Is Yoga Unconstitutional?

Earlier this week, Somini Sengupta reported in the New York Times on the controversy in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh over an initiative by the BJP-led state government to conduct a mass yoga program in the schools. The program has caused opposition by some Muslim and Christian groups, who apparently object less to the yogic exercises themselves than to the recitation of Hindu religious verses as part of the program. (One Australian reporter wrote that the plan “enraged India’s 160 million Muslims,” but that’s self-evidently ridiculous.) When it comes to trying to keep yoga out of the schools, Indians are hardly alone. In the United States, Christian groups have been attacking school yoga programs for years, echoing the words of the current pope, who admonished back in 1989 that yoga can “‘degenerate into a cult of the body’ that debases Christian prayer.”

There must have been something in the air in January, however, for the Global War on Yoga seems to have intensified surged everywhere these past few weeks. In the United States, Christian groups have renewed their concerns that “yoga’s Hindu roots conflict[] with Christian teachings and that using it in school might violate the separation of church and state.” And in Canada — that’s right, even in Canada — concerns over the potentially satanic influence of yoga have also been increasing in recent days:

“Supposedly, we do not allow religion in schools — and yoga is a religion,” said cattle rancher Audrey Cummings, 68, who filed a complaint with the Quesnel school board and the Education Ministry over the Action Schools program. Quesnel is in the B.C. interior, about 90 kilometres south of Prince George.

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Yoga turns kids’ minds toward Hindu gods, Cummings said.

“If you’re not seeking the God of the Bible, His power, then by default you’re in the other camp,” Cummings said. “The other source of supernatural power is Satan.” [link]

The social and legal contexts in which these disputes have arisen are different in ways that seem significant. In Madhya Pradesh, the initiative is part of a broader program by the Hindu nationalist BJP to promote yoga across the state. For the first session, the Chief Minister himself served as yoga-instructor-in-chief, broadcasting instructions by radio to state-sponsored programs not only in public schools and colleges, but also in private schools, government offices, and even prisons across the state. (They apparently didn’t get the memo from Norway, which scrapped prison yoga when officials discovered that it made inmates irritable and aggressive.) Especially given past efforts by the BJP and its affiliate organizations to “saffronize” education — for example, by rewriting textbooks to include chauvinistic perspectives on Hinduism and denigrations of other religious groups — it’s understandable that some would suspect the true motivations behind the program and raise concerns about its potential effects. Secularism is an entrenched part of the Indian Constitution’s “basic structure,” but religion and the state are not meant to be completely separate. Rather, Indian secularism protects freedom of religion within a broader constitutional framework that demands equal respect for all religions, on the one hand, and at the same time contemplates state intervention to constrain and reform some religious practices that violate fundamental rights, on the other. Of course, yoga is not an example of the latter, although some popular American variants seem pretty close to cruel and unusual punishment to me. (“Hot yoga”? Competitive yoga??) But institutionalizing it on such a broad and comprehensive scale — and more importantly, if this is in fact true, with a self-consciously saffron tinge — may raise understandable concerns about the state’s commitment to affording all religions equal respect. The Madhya Pradesh High Court has ordered the state to make the program voluntary, and according to at least one news report, the government has dispensed with the recitation of Hindu hymns as part of the program. But depending on the remaining details, that might or might not be enough to ensure a non-coercive educational setting in which all religions are afforded equal respect.

In North America, by contrast, the school yoga programs seem not to involve much religious content at all, much less any intent to promote Hinduism or coerce acceptance of Hindu values. At least I’d be awfully surprised if they did — in 2007, yoga in America seems mostly about health, fitness, and keeping up with the Joneses. (Indeed, both conservative Hindu organizations and yoga purists have objected to some of the ways in which yoga has morphed in America.) It’s also not clear if these programs are a mandatory part of the physical education curriculum or entirely elective. But even assuming these school programs necessarily and unavoidably incorporate some religious content, albeit implicitly, is that necessarily a constitutional problem in context? If the programs were being implemented to promote particular religious values — for example, if they were “PraiseMoves” programs — that would of course be one thing. But coercion or promotion of religion seems pretty unlikely in this context. Especially since Hinduism is almost certainly a minority religion in just about every school district in North America, Hindus are probably not in much of a position to be coercing anyone, and since the proponents of these programs are almost certainly not even Hindu themselves, it’s not all that likely that their goal is to promote Hinduism. If, in context, both the purpose and primary effects of these programs are basically secular, then maybe the folks getting exercised about all of this should just close their eyes, relax, sit quietly, and take a few deep breaths using their diaphragms.

Now, on to more serious religion-state issues — can we talk about how today, all over the country, we are coercing schoolchildren to participate in the rituals of that major religious holiday, Groundhog’s Day?