Debating Yoga and Mindfulness in Public Schools: Reforming Secular Education or Reestablishing Religion?

By Candy Gunther Brown | Go to book overview

Chapter 4
Modern Ashtanga Yoga

Although many people associate yoga primarily with āsanas, or physical postures, modern postural yoga is relatively recent. Prior to the 1920s, āsanas played at most a subordinate role in most yoga. No single individual exerted a greater influence on modern postural yoga than Shri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888–1989) in Mysore, India, who taught several of the most prominent yoga teachers of the twentieth century. One of Krishnamacharya’s disciples was Shri Krishna Pattabhi Jois (1915–2009), reputed developer of modern Ashtanga (Aṣṭāṅga), or eight-limbed, yoga. Although other yoga forms contribute to the contemporary American yoga scene, this chapter focuses on Ashtanga for two reasons. First, Ashtanga is widely practiced and influences other yoga styles. Second, the constitutionality of teaching Ashtanga yoga in public schools was challenged in Sedlock v. Baird (2013; 2015), analyzed in the following three chapters.

Jois’s purpose for Ashtanga yoga is samādhi, defined as becoming “one with God.” Ashtanga pursues this spiritual goal through an apparently physical practice: āsanas, the most important of which are Sūrya Namaskāra (Sun Salutations)—identified by Jois as prayer to the sun god, Surya (Supreme Light)—and Padmāsana (Lotus) and Savāsana (“taking rest” in Corpse), postures conducive to meditation and enlightenment. Ashtanga came to the United States in 1975—arriving first in Encinitas, California, site of Sedlock. Ashtanga attracted wealthy devotees, among them Sonia Jones, who created Jois Yoga and the Jois Foundation (rebranded Sonima in 2013, Pure Edge in 2016)—the mission of which is to bring Jois’s philosophy to youth in public schools. The Jois Foundation partnered with Florida charter schools and California’s Encinitas Union School District (EUSD) to pilot a yoga curriculum.

This chapter narrates the history of Ashtanga yoga and its popularization in America. It explains how Ashtanga exemplifies an experiential model of religion in which practitioners envision physical practices as transforming beliefs and achieving spiritual goals. The chapter argues that teaching Ashtanga yoga in public schools raises constitutional questions because Ashtanga yoga exhibits the Malnak-Meyers indicia of religion.

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