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Christian Yoga: Something New Under the Sun/Son?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 November 2018

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Between the 1960s and 2010s, yoga became a familiar feature of American culture, including its Christian subcultures. This article examines Christian yoga and public-school yoga as windows onto the fraught relationship between Christianity and culture. Yoga is a flashpoint for divisions among Christians and between them and others. Some evangelicals and pentecostals view yoga as idolatry or an opening to demonic spirits; others fill gaps in Christian practice by using linguistic substitution to Christianize yoga. In 2013, evangelical parents in California sued the Encinitas Union School District (EUSD) for promoting Hinduism through Ashtanga yoga. Sedlock v. Baird's failure to dislodge yoga exposes tensions in Christian anti-yoga and pro-yoga positions that stem from a belief-centered understanding of religion, the dissatisfaction of many Americans with Protestant dominance in cultural institutions, and a broad-based pursuit of moral cultivation through yoga spirituality. I argue that, although many evangelicals feel like an embattled minority, they are complicit in cultural movements that marginalize them. Naïveté about how practices can change beliefs may undercut Christian doctrines, facilitate mandatory yoga and mindfulness meditation in which public-school children and teachers are required to participate, and impede evangelistic goals by implicating Christians in cultural appropriation and cultural imperialism.

Copyright © American Society of Church History 2018 

“Wheaton College believes offering yoga courses contributes to the college mission to serve Jesus Christ and advance His Kingdom by educating the whole person through a redeemed form of yoga that addresses physical, emotional and spiritual needs.” In 2015, Wheaton issued a four-page position statement to reassure fellow-evangelicals that the College has redeemed yoga from its non-Christian roots. Yoga needed redemption because it is “undeniably rooted in Hinduism” and because “one common postural sequence, the Sun Salutation (Sanskrit: Surya Namaskara), originated as worship to the solar deity, Surya.” What redeems yoga at Wheaton is, first, that it is taught by Christians who have signed the Wheaton College Statement of Faith. Second, instructors subtract “ancient (and sometimes religious) words” from pose descriptions and add Christian belief statements: at the start or end of class, they “lead a prayer, offer Scripture or a word of spiritual encouragement.” Although offered by the Athletics Department, Wheaton envisions yoga as more than exercise. Quoting an arsenal of biblical proof texts, Wheaton argues that yoga helps Christians “be still” in God's presence (Psalm 46:10), avoid being “anxious” (Matthew 6:25–27), and manifest “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22–23). Wheaton yoga looks a lot like traditional yoga. Classes begin sitting “cross-legged” (in Padmāsana, or Lotus) to “find mental stillness.” The next “30–50% of a class” consists of Sūrya Namaskāras; the Wheaton brochure labels some poses in English and others in Sanskrit—for instance, “Mountain,” “Chaturanga,” and “Downward Dog.” Classes end with “Savasana, or Corpse.” Although implying that the substitution of English and Christian language redeems yoga from Hinduism, Wheaton adopts the same pose sequences and even some terms from “unredeemed” yoga.Footnote 1

This article considers what the cultural mainstreaming of yoga and meditation, including Christian yoga and public-school yoga, reveals about the relationship between Christianity and American culture. Prior to the 1960s, yoga was culturally marginal in the United States. Polls show a steady rise from three percent of Americans practicing yoga in 1976 to fifteen percent in 2016.Footnote 2 Yoga is often marketed as a scientifically validated, secular technique for cultivating beautiful, physically fit bodies. Indeed, many practitioners see yoga as a purely physical activity. Nevertheless, a quarter of American practitioners cite “spiritual development” as a goal.Footnote 3 Half of all instructors are certified by the Yoga Alliance, which requires studying “yoga philosophies and traditional texts (such as the Yoga Sutras, Hatha Yoga Pradipika or Bhagavad Gita)” that are widely associated with Hinduism, among other traditions. Certification covers “yoga lifestyle, such as the precept of non-violence (ahimsa), and the concepts of dharma and karma,” “energy anatomy . . . (chakras, nadis),” and “chanting, mantra, [and] meditation.”Footnote 4

Yoga exemplifies significant flows and rifts in American culture, including its Christian subcultures. Many Americans who resent Protestant dominance in cultural institutions such as public schools envision yoga spirituality as a preferable option for moral cultivation. Certain evangelicals and pentecostals view yoga as idolatry or an opening to demonic spirits. Other Christians, among them Catholics and mainline Protestants, use yoga to fill gaps in Christian practice.Footnote 5 I find it particularly revealing to examine the evangelical strategy of Christianizing yoga through linguistic substitution. Conversely, in 2013, evangelical parents in California, Jennifer and Stephen Sedlock, sued the Encinitas Union School District (EUSD) for promoting Hinduism through Ashtanga yoga. Sedlock v. Baird’s failure to dislodge yoga exposes tensions in Christian anti-yoga and pro-yoga positions that stem from a belief-centered understanding of religion.Footnote 6

I argue that, although many evangelicals feel like an embattled minority, they are complicit in cultural movements that marginalize them. This article makes three claims. First, naïveté about how practices can change beliefs may undercut evangelical doctrines as Christian yoga practitioners potentially experience subtle shifts in worldview. Second, evangelicals’ ineffective resistance to or support of public-school yoga and mindfulness meditation may facilitate mandatory programs in which children and teachers are required to participate. Third, Christians may impede their evangelistic goals by making themselves vulnerable to charges of cultural appropriation and cultural imperialism.

This article begins by historically contextualizing Christian yoga as the latest instance of a recurrent struggle to navigate between Christ and culture. The article compares yoga to fiction, music, and aerobics, interrogates evangelical assumptions about beliefs and practices, and assesses why and how yoga divides Christians. It then examines nominally secular, public-school yoga through a case study of Ashtanga yoga. Finally, it considers how Christian and secular yoga may exacerbate intercultural tensions.

I. Christianity and Culture: Fiction, Music, Aerobics—and Yoga

In 1951, the theologian H. Richard Niebuhr identified an “enduring problem” in the relationship between “Christ and culture” as Christians strive to live “in the world” without being “of the world.”Footnote 7 Self-identified evangelicals imagine themselves avoiding the poles of cultural withdrawal or assimilation of worldly values, instead balancing purity from and presence in the world.Footnote 8 Evangelicals characteristically adapt cultural resources for Christian purposes. Historically, evangelicals have often debated whether certain cultural products are inherently corrupting. Two notable examples are fiction and music.

Into the mid-nineteenth century, many evangelicals worried that fiction was too dangerous to touch. In the 1856 book Religious Novels: An Argument Against Their Use, Charles Wesley Andrews laments that the best novelists brought in the Trojan “horse,” since preaching “truth through fiction” is no better than promoting “temperance through rum.”Footnote 9 Godly texts engage intellectual interest to provoke moral action. But novels, like rum, “hurl” readers into the “fire of consuming passion, and then, at last, into the fire which is unquenchable.”Footnote 10 Evangelicals gradually became more comfortable with novels, publishing bestsellers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), Charles Sheldon's In His Steps (1896), and Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins's Left Behind (1995).

A similar story can be told of evangelicals’ halting acceptance of popular music. Protestant reformers like John Calvin worried that the writing of extra-biblical hymns and Psalm paraphrases introduced heresy into the church. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century revivals spread as innovators such as Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, Fanny Crosby, and Ira Sankey wrote hymns, even very occasionally putting Christian lyrics to popular drinking tunes. As Salvation Army founder William Booth famously—though not originally—quipped: “Why should the devil have all the best tunes?”Footnote 11

The phenomenon of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) is the “offspring” of an unlikely “mating” of rock and roll youth culture with the Jesus Movement of the 1960s–1970s. Older Christians objected that rock music, and especially loud drums and electric guitars, are inherently evil. The founder of Sparrow Records, Billy Ray Hearn, notes a pattern: “When something new comes along, the church usually rejects it; then they tolerate it; then it becomes acceptable; and, finally, it becomes traditional.”Footnote 12 Churches initially viewed Christian fiction, Christian music, and Christian yoga with suspicion, and Christians who wanted to participate had to justify their choices. Over time, participation was normalized.

Christian alternatives allow Christians both to participate in and view themselves as purer than popular culture. In their study of CCM, sociologists Jay Howard and John Streck observe that Christian variants permit subcultures to “define themselves as somehow separate from the wider culture,” even if they share economic, social, and religious formations.Footnote 13 In 2016, Americans spent $16 billion on yoga classes, clothing, and accessories.Footnote 14 Christian products fill a market niche. As the cultural commentator South Park noted in 2003: Christian producers have a “built-in audience.”Footnote 15

The development of Christian yoga is in certain respects nothing new. It may be viewed as a subgenre of a Christian diet, fitness, and therapeutic self-help market that, as the ethnographer Marie Griffith argues, reflects a white, middle-class, American Protestant valorization of bodily health and beauty as spiritual virtues.Footnote 16 When aerobics emerged as the fitness craze of the 1970s–1980s, Christians jumped in energetically, branding their own products. As yoga surpassed aerobics in popularity, Christian yoga (perhaps inevitably) followed.

Is Christian yoga comparable to Christian fiction, Christian music, and Christian aerobics? All of these movements are appealing for similar reasons: they invite experiential, physically engaged and/or emotionally rich encounters with God.Footnote 17 They each reflect a belief-centered understanding of religion, which breeds confidence that meanings can be transformed by emptying and refilling neutral containers with Christian linguistic content, much like substituting ingredients in a recipe. This article contends that, despite these similarities, Christian yoga is more of a stretch theologically and culturally, myopic about the potential for practices to change beliefs, and prone to charges of cultural appropriation and cultural imperialism.

II. Practices Change Beliefs

Evangelicals identify a “Christian” as one who believes and tells others the Gospel. A favorite Bible verse is Romans 10:9 (NIV): “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” If right beliefs constitute the core of true religion, one's intent in performing practices largely determines whether or how those practices are religious. This doctrinal view is naive to how practices might transform beliefs, whether through metaphysical or material mechanisms.Footnote 18

Certain Hindu yoga proponents express an experiential view of religion based on metaphysical assumptions of how practices change beliefs. The Hindu American Foundation argues that “even when Yoga is practiced solely as exercise, it cannot be completely delinked from its Hindu roots” because āsanas, or postures, have “psycho-spiritual effects.”Footnote 19 Specifically, “yoga, like its Hindu origins does not offer ways to believe in God; it offers ways to know God”; āsanas lead practitioners along the “path of self-realization—that each individual is a spark of the divine. Expect conflicts if you are sold on the exclusivist claims of Abrahamic faiths.”Footnote 20 Hinduism Today’s managing editor, Sannyasin Arumugaswami, predicts that “a Christian trying to adapt these practices will likely disrupt their own Christian beliefs.”Footnote 21

One need not accept metaphysical reasoning to make an empirical observation that long-term yoga practice correlates with heightened spirituality. A U.S. nationwide survey by psychologist Crystal Park reported in 2016 that 62 percent of yoga students (n = 360) and 85 percent of teachers (n = 156) changed their primary reason for practice. The primary motive typically transitioned from “exercise and stress relief” to “spirituality.” Of students reporting a change, spirituality became the primary motive for 24 percent and an additional motive for 48 percent; 50 percent of teachers attested that spirituality became their primary motive, and the remaining 50 percent came to identify spirituality as an additional motive.Footnote 22 A 2005 study found that longer-term yoga practitioners were less likely to identify as Christian and more likely to identify as “Spiritual but Not Religious” or Buddhist.Footnote 23 Other studies suggest that “a shift seems to take place,” leading practitioners to “a whole new spiritual awareness and totally identifying with the yoga philosophy.”Footnote 24 Take for example Kristin, a young woman from Indiana who grew up Catholic and tried yoga in college “starting with the physical aspects.” Kristin sensed no religious conflict because “they have yoga classes at the YMCA and that's a Christian organization.” Kristin came to see the “eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga”—the eighth of which is samādhi, defined in Ashtanga as becoming “one with God”—as “basically similar to the Ten Commandments” only better because they were “just like suggestions,” unlike rule-oriented Christianity.Footnote 25

My forthcoming book, Debating Yoga and Mindfulness in Public Schools, accounts for such data by articulating a theory to explain how embodied practices, such as yoga and mindfulness meditation, might affect religious and spiritual experiences. Research on language, embodiment, and perception suggests that sensory and affective experiences of practicing yoga or mindfulness and participating in practice communities shape perception through interplay of: heightened awareness of sensory experiences; reinterpretation of experiences through the lens of assumptions and values communicated; and cultural associations that remain available after subtracting religious language.Footnote 26 Because embodied, regularly repeated, and emotionally charged, such practices may be more efficacious than doctrinal teachings in conveying and reinforcing religious meanings.

Doctrinal interpretations of religion notwithstanding, few Christian commentators argue that yoga is a purely physical practice. What they disagree over is whether yoga spirituality is antagonistic or complementary to Christianity.

III. Christian Concerns about Yoga

Polls report that 9 percent of Americans who have not tried yoga, and 4 percent of those who stopped, give the reason: “The ‘spirituality’ aspect of the practice bothers me.”Footnote 27 Catholic doctrinal statements warn against confusing the pleasing sensations of yoga and Eastern meditation with the Holy Spirit.Footnote 28 Pope Francis cautions: “You can take . . . a million courses in yoga, [and] Zen . . . but all of this will never be able to give you the freedom” of God's love.Footnote 29 Evangelicals lack unified theological authority structures.Footnote 30 Individuals who object to yoga cite at least one of two reasons. First, they worry about “idolatry”—prayer to or worship of gods other than Yahweh, contrary to the Bible's first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.”Footnote 31 The Old Testament cautions against emulating how other cultures petition their gods: “You must not worship the LORD your God in their way.”Footnote 32 The New Testament forbids reverencing images of “birds and animals and reptiles.”Footnote 33 Christian critics worry that Sūrya Namaskāra developed as a prayer to the solar deity, Surya, and that many postures emulate animals associated with divine beings.Footnote 34 Evangelical Marcia Montenegro argues that “‘Christian Yoga’ is an oxymoron. . . . Just as there is no Christian Ouija board and no Christian astrology, so there is no Christian Yoga that is either truly Yoga or truly Christian.”Footnote 35

Pentecostal and charismatic Christians may express a second concern: that yoga postures and breathing techniques invite spirits other than the Holy Spirit to occupy the bodies of practitioners, causing physical and spiritual harm.Footnote 36 Pentecostal and former yoga instructor Corinna Craft envisions Sun Salutations as a “moving liturgy, an embodied form of worship” that incorporates acts of “bowing,” “petition,” “receiving and surrender,” and “thanksgiving,” and functions as a “full-body sign language to the spirit realm, beckoning or inviting spirits to respond and engage in the practitioner's life.”Footnote 37 For Craft, it does not matter whether the practitioner “knows or agrees” with these meanings because “practice constitutes consent,” in the sense that “doing is the action of agreeing.” Consequently, “practice attracts and engages spirits” who “co-authored” yoga.Footnote 38 Historic roots matter because “authorship implies ownership” and “ownership implies right of possession and control.” Craft continues:

The spirit realm knows what belongs to it. Just as a stolen Lexus can be traced back to its rightful owner even if the thief removes the license plate and re-upholsters the interior . . . so, too, yoga misappropriated by naive westerners can be traced back to Hindu spirits who are not fooled by a little revamping. They've got the serial number and title deed, so to speak. They'll get back in their vehicle while you're driving it.Footnote 39

By this logic, Christians do not own yoga and have no right to remove religion from or repurpose yoga as Christian. Nevertheless, Christian yoga is on the rise.

IV. Christian Yoga

A 1998 survey reported that most American yoga practitioners were college-educated, urban, non-Christian women.Footnote 40 Ten years later, Christians had joined the ranks of self-described American yogis. A 2007 Christianity Today poll found that 4 percent of those “less active” in church and 2 percent of those “more active” used yoga to “grow spiritually.”Footnote 41 Christians are still less likely than other Americans to participate. A 2013 survey noted that 73 percent of practitioners in Austin, Texas, view yoga as a “spiritual activity.”Footnote 42 Although respondents came from multiple religions, there were fewer Christians and more religious “nones” and “others”; only 41 percent identified as Christian (by comparison, 48 percent of Austin's population has a Christian affiliation). There is a gap between Christians and other practitioners, but it is narrow.

Some Christians are attracted to practices adapted from Asian religions because of the spiritual benefits. Christians may turn to yoga to fill lacunae in Christian traditions—which they perceive as overly intellectual, uninteresting, or body-denying, or as needing to be enriched by insights from other religions.Footnote 43 But, worried by non-Christian roots, they Christianize these practices. Father Thomas Ryan, director of the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical Interfaith Relations, is a certified Kripalu yoga instructor who envisions “yoga prayer” sacramentally as a way to “pray with your whole body.” Ryan interprets yoga as superior to Christian ascetic disciplines or the valorization of physical suffering as sanctifying the spirit; in his view, yoga reveals that “salvation doesn't mean getting out of this skin, [but] rather being transfigured and glorified in it.”Footnote 44 Evangelicals—aptly characterized by the historian Mark Noll as culturally adaptive, biblically experiential Christians—replace non-Christian with Christian language and religion-neutralizing references to scientific studies.Footnote 45 Christian yoga and Christian alternatives to yoga appear to solve the dilemma of how to access non-Christian spiritual resources while remaining a faithful Christian.

The label “Christian yoga” functions, first, to mark an intention to repurpose a practice for Christian uses and, second, to market a product to Christian consumers. The initial step is to add Christian identifiers. For example, there is Christ Centered Yoga,Footnote 46 Yahweh Yoga,Footnote 47 and Christoga.Footnote 48 Some programs take linguistic separation a step further by subtracting the word “yoga”—given its connotation of “yoking with the divine”—and insist on the non-equivalence of yoga with “alternatives” such as Outstretched in Worship,Footnote 49 WholyFit,Footnote 50 and PraiseMoves.Footnote 51 Such programs reflect core evangelical concerns identified by the historian David Bebbington: biblicism through biblical framing, activism in energetically recruiting others, conversionism by insisting that programs draw participants closer to Christ, and crucicentricism in the sense of dedicating Sun Salutations to the Son, Jesus.Footnote 52

Evangelical adaptations of yoga and the creation of yoga alternatives presume that practices can be Christianized through linguistic substitution. Sun Salutations are christened “Son Salutations.”Footnote 53 To begin: “Stretch your arms . . . overhead into Praise Hands. Reach your heart and arms to Heaven, sending your greeting to Jesus.” End in “Prayer Position (hands at heart center),” the fourth of seven chakras, “feeling the movement of energy.”Footnote 54 Classes close with “Corpse Pose,” resting in “God's grace.”Footnote 55 Prāṇāyāma, controlled breathing to circulate impersonal vital energy, is reimagined as “breathing in the Holy Spirit.”Footnote 56 Namaste is retranslated: “The image of God in me honors the image of God in you.” The mantra Oṃ may be replaced by Shalom. Evangelicals typically add Bible verses and prayers to traditional poses or relabel them with Christian references, such as Prodigal Son, Noah's Arch, Lazarus, Holy Rollers, Eagle, Angel, Rainbow, and Altar. Rarely, programs add new poses, as with the Jewish Aleph-Bet Yoga's emulation of Hebrew alphabet letters.Footnote 57

Most Americans, including Christians, know little about the history of yoga or South Asian religions.Footnote 58 Lack of knowledge stems in part from fear that learning about other religions leads to doctrinal error. (Evangelical students in my religious studies classes disclose parental concerns that I will indoctrinate them in pluralism.) Paradoxically, fear of learning about religions can make it more likely that Christians will engage in practices of the religions that worry them.

By evangelical logic, if someone dedicates a practice to Jesus, it is by definition Christian. It is difficult to refute testimonial claims like that of Christianity Today writer Agnieszka Tennant: “The three hours a week I spend doing yoga . . . draw me closer to Christ. They are my bodily-kinetic prayer.”Footnote 59 An customer purchased a Christoga DVD “because I was worried that my prayer life was lacking. This is an excellent way to incorporate Christ's Word into your soul.”Footnote 60 Christians who see no problem with Christoga's amalgamation of Christian and Hindu beliefs and practices do worry that it is immodest for Christian yogini Janine Turner to reveal her belly button.Footnote 61 PraiseMoves elicits less criticism from evangelicals in part because founder Laurette Willis tucks her blouse into her leggings.Footnote 62 Holy Yoga developer Brooke Boon summarily dismisses criticisms by insisting on her evangelical identity: “Remember that in Holy Yoga, the answer to practically every question is two words: Jesus Christ.”Footnote 63 Claiming devotion to Jesus is the ultimate evangelical argument stopper.

Does explicitly Christian yoga lead people toward the kinds of spirituality associated with traditional yoga? Holy Yoga is among the most popular Christian yoga programs with 1,700 certified instructors. While attendees at the January 2018 American Society of Church History annual meeting were participating in conference sessions, Holy Yoga was hosting a four-hour “Holy Yoga Experience” in thirty-six cities to share its “Christ-honoring experience.”Footnote 64 Holy Yoga reinterprets Christian doctrine by incorporating beliefs from South Asian religions. Holy Yoga instructor training requires study of “classical” yoga moral and ethical codes, including yamas and niyamas from the Yoga Sūtras.Footnote 65 Instructors convey to students that Oṃ is the “vibrational sound of the universe” that “creates” and combines “energies” in yoga classmates. Prayer “does the same thing” as chanting Oṃ because “Jesus the Word of God . . . is the vibration” that God used in speaking the universe into creation. God created humans as “physical and energetic beings,” and “chakras” are “energy centers” that “echo what God has created.”Footnote 66 Brooke Boon attests that traditional yoga beliefs about energy, Oṃ, and chakras “make sense to me.” Such beliefs may come to make sense to other Holy Yoga participants, who may also become more likely to explore traditional yoga. Psychological research on branding shows empirically that “brand extension advertising facilitates parent brand recall.”Footnote 67 If yoga is a “parent brand” and Holy Yoga is a “brand extension,” then favorable experience with Holy Yoga may facilitate favorable reception of the parent brand—traditional yoga and associated concepts.

Christian yogis react defensively to criticism because they get something from yoga that they do not get from other forms of exercise or church. When President Albert Mohler of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary voiced “surprise” at Christian commitment to yoga in a 2010 Associated Press interview, several hundred Christian readers sent Mohler angry e-mails.Footnote 68 One “devoted Southern Baptist church member” explained: “I get much more out of yoga and meditation than I ever get out of a sermon in church.”Footnote 69

Many Americans have come to perceive church as irrelevant, boring, or worse. Not only is there a rise in the number of religious “Nones” but also a groundswell of religious “Dones”—the most committed, theologically orthodox church members who are leaving church because it seems more of a hindrance than a help to spiritual growth and service.Footnote 70 Some have sought revitalization by: converting to Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy; gravitating toward an innovative emerging church; trading soporific sermons for streamlined megachurch productions; seeking intimate, authentic community in a house church; or enrolling in a School of Supernatural Ministry, where classes include personal prophecy, healing the sick, and Raising the Dead 101.Footnote 71 And others have taken up yoga. As one Christian yogi notes, “The churches are emptying; the yoga centers are full.”Footnote 72

Yoga has not only entered Christian subcultures but also the American mainstream, as epitomized by nominally secular, public-school yoga programs. These programs have polarized Christians, and they reveal how Christians can, ironically, contribute to their own marginalization.

V. Public-School Yoga

The first American public schools provided Christian religious and moral instruction. The Massachusetts Bay Colony passed a school law in 1642 to ensure that all children received a “good education” that instilled “principles of Religion” and inoculated youth against growing “rude, stubborn & unruly.”Footnote 73 Nineteenth-century common schools promoted “nonsectarian” instruction that avoided denominational doctrines while teaching religious values presumed to be “universal” (though distinctively Protestant) deemed necessary to moral character and civic virtue.Footnote 74 In the mid-twentieth century, the Supreme Court prohibited public schools from promoting prayer and Bible reading, interpreting these practices as violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.Footnote 75 Protestants inadvertently paved the way for these court rulings by opposing funding for Catholic parochial schools.Footnote 76 Since the late twentieth century, educational reformers have increasingly envisioned yoga and meditation as filling a perceived moral void in non-religious, and thus constitutionally permissible, ways.

Public-school yoga and meditation programs are proliferating. A 2015 survey identified thirty-six U.S. school-based yoga programs (fifteen of which require Yoga Alliance certification) that have trained 5,400 instructors and offer yoga in 940 schools.Footnote 77 Well over a million public-school students have received instruction in mindfulness meditation or Transcendental Meditation.Footnote 78

The introduction of yoga and meditation into public schools reflects a perceived crisis in American education that Christianity has, by many accounts, failed to solve.Footnote 79 Program advocates cite statistics on school shootings; single-parent homes; child depression, suicide, drug abuse, obesity, and pregnancy; and worries about underachievement, technology overdose, and an epidemic of unkind, judgmental attitudes and behaviors. Nominally secular yoga promises not only to trim and fit flabby young bodies but also to instill values and cultivate character.

VI. Ashtanga Yoga in the Encinitas Union School District

The Indian Hindu Shri Krishna Pattabhi Jois (1915–2009) developed modern Ashtanga (Aṣṭāṅga), or eight-limbed, yoga in Mysore, India. The eight limbs are: (1) yama (moral restraint), (2) niyama (ethical observance), (3) āsana (posture), (4) prāṇāyāma (breath control), (5) pratyahara (calm mind), (6) dhāraṇā (attention), (7) dhyāna (meditation), and (8) samādhi (“union with the Supreme,” that is, Brahman—or, in Jois's words, becoming “one with God”).Footnote 80

Jois focused his teaching on the third limb, āsanas, or postures, because he was confident that practitioners would inevitably experience all eight limbs. According to Jois, “Anyone” who practices will “experience God inside,” and “the love of God will develop . . . whether they want it or not.”Footnote 81 Beginning in the 1970s, Westerners traveled to India to study with Jois. In 1975, Jois's student David Williams brought him to Encinitas in San Diego County, California—a city claimed for yoga in 1937 by Yogananda's building of a Self-Realization Fellowship ashram.Footnote 82 After visiting Encinitas, Pattabhi Jois returned home, but his son, Manju, took up residence to teach yoga; Manju's wife Nancy taught kindergarten in the Encinitas Union School District (EUSD).Footnote 83

One of Pattabhi Jois's devotees, Sonia Jones, wife of hedge fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones, founded Jois Yoga in 2008 “in Loving Dedication” to her guru, and in 2011 she incorporated Jois Yoga's nonprofit counterpart, the K. P. Jois USA Foundation.Footnote 84 The Foundation's “mission” was “to bring the philosophy, teachings, and values of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois” to “youths in underserved communities” by funding school yoga and supporting “changes in public policy” to require “yoga and meditation competency in public education credentialing” and mandate yoga and meditation in all classrooms.Footnote 85 The Foundation began by giving EUSD $4 million to codevelop a district-wide Ashtanga yoga program taught by Foundation-selected, trained, and supervised teachers and to coauthor a curriculum for the Foundation to use in other districts.Footnote 86

When in 2013 Christian parents sued EUSD for allegedly promoting Hinduism through yoga, administrators overcame the legal challenge by adopting a characteristically evangelical strategy: relabeling “Ashtanga yoga” as “EUSD yoga” and subtracting Sanskrit terminology and “cultural references.”Footnote 87 I obtained a bird's eye view of this trial by serving as an expert witness after the plaintiffs asked me to explain the contested meanings of religion and Ashtanga yoga. Despite some linguistic repackaging, at the time of trial, EUSD children were still using Sanskrit terms, such as Namaste (often translated “the Divine in me bows to the Divine in you”) and Savāsana (or Corpse).Footnote 88 Students were forming circles with their thumb and forefinger in wisdom gesture (jñāna mudrā), symbolic of subordinating the individual spirit (Ātman) to Universal Spirit (Brahman), and chanting Oṃ (often identified as the “sound of the divine”).Footnote 89 Children were also putting their palms together in front of their chest in prayer position (añjali mudrā) and closing their eyes to meditate while sitting in Lotus, or Padmāsana, with one or both feet above the knees.Footnote 90 The judge was persuaded that Lotus had been defanged by renaming it “criss-cross applesauce,” although videos reveal teachers saying “Lotus,” and the curriculum never uses the phrase “criss-cross applesauce” but uses “Lotus” 194 times.Footnote 91 As of 2018, EUSD yoga, like Ashtanga yoga, “always begins” with Opening Sequence A, Sūrya Namaskāra, established by Jois as a “prayer to the sun god,” Surya. EUSD classes still always finish with Lotus and Rest, postures explained in EUSD's pilot-year textbook as facilitating “concentration, meditation, and ultimately Samadhi.”Footnote 92

Emboldened by the Encinitas victory, the Jois Foundation rolled out its curriculum nationally and internationally, rebranded as Sonima (a portmanteau from founder Sonia Jones and associate Salima Ruffin) and then as Pure Edge (which shares an abbreviation with Physical Education, PE, but also evokes Ashtanga's virtue of purification, or tapas, from the niyamas). By 2016, the Foundation had taught yoga and meditation to over 40,000 children in 114 partner schools in nine school districts and six U.S. regions—as well as the country of Kenya—and had convinced the New York legislature to pass a resolution establishing a “Health and Wellness Week.”Footnote 93

Most challenged school districts have, like EUSD, permitted parents to opt their children out of yoga and meditation. Such allowances depend upon implicit acknowledgment that such programs are arguably religious. Most schools do not allow opting out of math or dodge ball, and classroom teachers are not always allowed to opt out of school-wide yoga and meditation. For example, teachers in British Columbia and California have lost their classrooms for refusing to teach the MindUp mindfulness curriculum.Footnote 94 Certain well-funded school yoga and meditation proponents have publicly articulated agendas for making their programs mandatory. Pattabhi Jois urged making “yogasana, the Surya Namaskara, and their traditions compulsory for all students in all educational institutions.”Footnote 95 The Jois/Sonima/Pure Edge Foundation's public policy goal is to make yoga and meditation a requirement for teacher credentialing and “an essential component of the education system.”Footnote 96 Actress and movie producer Goldie Hawn's “mission” is to get MindUP into “every school”—and “absolutely mandated.”Footnote 97 The Calmer Choice mindfulness curriculum is intended as a “universal” intervention that every student is “expected to attend. Math, science, history, mindfulness, and English . . . [just] part of their day.”Footnote 98 By not effectively opposing or even supporting yoga and meditation, Christians may unknowingly facilitate a move toward mandatory programs.

VII. Yoga Culture Wars

The Encinitas controversy sheds light on a tense relationship between yoga and Christianity in American culture. Encinitas is a religiously divided community. As a New York Times article observed in 2012, EUSD “serves the liberal beach neighborhoods . . . as well as more conservative inland communities. On the coast, bumper stickers reading ‘Keep Leucadia Funky’ are borne proudly. Farther inland, cars are more likely to feature the Christian fish symbol, and large evangelical congregations play an important role.”Footnote 99 When the Sedlock v. Baird yoga lawsuit went to trial in 2013, 45 percent of Encinitas residents practiced yoga—compared with a 9 percent national average.Footnote 100 Although 40 percent of the Encinitas population identified as Christian (compared with 70 percent nationally), only one Christian family, Jennifer and Stephen Sedlock, stepped forward as petitioners.Footnote 101 Six other Christian families submitted legal declarations, and 269 signatories (at least one of whom was Hindu) added their voices of protest to an online petition.Footnote 102 Although more Christians than the Sedlocks objected to EUSD yoga, most of them had personal reasons for not wanting to become a lightning rod in a public controversy. Fewer than 1 percent of EUSD parents opted their children out of yoga, which comprised a majority of state-mandated PE minutes.Footnote 103 Other Christian parents knew or cared little about the yoga program, or else they wanted to join in.

The Sedlocks were represented pro bono by a theologically and politically conservative evangelical Christian attorney, Dean Broyles, whose nonprofit law practice, The National Center for Law & Policy, promotes “religious freedom, the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, parental rights, and other civil liberties.”Footnote 104 Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF)—an international legal nonprofit with religious priorities similar to Broyles's—awarded a grant of $9,000 for court costs and lent assistance from a senior litigator; a local Christian attorney also offered time pro bono.Footnote 105 Broyles's strategy was to argue that EUSD yoga violates the Establishment Clause by promoting certain types of religion while inhibiting others. Broyles had trouble getting financial support from Christian legal organizations that worry about the Establishment Clause being used against Christians and/or still hope to get prayer back into schools.Footnote 106 One reason the petitioners did not appeal to the California Supreme Court is that they ran out of funds.

Although many school yoga and meditation programs have spawned complaints—often from Christians, but also from Hindus, Buddhists, and atheists—Sedlock remains the only high-profile litigation.Footnote 107 Given the close associations of yoga and meditation with Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religious and spiritual traditions, it is less surprising that there are Christian protestors than that their ranks are thin. Since Sedlock, I regularly receive cold-contact e-mails from Christians across the U.S. and Canada who are worried about yoga or meditation in their local schools—and frustrated in their efforts to convince school officials, or even other Christians, that the programs are religious or conflict with Christianity. One of the most striking features of these e-mails is the theme of isolation: these are Christians who feel like they are the only ones who care. A father from Virginia recounted that pastors “tell me how misinformed I am” to consider that mindfulness might be religious: “Thanks for listening. I feel like I'm alone here.”Footnote 108 An Ohio father bemoaned the “indifference (and even defensiveness) of many Christians.”Footnote 109 A mother and pastor in New York was “baffled by the utter apathy” of school officials and Christian parents who refused to read the information she sent them before discounting her concerns.Footnote 110 These complainants are the “embattled” evangelicals described by the sociologist Christian Smith. They are confident in the “moral superiority” of their opposition to yoga and meditation, but, finding little traction from their “personal influence strategy,” they feel that American culture, including large swaths of Christian culture, has rejected their warnings and consigned them personally to the status of “second-class” citizens, unwelcome in the public square.Footnote 111

Such Christians lament their woes to any who will lend a sympathetic ear, but they rarely lobby to change laws or enlist help from courts to enforce laws. Exhibiting a tendency that Smith dubs “voluntaristic absolutism,” evangelicals call the nation to conform to Christian ideals yet resist collective action because they want compliance to be voluntary, effected through one-on-one persuasion.Footnote 112 Christians who have sought legal representation report difficulties finding attorneys willing to take their case or raising funds to litigate.Footnote 113

Christians who do form a united front have had somewhat more success in influencing school boards. When in 2014 a school district in Bloomington, Indiana, proposed introducing MindUP, a coalition of twelve pastors banded together. The school board tabled the proposal once they realized that it could incite a financially costly exodus of Christians from the public schools.Footnote 114 Yet, three years later, one district school started teaching mindfulness, this time without informing parents.Footnote 115

Non-evangelical school administrators are rarely persuaded by pleas of religious discrimination, particularly when issued by wealthy, white Protestants like the Sedlocks. Many non-evangelicals regret the long history of Protestant dominance in U.S. cultural institutions, especially since even Supreme Court rulings have not fully disestablished Protestantism from public schools.Footnote 116 Evangelicals who want prayer but not yoga may be denounced as judgmental and hypocritical. Christian critics do not help their case by complaining vaguely that yoga is “inherently” religious. Such critics sense religious tension at a gut level but lack knowledge or vocabulary to explain why yoga violates their conscience. This makes critics susceptible to charges of “yogaphobia.”Footnote 117 Comparing pro-yoga and anti-yoga social media, e-mail listservs, and websites reveals that critics cite fewer academic sources, articulate less nuanced arguments, and make more typographical and grammatical errors.

The inability of Christian critics to elucidate their concerns reflects an educational disparity. National surveys indicate that evangelicals have somewhat lower educational attainments than the general population; 20 percent of evangelicals are college educated as compared with 27 percent of the total adult population. Hindus and Buddhists have higher attainments, with 77 percent and 47 percent, respectively, being college educated.Footnote 118 During the Sedlock trial, not only the opposing attorneys but even the judge mocked the plaintiffs for “wear[ing] their religion on their sleeve” as they haltingly attempted “trial by Wikipedia.”Footnote 119 Today's situation may recall the “Scopes Monkey Trial” of 1925, in which Fundamentalist Christians technically won a court case challenging evolution—but opponents disparaged them as intellectually and religiously backwards.Footnote 120 Modern evangelicals are better educated than their Fundamentalist predecessors, but many lack training for yoga culture wars. Evangelicals are poorly equipped to engage reflectively with popular culture because most lack interest in rigorous historical and theological study that could pinpoint continuities and discontinuities with Christian traditions.

VIII. Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Imperialism

Christians have long struggled to present themselves and their message to cultural outsiders in winsome ways. Activist evangelicals are particularly zealous to share what they envision as good news that others need for temporal happiness and eternal salvation. Yet it is difficult to preach Christ without being perceived by audiences as disrespecting their cultures. Christian yoga and public-school yoga may exacerbate intercultural tensions. Promoters of Christian and secular yoga face the twin charges of cultural appropriation and cultural imperialism.

Hindu spokespersons blame yoga popularizers for distorting yoga. Although certain Indian Hindu yogis, famously Vivekananda and Yogananda, have recruited Americans and vaunted yoga as bridging cultural divides, other Hindus express dismay at American reinterpretations.Footnote 121 In 2008, the Hindu American Foundation initiated a “Take Back Yoga” campaign, calling for public acknowledgment that yoga is rooted in Hinduism.Footnote 122 Indian American yoga teacher Susanna Barkataki argues that when “someone from the dominant culture” teaches yoga without acknowledging “the roots of the practices, they are culturally appropriating yoga,” using their “power” to “exploit” South Asian “cultural riches.”Footnote 123 Answering the thorny question “Who owns yoga?” Subhas Tiwari of Hindu University of America insists that yoga “originated” in “Hindu culture”; he dubs Christian yoga “religious schizophrenia.”Footnote 124 Yogi Baba Prem alleges that Christian yogis are “secretly” practicing “Hinduism without having to renounce their Christian tradition.”Footnote 125

Denying that anyone owns yoga, evangelists for Christian or secular yoga may unthinkingly impose yoga on other cultural groups. Public-school programs target low-income African Americans and Latinos, whom promoters view as lacking virtues instilled by yoga. A 2012 article in Teaching Tolerance: A Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center lauds a Title I Atlanta school that uses yoga to quell “bickering” and “fussing,” and as a “strategy for proactively managing classroom behavior.”Footnote 126 In 2013, the Sonima Foundation funded Ashtanga yoga in New York City public schools “comprised of minority youth,” mostly “Black” or “Hispanic.”Footnote 127 The justification for a 2010 yoga study in Baltimore schools attended by African American, “mixed race,” and Latino children is that “youth in underserved, urban communities are at risk for a range of negative outcomes,” are “chronically stressed,” and need help “enhancing self-regulatory capacities.”Footnote 128 Implicit is a racial narrative in which people of color are “at risk” because they have lesser “self-regulatory capacities,” and a religious narrative in which Christian practices have failed America's children.Footnote 129

The supposed beneficiaries of philanthropically-funded yoga may already have cherished religious resources to cope with life's challenges. African American and Latino communities are statistically more religiously active—and predominantly Christian—than the Caucasian populations who typically fund and administer programs.Footnote 130 One Spanish-speaking Catholic woman from El Salvador withdrew from a yoga study for “religious reasons,” complaining that the “teachers’ beliefs were being imposed on her” and that a statue of Patañjali seemed “diabolic.”Footnote 131 Christian and secular yoga may not only alienate certain South Asian Hindus who decry cultural theft but also African American and Latino Christians bequeathed yoga.

IX. Conclusion

Yoga exemplifies the fraught relationship between Christianity and American culture. Wheaton College's effort to redeem yoga through linguistic substitution reflects a perception that church traditions have grown stale. Ashtanga yoga in the Encinitas Union School District and the specter of mandatory yoga are emblematic of divisions among Christians, the frustration of many Americans with Protestant dominance, and a broad-based pursuit of moral cultivation through yoga spirituality. Naive to how practices can change beliefs, culturally adaptive evangelicals feel embattled by others, yet they undercut their own professed beliefs, contribute to their own marginalization, and participate in processes deemed cultural appropriation and cultural imperialism that hinder their evangelistic goals. In the final analysis, Christian Yoga may be nothing new under the sun (or Son), but it may usher in a new era in the relationship between Christianity and culture.


This article was presented as the presidential address to the American Society of Church History on January 6, 2018. It builds on my research for two books: The Healing Gods: Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Christian America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); and a forthcoming book, Debating Yoga and Mindfulness in Public Schools: Reforming Secular Education or Reestablishing Religion? (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019). I wish to thank the following individuals for helpfully commenting on previous drafts: Chris Armstrong, Peggy Bendroth, Josh Brown, Elesha Coffman, Roger Corbin, Heather Curtis, Bruce Hindmarsh, Mark Noll, Randi Walker, and Adrian Weimer. The article title alludes to Ecclesiastes 1:9 (NIV): “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”


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105 Alliance Defending Freedom, “Who We Are,” accessed August 13, 2018,

106 Dean R. Broyles, interviewed by author, June 12, 2015.

107 The Pennsylvania Charter Appeal Board rescinded a charter for a yoga-based school in Education for New Generations Charter School v. North Penn School District, CAB No. 2013–10 (2016).

108 Informant e-mail to author, April 21, 2016.

109 Informant e-mail to author, December 1, 2014.

110 Informant e-mails to author, January 17, 2017, and January 30, 2017.

111 Smith, Christian, with Emerson, Michael, Gallagher, Sally, Kennedy, Paul, and Sikkink, David, American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998)Google Scholar, xi, 129, 187, 140.

112 Ibid., 210. Smith insightfully observes that the same tendencies are a source of evangelical “thriving” and relative ineffectiveness in influencing the broader culture.

113 Michael Woodruff, quoted in Gordon, Sarah Barringer, “The New Age and the New Law: Malnak v. Yogi, Transcendental Meditation and the Definition of Religion,” in Law and Religion: Cases in Context, ed. Griffin, L. C. (New York: Wolters Kluwer, 2010)Google Scholar, 19 of draft version; and informant e-mail to author, November 24, 2015.

114 Field notes, Monroe County Community School Corporation Board Meeting, December 16, 2014.

115 Jackson Creek Middle School, “Lesson #1—August: What is Stress, Mindfulness,” Stress Management Curriculum, (unpublished lesson manuscript, August 2017).

116 Chancey, Mark A., “A Textbook Example of the Christian Right: The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 75, no. 3 (September 2007): 554581CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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119 David Peck, in Sedlock transcript, May 20, 2013, 33:25–34:1; and Meyer, “Decision,” 18:18–24, 19:4–5.

120 Lienesch, Michael, In the Beginning: Fundamentalism, the Scopes Trial, and the Making of the Antievolution Movement (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 52Google Scholar.

121 Eck, Diana, A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation (New York: HarperCollins, 2001)Google Scholar, 100, 105.

122 Hindu American Foundation, “Take Back Yoga: Bringing to Light Yoga's Hindu Roots,” accessed August 13, 2018,

123 Susanna Barkataki, “Is My Yoga Cultural Appropriation? What to Do About It,” Huffington Post, February 9, 2016,

124 Subhas Tiwari, “Yoga Renamed Is Still Hindu,” Hinduism Today (January/February/March 2006),

125 Yogi Baba Prem, “There is No Christian Yoga,” Speaking Tree (blog), updated August 20, 2013,

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128 Mendelson, Tamar, Greenberg, Mark T., Dariotis, Jacinda K., Gould, Laura Feagans, Cooper, Brittany Rhoades, and Leaf, Philip J., “Feasibility and Preliminary Outcomes of a School-Based Mindfulness Intervention for Urban Youth,” Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 38, no. 7 (October 2010): 985CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

129 Iwamura, Virtual Orientalism, 20.

130 Kosmin and Keysar, American Religious Identification Survey, 14.

131 Middleton, Kimberly R., Andrade, Regina, Moonaz, Steffany Haaz, Muhammad, Charlene, and Wallen, Gwenyth R., “Yoga Research and Spirituality: A Case Study Discussion,” International Journal of Yoga Therapy 25, no. 1 (2015): 3335CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.