A yoga teacher leads a community class in Los Angeles. (Maria Alejandra Cardona / Los Angeles Times)
Orange County School of the Arts

Opinion: Secularization of school-based yoga programs displaces traditional knowledge

When Swami Vivekananda brought yoga across the Atlantic to the United States in 1893, he made a pivotal articulation of the practice — one which has had severe implications in how we consume yoga today.

At the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, Vivekananda advocated for a kind of spiritual universalism in order to appeal to the multicultural American masses. By defining yoga in terms of an ambivalent spirituality, Eastern philosophy quickly gained positive reception in the West.

Flash forward to over a century later, where current estimates determine yoga participation in the U.S. to be around 55 million, according to Statista. It is no exaggeration to call this a second “Age of Aquarius” — 1960s counterculture aesthetics and admiration of Eastern philosophy have seen a revival but in a markedly different way.

Perhaps as a result of the universalist doctrine yoga assumed in the United States, this 21st-century spirituality has been embraced by corporate settings, athletic apparel retailers and gyms alike.

Most striking about this new yoga, however, is not its commercialization, but rather a complete change in pedagogy. An emphasis on “mind-body” wellness has, according to research by Mary Grace Antony, restructured yoga into a mindfulness tool rather than a vehicle to unite with the divine. This displacement of yoga from its philosophical origins is especially pronounced in the ‘secular yoga’ we see in school-based programs. 

The question of qualifying yoga as spirituality, religion or mindfulness poses an ethical dilemma to the yoga organizations wanting to expand their reach to secondary students. While schools may want to reap the physiological benefits of yoga, they do not want to implement the Sanskrit nomenclature or Hindu origins that are, arguably, integral to the practice.

Such can be seen in the partnership between the Jois Foundation and the Encinitas School District. This union was challenged in Sedlock v. Baird, eventually resulting in the ruling that the elementary school yoga program does not violate the establishment clause because it clearly served a secular purpose. 

It appears we’ve grown comfortable with the idea that yoga is secular. On one hand, non-religious yoga expands the accessibility and reception of the practice to an otherwise uninvolved population. On the other hand, there is a question raised regarding traditional knowledge and intellectual property: to what extent can yoga be separated from its Vedic origins and still be branded as “yoga?”

Transplanting yoga into syncretic forms that are more digestible to a Western audience seems to challenge the integrity of the practice; like the secularization of Buddhism in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness, the practice of yoga loses its meaning when whittled down to mere stretching and stress-reduction. However, as yoga gurus continue to advocate for a universal spirituality, it seems counterproductive to label these syncretic forms as cultural appropriation.

What we need is a more active dialogue on traditional knowledge and intercultural exchange in the yoga community. Perhaps this responsibility falls to yoga organizations themselves, who in the past have created an elastic definition of yoga that lends itself to scrutiny from outsiders.

Regardless, school programs in particular must be more transparent about their sociocultural origins. Whether this means acknowledging its Hindu roots or establishing opt-in models of student consent to engage with yoga, yoga facilitators and organizations must play a more active role in its teachings to school students.