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The yoga question: Is it a religion?
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Yoga is on the rise and there's no stopping it.

Studios offering classes in what one practitioner called its "pretzel-y twists" are popping up faster than sushi bars and Thai restaurants. Millions of Americans swear to its physical and emotional benefits, while selling yoga gear — especially pants and mats — is a billion-dollar business.

Now, meditate and ruminate on this: Is the popular practice a religion?

The National Center for Law & Policy, which specializes in religious-freedom cases, says it is, and is suing a Southern California school district on behalf of parents for teaching yoga, arguing that it violates the separation of church and state.

In a trial, which began May 21, center attorneys argued that the Ashtanga yoga curriculum used in the San Diego area's Encinitas Union School District "is pervasively religious."

The district's program represents the "clearest case I have observed of the government advancing, endorsing or promoting religion," the center President Dean Broyles says in a release. "In this case it is Hinduism and yoga, on one hand, and inhibiting, disapproving and discriminating against Christianity and other religions, on the other."

For its part, the Hindu American Foundation also sees a connection between Hinduism and yoga, but bemoans that such a fact is rarely recognized among most U.S. and European practitioners. In 2010, the foundation launched an effort called "Take Back Yoga" to remind everyone of the practice's religious roots.

"Yoga, as an integral part of Hindu philosophy, is not simply physical exercise ... ," according to the foundation, "but is in fact a Hindu way of life."

Utahns, like the rest of the nation, have joined the yoga craze, and, as far as anyone can tell, the trend hasn't stirred up disputes in this religious state. There are scores of yoga teachers and classes here for young and old and everyone in between. Some programs even take place in public schools.

Utah's Hindu community doesn't see a problem.

"I don't think either of our priests practice yoga, and we don't offer any classes at the temple," says Indra Neelameggham, a member of Sri Ganesha Hindu Temple in South Jordan.

Neelameggham acknowledges the ancient link between her faith and the modern practice, but says people use yoga for all kinds of spiritual and secular reasons.

That's OK with her. It's like a Mormon bishop fasting for spiritual insight and someone else forgoing food for physical purposes.

Fasting gave me "a spiritual feast," she says. "Is it Christian? Muslim? Hindu?"

Not necessarily, Neelameggham concludes. It's what you make of it.

That's also true, she says, of yoga.

Disconnecting the dots • The word "yoga" come from the Hindi for "union." It suggests unity between spirit and body and between humans and the divine.

The practice dates back more than 5,000 years to the Indus Valley, the Hindu American Foundation writes. "The term covers a wide array of practices, embodied in eight 'limbs,' which range from ethical and moral guidelines to meditation on the ultimate reality. Yoga is a combination of both physical and spiritual exercises, entails mastery over the body, mind and emotional self, and transcendence of desire. The ultimate goal is moksha, the attainment of liberation from worldly suffering and the cycle of birth and rebirth."

Classical Ashtanga yoga builds, step by step, on eight ethical guidelines. "The first limb, yama, deals with one's ethical standards and sense of integrity, focusing on our behavior and how we conduct ourselves in life," the Yoga Journal explains. "The second limb has to do with self-discipline and spiritual observances."

Each progressive limb adds another physical ability, such as breathing, posing and "sensory transcendence," the Journal says, as it moves up to "uninterrupted flow of concentration" and, finally, "a state of ecstasy."

"It's kind of like the Ten Commandments of yoga," says Jami Larson, who runs the We Are Yoga studio, in Sugar House. "It offers a path of specific study that leads to samadhi, or enlightenment and self-realization."

The practice can enhance religious beliefs, she says, but it is not a religion.

"We really encourage participation from all walks of life — Sunday school teachers, students, atheists," Larsen says. "There is an element of bringing you to your purpose in life, or providing ethics and discussing the grander, more universal themes, but [there is] very little conversation that would be religious."

Marlena Lambert, who has been teaching yoga at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, is emphatic: "The idea of a yoga as religious indoctrination is absolutely ridiculous."

Like others, Lambert recognizes the link to Hindu culture, but, she says, after studying and practicing yoga for some 37 years, she has yet to convert to that faith.

And, though she sympathizes with Hindus who feel that the West has co-opted yoga, that is what every culture does — it borrows from other societies.

"The morphing of meanings and practices happens all the time," Lambert says. "Who owns yoga? Nobody."

For Scott Moore, a longtime yoga instructor in Salt Lake City, "yoga is bigger than yoga, bigger than any religion, even Hinduism."

Yoga can help a person become a better Mormon, Catholic, whatever you are, he says, even a better nonbeliever.

That may be fine for adults, but what about for impressionable children?

Benefits or brainwashing? Linda Mayne, physical education and health specialist with the Utah Office of Education, says she is "not aware of any yoga classes being taught in Utah schools."

However, Mayne says, she recalls a session on yoga at a summer PE conference a few years ago to help "elementary school teachers to put in short breaks [during the day] to get kids moving or stretching."

Moore, who runs Prana Yoga at Trolley Square, has had years of experience introducing these techniques to the young. He teaches at Alianza Academy, a charter school at South Salt Lake's Columbus Center, and at a residential treatment center. He also has taught a class at Judge Memorial Catholic High School and knows colleagues who taught yoga at East High.

With kids, he says, "we are having fun, talking about yoga poses and how it makes you feel good and understand your body better."

Instructors don't go into Hindu teachings, Moore says, but during story time, he might introduce some ancient yoga tales.

"I am sure to mention that this is a myth," he says. "I am not preaching it."

Yoga can benefit kids with substance abuse, Moore says. "It helps them learn to focus and to find self-control."

It worked for Jesse Marett, who work's at Moore's studio.

"Years ago, I was disconnected, detached and hyperactive and caught up in addiction. Yoga has helped me reconnect to myself and to my body," Marett says. "What I personally noticed in the simplest terms is that it made me more grounded, and with a calm demeanor."

The California trial is expected to stretch into late June, but the outcome likely will have little effect on the Beehive State.

In Utah, the Green Tea Yoga effort by a group of yoga teachers will continue to promote the practice, offering training and hoping to reach as many seekers as possible.

It's not about indoctrination, Moore says. It's about giving back.

pstack@sltrib.com

Yoga Rave

The Krishna Temple will hold a yoga festival featuring more than 75 classes, seminars, workshops and music.

When • Friday, June 7, 8 p.m.

Where • Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple, 965 E. 3370 South

Body & soul • It certainly has faith roots, but even Utah Hindus say the practice stretches beyond spirituality.
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