Even though many of us associate California with yoga, it turns out that the teaching of yoga to California elementary school kids as a way of calming their minds and improving their bodies may be in trouble. According to opponents of the program, yoga has broader spiritual aims, and therefore yoga classes in public schools violate the First Amendment. I hope they’re right. *
Yoga means “to link or to yoke.” In the context of Hinduism, and yoga makes no sense outside that context, the link is between Atman and Brahman, the soul and God, which, in Advaita Vedanta Hinduism, are in fact one. There are four yogas or four ways of realizing this unity. Hatha yoga isn’t one of them, though it can be used to enhance any of them. The four yogas are Karma Yoga (union with the divine through service), Bhakti Yoga (union with the divine through devotion), Raja Yoga (union with the divine through meditation), and Jnana Yoga (union with the divine through knowledge and study).
So the opponents of public school yoga programs have a point. Done well, yoga awakens us to our union with God. While opponents of yoga in public schools seem to know this, too many practitioners of yoga don’t, and have stripped yoga of its deepest spiritual roots and promise in the name of physical fitness. If this is what it takes to get yoga into public schools, it may be a cost too great to pay. Yoga is more than exercise, it is spiritual practice. So while I wish every elementary school student could begin a life-long yoga practice that would lead to Self-realization and divine union, I’m afraid that the elementary school itself may not be the place for it. Sad but Constitutionally true nonetheless.
* Full disclosure: There was a time in the early eighties when I practiced hatha yoga daily for 90 minutes as part of my work as a Jnana yogi devoted to study (in my case primarily Torah study). I followed the Iyengar method, and got good enough to be able to kiss my own ass, a nice compliment to the other kind of ass kissing congregational rabbis are often called upon to perform. I haven’t done this in a long time (yoga, I mean, ass kissing is eternal), but I continue to practice Jnana yoga (studying the Torah/teachings of all wisdom traditions), and to a lesser extent Bhakti yoga through my daily chanting practice. And, as promised, these yogas do awaken you to God.