Home Flexibility Sexy, Silly, Satanic: What Is Yoga, Anyway?

Sexy, Silly, Satanic: What Is Yoga, Anyway?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Considering how much of a commodity time is in a school environment, I’m always happy to hear about schools who are opting to incorporate some form of wellness in their school. So, when I saw the following, I was actually overjoyed:

By 9:30 a.m. at Paul Ecke Central Elementary School, tiny feet were shifting from downward dog pose to chair pose to warrior pose in surprisingly swift, accurate movements. A circle of 6- and 7-year-olds contorted their frames, making monkey noises and repeating confidence-boosting mantras.

Jackie Bergeron’s first-grade yoga class was in full swing.

“Inhale. Exhale. Peekaboo!” Ms. Bergeron said from the front of the class. “Now, warrior pose. I am strong! I am brave!”

Though the yoga class had a notably calming effect on the children, things were far from placid outside the gymnasium.

Then…the kicker came:

Though the yoga class had a notably calming effect on the children, things were far from placid outside the gymnasium.

A small but vocal group of parents, spurred on by the head of a local conservative advocacy group, has likened these 30-minute yoga classes to religious indoctrination. They say the classes — part of a comprehensive program offered to all public school students in this affluent suburb north of San Diego — represent a violation of the First Amendment.

After the classes prompted discussion in local evangelical churches, parents said they were concerned that the exercises might nudge their children closer to ancient Hindu beliefs.

Mary Eady, the parent of a first grader, said the classes were rooted in the deeply religious practice of Ashtanga yoga, in which physical actions are inextricable from the spiritual beliefs underlying them.

“They’re not just teaching physical poses, they’re teaching children how to think and how to make decisions,” Ms. Eady said. “They’re teaching children how to meditate and how to look within for peace and for comfort. They’re using this as a tool for many things beyond just stretching.”

Ms. Eady and a few dozen other parents say a public school system should not be leading students down any particular religious path. Teaching children how to engage in spiritual exercises like meditation familiarizes young minds with certain religious viewpoints and practices, they say, and a public classroom is no place for that. [source]

And, not even an hour later, I saw this and the subsequent firestorm (so what if I’m late? I’m always late. You know that!):

…which was immediately followed by this (don’t let the video’s title or screen shot fool you):

…where I was reminded that the New York Times decided…

According to Black, a number of factors have converged to heighten the risk of practicing yoga. The biggest is the demographic shift in those who study it. Indian practitioners of yoga typically squatted and sat cross-legged in daily life, and yoga poses, or asanas, were an outgrowth of these postures. Now urbanites who sit in chairs all day walk into a studio a couple of times a week and strain to twist themselves into ever-more-difficult postures despite their lack of flexibility and other physical problems. Many come to yoga as a gentle alternative to vigorous sports or for rehabilitation for injuries. But yoga’s exploding popularity — the number of Americans doing yoga has risen from about 4 million in 2001 to what some estimate to be as many as 20 million in 2011 — means that there is now an abundance of studios where many teachers lack the deeper training necessary to recognize when students are headed toward injury. “Today many schools of yoga are just about pushing people,” Black said. “You can’t believe what’s going on — teachers jumping on people, pushing and pulling and saying, ‘You should be able to do this by now.’ It has to do with their egos.”

…that yoga can, apparently, wreck your body.

I just… what is going on, here?

Yoga isn’t about religion. It isn’t about sexuality. It isn’t about mocking (or shaming, for that matter.) Yoga isn’t about pushing yourself (or allowing someone to push you) to the point of injury. Yoga is not dangerous, scary, or some nebulous figure lurking in the shadows waiting to snatch your children’s minds or your ability to turn your neck, and I’m really frustrated by the number of people out there who insist upon making yoga this sketchy “other,” as if the answer to everyone’s woes in life is pole dancing or lifting weights or something.

Jo Griffith, Cincinatti based yogi - click the photo to view her site!

Jo Griffith, Cincinatti based yogi – click the photo to view her site!

Listen. Listen to me carefully. I’ve said this before, and I’ve said it again. Yoga saved my life. It taught me how to breathe, focus, control my anxiety, and actually pay attention to how I was healing myself and handling my emotions. Yoga helped me learn my body in ways I hadn’t as a sedentary, obese woman. Yoga helped me appreciate my body, and gave me the one constant and consistent thing I could always count on every evening throughout all the changes that come with weight loss. Even though my thighs, my arms, my breasts, my calves were changing, I could always count on that Warrior 2 pose feeling the same and making me feel the same way. Even though my body was growing stronger, I could always count on coming to my yoga mat for a challenge.

All of this, and that was before – long before – I ever knew a single word of Sanskrit (the language in which poses are named), before I even had a single understanding of what yoga represented in India, before I had ever taken an actual class from a teacher who could actually touch me. There’s a reason my blog’s logo is of me practicing yoga; it represents a wholeness and a wellness that is inseparable from my weight loss success.

Click the photo to read Dianne Bondy's interview with Curvy Yoga.

Click the photo to read Dianne Bondy’s interview with Curvy Yoga.

The religious objections to yoga, in the first article above, were what confused me the most – “They’re teaching children how to meditate and how to look within for peace and for comfort. They’re using this as a tool for many things beyond just stretching.” – and, honestly, what gave me the biggest screw face. Last time I checked, Christians – much like the ones quoted in the article – “meditate,” too. They call it prayer. And, last time I checked, Christians – and members of anyreligion, for that matter – “look within for peace and comfort,” too – they just happen to look within and find a reflection of their God, or any reflection that they want or need to find while in that space.

Yoga is an opportunity to focus simply on you and what you need. “Are you struggling with holding this pose? Listen to how you’re breathing… is this pose giving you anxiety? Are you even breathing, or are you holding your breath and thinking it will pass?” “Look at your hands; are your fingers spread?” “Are your toes curled?” “Is your foot flexed?” So much of our days are spent handling big-ticket items, but spending even 15 minutes to breathe, decompress, re-center yourself can work miracles on your brain, your heart, and your body. Learning to breathe, pay attention to detail, identify anxiety and address it instead of just hoping it will pass are more than just qualities of a great yogi; they’re invaluable coping mechanisms that transcend one’s practice.

As far as the dangers of yoga, yoga can wreck your neck in the same way running can wreck your knees. If you don’t take care, and listen to your body instead of your ego, you should expect injury. To be honest, one who goes into a yoga practice with the desire to just blitz through it with no focus or attention paid to themselves should expect to incur injury. There’s wisdom in silence, patience, humility and sensibility. Sounds familiar.

The video of Briony was breathtakingly beautiful, and reflected a very honest reality of many yogis: we wake up in the morning, before we brush our teeth, wipe the gunk out of our eyes or even put on pants… we unroll our yoga mats and get to work. It’s sensual in suggestion – her husband, in bed (I’m assuming that’s her hubby, who’s also a dope yoga teacher), while she gracefully glides her feet through the air; her, in her sleep-time lingerie; legs and feet together, then apart – but sensuality isn’t something to fear. Admiring another woman’s ability to engage her body in that way isn’t automatically sexy or sex-inspired or even remotely sex-related… but I’d be lying if I denied those additional benefits of yoga, and their affect on your sex life. I mean, you can have fantastic sex with your partner, but as we all know, that flexibility and the ability to manipulate the body – something yoga can teach you – will always take you to new angles, new heights, and present you with infinite possibilities.

…and that’s all I’m going to say about that.

If Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism and the like are near and dear to your heart, yoga can bring you closer to it; but the same can be said for any religion, any principle, any concept, any belief and any ideology one holds near and dear. The beauty of yoga – at least, to me – is that it can truly bring you closer to that which matters most to you, whatever that may be. Today, it may be practicing for patience in dealing with the boss from hell, tomorrow it may be practicing for clarity and focus through your next major presentation. And, while there are purists who might not agree with that, I’d have to also mention another beautiful thing about yoga: no one defines your practice for you but you.

Shoutout to the Black Yogis tumblr, too. Beautiful inspiration there.

PS: Thanks to YogaDork, who also shared Briony’s video teaching the art of the handstand. Whew.

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Curlsz January 1, 2013 - 1:34 PM

The article discussing the downside of the popularity with yoga rings true in my community. It’s so popular right now you can even find free classes. But when you go it’s typically an instructor that is very focused on hearing the sound of their own voice. I’ve been doing it at home as a result because I just can’t meditate and enjoy when an instructor is blathering on and grabbing my leg putting it where they want it, and calling me out for not doing a pose I know I’m incapable of doing. It’s all so Americanized, sad. As far as the kids and those opposing it in school, get real and get a life! But it’s nothing new, I’ve seen many a preacher come out against it over the years.

BAnjeeB January 1, 2013 - 2:26 PM

As always, a thoughtful post. I’m about to walk out the door to go do 108 sun salutations to being in the New Year, so I definitely appreciate this. I love my yoga practice! I hate to hear people who don’t understand it talk about how it is in conflict with Christianity. If anything, it has deepened my Christian beliefs and relationship. It can be whatever you want it to be. It can be a physical practice or whatever you make it. I think it’s great to incorporate it into schools, keep kids moving, help them learn to respect and challenge their bodies…is that wrong? And when I read that article about how harmful yoga was, I thought if we didn’t exercise because we could hurt ourselves, we’d never do it! Namaste

Tina F. January 1, 2013 - 8:14 PM

Wow!!! Let me first say that I absolutely LOVE yoga and I plan to hit up my first class in about a year (had to give it up due to a complicated pregnancy) on Thursday. I can’t wait!!! Anyhoo! Sometimes, I wish people would do their research instead of coming out and sounding as uninformed. Sure, it may have been introduced to the world as an Eastern practice, but for many it has never been for religion. I, for one, can tell you that yoga has nothing to do with my religion yet after one session of yoga my mind is as calm and open as one can find me at the end of a prayer. Yoga challenges and calms the spirit similar to a prayer that is asking for wisdom yet offers gratitude. IF Ms. Eady did her research, I’d bet she’d find that the benefits of yoga totally outweighs any ridiculous fear that her child may be “indoctrinated” into the Hindu religion.

To me, this is what’s wrong with our society. We say we’re accepting of all cultures, races and lifestyles. Yet, when either one of those areas hit a little closer to home than what we’d like and we don’t like what we see, often times, without research, we defend our way of life without having an open mind. She neglected to think what if a kid is 2 discipline cards away from needing a bottle of ritalin and the only reason why the kid isn’t on it is because of the yoga that is being practiced in class? Or what if because of the yoga a child is better able to manage their anger, which means other children are not bullied or injured? Nope, she just assumed that the children are being brainwashed into Hindus and most know what assuming can make one look in the eyes of others. Let’s just say in my eyes she looked like that big time.

Oh well, loved your post and I’m so glad you took the time to learn about yoga after practicing it for a while. I just wished she would have done the same instead of taking to publication to spout out intolerance for something that’s actually helping. Namaste

Lee January 1, 2013 - 9:41 PM

If someone can find something to complain about they will try their damnedest to find it. Instead of seeing how yoga benefits their children they have to pull in a religious background?? And even if it was aren’t you supposed to teach your kids about other people in the world too? Just because they hear about other religions doesn’t mean its being forced upon them. Blah. I wish my schools would have offered yoga when I was a kid. maybe I wouldn’t have been so anxious all the time. Yoga has helped quiet a lot of that anxiety down. It has taught me to be confident, to love myself, and to work out my emotions. If teaching a kid that is wrong then what the heck are they supposed to learn? smh.

Ms. Zee January 1, 2013 - 9:42 PM

I will trying hot yoga for the month of January!

Eliss January 3, 2013 - 10:47 AM

I had my first yoga class when I was 18, and the teacher was horrible! She yelled, put us down, and of course, tried to force us into positions that tortured us novice yogis. I swore I would never go back to her class or any other yoga class. Thankfully, I didn’t follow that promise.

Since then, I’ve had wonderful experiences with yoga, and my practice is mostly Bikram yoga. The poses coupled with the heat aided me after I was hit in a car accident by a drunk driver. My tension, pain, and anger begin to dwindle. I learned a lot about my body and about life. Even now, I still say a sentence that my yoga teacher often verbalized in class: “You can make it through anything in life if you just breathe.”

About the naysayers, I let them be. I used to become annoyed with their ignorance, but it doesn’t bother me anymore. Their perceptions aren’t accurate or my reality.

Also, I’d like to say, if you want to know about more black female yogis, I suggest looking up Faith Hunter (http://www.faithhunter.com). I also love Vonetta Winter. I interviewed her, and she has a yoga retreat in Portugal (http://yogaatmoses.com).

BAnjeeB January 3, 2013 - 2:05 PM

I agree with Eliss Faith Hunter is awesome! 🙂

Neikata January 6, 2013 - 4:10 PM

I am practicing yoga for the month of January. I find some of the poses to be challenging; but the peace I feel afterwards is what keeps me coming back. I do wish there was more diversity in my yoga classes.

Ashleigh February 11, 2013 - 1:41 PM

Those videos (even the parody) just sold me on yoga. I’ll be researching later. Hopefully I can find a class to go to. I’m training for a 10K (walk/jog–not running yet) and I’ve been told to cross train as well and yoga definitely came up as an option.

As for the idea that yoga is a “gateway” to Hinduism, I fear that the purists may find that their precious Christianity has already been touched by it and many other religions. No religion formed in a vacuum. Christians should completely understand this concept as the religion itself sprung from Judaism. It is fear and plain and simple ignorance that have these parents opposing yoga taught through physical education. Anytime you have someone saying “these kids are learning new and effective ways to cope with the stress of life and we can’t have that because as far as we know Jesus never did yoga” you can only write that off to ignorance–willful ignorance. I want to ask them is your faith so weak that it can’t come into contact with various and new ideas without crumbling? Will Jesus cease to exist for you if you learned about Buddha or Vishnu or Isis?

Ugh…sorry to rant. Uptight and sanctimonious (so-called) religious (not spiritual) people really get to me.

Alice July 14, 2013 - 9:25 AM

I had my daughter, at age 7, doing some yoga as a way to help achieve calm for her, as the divorce and her dad’s subsequent almost immediate re-marriage had been really hard for her, and her stepmom, a hard line fundamentalist Christian, told her never to do it again, because it’s against Christianity and she should pray if she needs to feel calmer. As if they were mutually exclusive. There are people like this out there. The stepmom is a college educated woman, a teacher. And still, the mindless bias.

Karen December 9, 2013 - 9:33 AM

Excellent post! Thank you.

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