as Mr. Sleeth phrases it during cross examination, but also that any vestiges of of it might well be viewed as a kind of ancient cultural ornament, something that gives a distinctly Asian charm and wisdom to the art, analogous to what one might appreciate in a Japanese tea ceremony, for example. Teaching something like yoga to children eventually makes them more worldly and educated, and better prepared for life in a modern global society. And so, while Dr. Brown definitely “gets” the fact that I have tried to explain the atheist or materialist basis for the practice of yoga, and that I have tried to make the argument that yoga and meditation are best and most effectively practiced with a thoroughly secular and non-mystical understanding, I think she also overlooks my view that in mainstream Western yoga any “spiritual” overtones of the practice are very light and are by nature open-ended, non-restrictive and non-dogmatic, inviting self-exploration and greater self-awareness and fostering a sense of inner freedom.