The Encinitas Yoga Trial goes deep

JUN • 17 • 2013

By Anton Drake

The Encinitas Yoga Trial is set to get underway again in just under seven days, on June the 24th. I’ve spent a few hours this weekend going over the court transcripts, which are very interesting; in particular, Dr. Candy Gunther Brown, an expert witness for the plaintiffs, is an extremely knowledgeable expert witness who is more than willing to go the mat with the defense. Her willingness to grapple directly with some of the more subtle and complex philosophical concepts of yoga has led to some very unusual exchanges, and it certainly got my attention when one of the defense attorneys asked Dr. Brown about my own book. In order to make sense of the trial so far and see where it might be heading, we definitely need to look very carefully at what Dr. Brown is saying.

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From Dr. Brown’s (Christian) perspective what is at stake is an issue of fairness under the law, and this is completely understandable. Although we might notice that the unspoken thrust of her testimony seems to carry a measure of resentment toward previous court rulings that made it illegal on constitutional grounds to teach or direct students to pray or worship in public schools, or to teach religious creationism, in this case Dr. Brown is simply seizing upon the same legal arguments that have been successfully used by secular humanism; therefore, regardless of the fact that Dr. Brown represents some of the same interests that have fought bitterly against these secular arguments for explicitly religious reasons, the point she is in essence making is logically valid: if the teaching of Christianity, which she endorses, is legally barred from the public schools it cannot then be fair or legal for Buddhist or Hindu spirituality to be smuggled in to students through the backdoor via something like yoga, which in other contexts is often presented as something spiritual and frequently framed with metaphysical and mystical suppositions. In this sense, the plaintiffs are placing themselves in the position of arguing for general fairness, and are therefore supporting the separation of church and state in general.

Dr. Brown is not wrong to say that many people practice yoga with a certain “spiritual” understanding of its goals and purposes, even though these goals and purposes tend to be, especially in the West, very flexible and nebulous and not specifically religious or dogmatic. Taught or practiced within a framework of Eastern mystical philosophy, hatha yoga can rightly be interpreted as a form of prayer or worship, or a form of spiritual purification or questing. It must also be acknowledged, however, that many yogis practice yoga with a purely secular and non-mystical understanding of it, and this changes the context entirely; it would be quite instructive, actually, if an opinion poll were to be done in order to determine where most American yoga practitioners fall along this spectrum. In any case, Dr. Brown herself inadvertently emphasizes the point that yoga can be taught in a non-religious context by stating that students might learn yoga for months or even years without ever being exposed to any of its esoteric or spiritual teachings; another factor to consider here is that there are actually many different metaphysical flavors or interpretations of yoga, and that this lack of a central or unified “religion” of yoga stems from what I would argue are its essentially secular core principles and techniques, which are based on the nature of the human body and the human mind and can therefore be co-opted or re-branded by any number of different belief systems. One might, for instance, just as easily “meditate” or focus the mind on the idea of Jesus as on the idea of the Buddha, and this difference is only a matter of framing and context. Dr. Brown freely acknowledges that students might indeed progress in the practice of yoga in a “sanitized” or secular context, but is wary that those students will then have been mentally and physically “primed” or readied for future religious indoctrination into Eastern Buddhist or Hindu traditions by the practice of the yoga positions themselves; she here seems to ascribe a certain mystical potency to the physical and mental techniques of yoga, seeming to regard them as a form of dark Asian magic capable of leaving its indelible spiritual imprint on the mind and body of unwary practitioners, and thus subverting Christian virtue even when presented in its most innocent and innocuous forms. On this point specifically, we might well ask if such wariness of yoga’s supposed spiritual power is not itself an explicitly religious or superstitious belief, analogous to a fear that Asian food or music might be spiritually harmful. Interestingly, this distrust of yoga’s hidden spiritual potency seems to extend all the way to yogic concepts of contemplation and concentration; when questioned about various techniques of mental focus, absorption and “mindfulness” she insisted that these are intrinsically religious in nature.

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

[Mr. Peck, for the defense]: “Okay. You’ve talked a lot about this concept of mindfulness.Is mindfulness necessarily religious?”

[Dr. Candy Gunther Brown]: “According to John Cabot Zinn, the foremost promoter of mindfulness meditation in America –“

[The Court]: “What is that? What is mindfulness?”

[Mr. Peck]: “Why don’t we start –“

[Dr. Candy Gunther Brown]: “I won’t — I mean, so his definition is it is the heart of Buddhist meditation, yes. Mindfulness is religion.”

[Mr. Peck]: “But mindfulness, isn’t that something that sports psychology is all about; in other words, living in the moment?”

[Dr. Candy Gunther Brown]: “No.”

[Mr. Peck]: “That’s not what sports psychology is all about?”

[Dr. Candy Gunther Brown]: “That is not what mindfulness is about. It’s a very specific term. It’s the seventh limb in the eighth whole path of Buddhism. It leads towards enlightenment.”

[Mr. Peck]: “So when we tell our kids to be mindful of their conduct, aren’t we telling them to be aware and focused in their conduct?”

[Dr. Candy Gunther Brown]: “This is an example of where words that can be used in multiple directions are used expecting and hoping that people will interpret it like what you said, but what they mean is actually Buddhism in the case.”

[Mr. Peck]: “Well, in what case?”

[Dr. Candy Gunther Brown]: “The case of mindfulness meditation.”

[Mr. Peck]: “I’m not talking about meditation. I’m not connected those words. This concept of mindfulness, you commented on seeing that word in some publication coming from the district and suggested that that was evidence of Hinduism. And my specific question is mindfulness –“

[Mr. Broyles, for the plaintiffs]: “Objection; lacks foundation, misstates her testimony.”

[The Court]: “I’m not sure where we’re going. I’m a little lost, frankly.”

[Mr. Peck]: “My question is mindfulness, this concept of mindfulness, or living in the moment.”

[The Court]: “What’s the question?”

[Mr. Peck]: “Well, isn’t living in the moment, being aware of oneself in the moment, another definition for the term ‘mindfulness’?”

[Dr. Candy Gunther Brown]: “No, not in the context of how it’s being used in EUSD curriculum. It’s referring to Buddhist mindfulness meditation.”

Dr. Brown is of course correct in saying that in many of the teachings or presentations of Buddhist thought the word “mindfulness” has taken on a kind of double meaning, which can lend itself to various forms of equivocation: as a translation of the Sanskrit term smrti, for example, it implies not just general self-awareness but also an overarching awareness of a Supreme Being that is assumed to permeate both oneself and the universe at large. Many spiritual teachers routinely use such terms as “mindfulness,” “ego,” “inner peace” and so forth in a manner that contains a mystically loaded subtext but can also be understood in a more mundane sense by the uninitiated. However, if we parse Dr. Brown’s words carefully, she seems to err here on the side of regarding all inward-directed mental concentration or attentional self-absorption as inherently spiritual—either Buddhist or Hindu but in any case certainly non-Christian. She gives some clues to this in her explanation of the ways in which Christian beliefs differ from Asian flavors of spirituality and religion when she lays it out that, philosophically, Christians see themselves as individual subjects under a distinctly separate and omnipotent God, whereas Buddhists or Hindus see themselves more like emanations or extensions of God, petals on a divine flower so to speak, who might seek to find God or a Supreme Being within themselves and others and to merge their individuality into it. She then concludes that self-directed meditation itself, in any form, is something specifically religious (Buddhist or Hindu) in both its origins and in its essential nature. There is a problem with this line of reasoning, however, because mental concentration would seem to be a universal human quality, and inward directed contemplation and self-awareness would seem to be natural functions of human consciousness; this is doubly true from the perspective of secular humanism and materialism. Dr. Brown has, however, arrived at a point where she has effectively labeled certain naturally occurring forms of thought and mental functioning as specifically religious or sectarian. This is a dramatic overreach, because even if various forms of Buddhism and Hinduism have in fact engineered spiritual practices or belief systems around mental techniques such as concentration or introspection, concentration and introspection are themselves are at bottom undeniably universal human capabilities, which cannot be trademarked or claimed by any religious group and thus cannot be  proscribed or regulated as being religious in nature.

Dr. Brown is right to insist that if the teaching of yoga meditation is framed around any of the metaphysical assumptions of Eastern religion it does essentially become a form of prayer or worship that is therefore unsuitable for public schools. We might, however, very well question by what right something as universal as inward directed self-contemplation can be labeled as a religious activity; I would argue that, paradoxically, such focused introspection eventually tends to erode religious belief of any stripe, as it simply does not lend itself to top down authoritarian religious instruction.  This changes the legal calculus somewhat, in that religious groups cannot use the depth and effectiveness of yogic techniques as a rationale to outlaw or restrict them; as long such techniques are presented in an explicitly non-religious framework, the question of whether they might eventually lessen the appeal of mainstream religion or make it less interesting or impressive is irrelevant. Another problem, however, is that for the sake of rigorous clarity any secular or “sanitized” presentation of yoga might require the idea of a God or Supreme Being to be explicitly precluded or dispensed with. And, since religious apologists have in the past routinely tried to label secular humanism as merely another brand of religion, any public school teaching that requires a precise explanation of secularism to students is likely to be objected to.

In any event, it should be clear that yoga can easily be taught or practiced in a purely secular way, devoid of any religious or spiritual meanings or implications whatsoever, if a sincere effort is made in that direction; the ancient roots of yoga lie within the philosophy of Samkhya, which was fundamentally atheistic and therefore nonreligious, and the fundamental techniques of hatha yoga are at bottom purely mental and physical in nature. We should also notice that in modern times the practice of hatha yoga has become (extremely) popular as a form of exercise and mental stress relief, and has continued to gradually evolve into new and improved forms of itself, many of which are completely unconcerned with spirituality and are therefore inherently secular. It should also be clear that something as universally human as focused self-awareness or inner contemplation cannot legally be withheld from students on the basis of religious reasoning, not by labeling it as alien to Western religions and certainly not by making the argument that such techniques might “expand” students’ awareness in open-ended or undetermined directions. Trying to ban secular forms of meditation from the public schools for such reasons risks becoming something like an attempt to turn the separation of church and state on its head, by using the law to deny the inherently liberating effects of self-awareness training to students in order to bolster or shield religious indoctrination outside the schools. The plaintiffs may, in fact, be very well aware that the “inner freedom” or “inner space” that yoga is known to encourage does not easily conform to any explicit religious framework, and therefore the initial objection to yoga on religious or “spiritual” grounds might be just a prelude. Ultimately, it might be the “sanitized” and thoroughly secular teaching of yoga, which the Encinitas School District is arguing for, that will be found most objectionable. It is very interesting that when Dr. Brown was asked about the possibility of secular or non-religious yoga training she fought very vigorously to deny that such a thing was possible, and never actually addressed the question directly, or stated whether or not she would find such non-religious yoga training acceptable or not.

Dr. Brown’s concern that yoga teaching might tend to take on a certain spiritual subtext if it were taught by devotees of a particular spiritual lineage is understandable, although we might point out that a Jewish student would likely have no problem learning the ancient Greek mathematics of geometry from a Catholic nun at a Catholic school. Leaving that question to the side, however, I would argue that it is not at all difficult to present yoga, even in its deepest and most esoteric aspects, in a purely secular context: the breathing exercises of pranayama, for example, can easily be understood in terms of the body’s circulatory and respiratory systems and the brain’s Co2 response reflex. All effective yogic techniques can be explained in similar ways, and this is in fact the most straightforward and rational way to explain them, for the simple reason that the underlying basis of their efficacy is always purely physical and psychological in nature. What Dr. Brown sees as a regimented and sequential system of imposed technique eventually blossoms into something that is more like a poetry of the body, a free-form expression based on self-awareness and mental focus that functions to unravel and untangle the knots and stresses of daily life and promote general harmony.

[A complete transcript of Dr. Brown’s testimony is available in PDF format at: http://www.nclplaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/13-05-21-Part-023.pdf ]