Saturday, February 23, 2013

Yoga in Schools = Religion in Schools? Really?

The Jois Foundation in the US has started a program to teach yoga in schools.  This is apparently a huge issue to some people, to the point where there is a lawsuit and all sorts of kerfuffle, because it is being taken as a way to push eastern religions on young children.  If you want more of the back story, I have been reading it at the Confluence Countdown blog.  There was an uproar a few months ago, and now again, and the whole thing baffles me, especially some of the information in this post

The big issues for me in this scenario are twofold.
1.  Is yoga religious?
2.  How do you get people past the plethora of misconceptions that people often have about yoga (ie: it is a Hindu practice)?

To tackle the first one, and I certainly can't speak for everyone here, but something that I really liked about yoga when I first began is that there was no push for it to be about any God.  I think there was a Ganesha in the first shala that I practised in, but I don't actually even remember.  Clearly the "Hindu brainwashing" didn't work.  Even after being to Mysore and studying at the KPJAYI shala four times, I don't feel Hindu at all.  I like going into Hindu temples, and I have a particular fondness for Ganesha, but I also really like going into beautiful old churches with stained glass windows.  I haven't been inside a mosque, but I do appreciate their magnificence from the outside, and the haunting sound of the call to prayer used to call me to my yoga mat when I lived in Indonesia.   Oh, and I enjoy Buddhist temples as well, especially the prayer wheels that you spin to send the prayers out into the universe.  So what does that make me?  I can safely say that even with four and a half years of committed Ashtanga yoga practice, I haven't turned into a Hindu.  I think of the idea of isvara pranidhana, surrender to god, as a choice.  Hindus can worship more than one deity; there may be a Ganesha, Lakshmi and Hanuman (for example) all in their personal puja room.  Christians or Muslims or anyone else can choose the name for their god that is appropriate to their personal belief and still practice surrender to that source of divinity as an aspect of yoga.  To answer my main question about whether or not yoga is religious, I would have to say no.  It is a practice which encourages growth in the areas of faith and devotion and surrender, but there is nothing I have seen or experienced in yoga that dictates who you may or may not worhsip, or how to go about doing so, which seems to be the main premise of organised religion.

What about the  misinformation that surrounds yoga, especially in these circumstances?  How can the yoga community address that?  In the second link you see in the first paragraph of this post, there is a list of some of the complaints that people have with the yoga program in schools, one of which is that it is taught in "Hindu language."  That confused me.  What the heck is Hindu language?   Are they referring to Hindi?  Which is spoken throughout India by people of all religions?  (And if there are yoga teachers who have learned Hindi to teach their classes they are certainly going the extra mile...)  Maybe they are referring to Sanskrit, which is indeed an ancient language that many Hindu texts were originally written in, but an awful lot of non religious writing comes in Sanskrit too.  Complaining about Sanskrit would be like complaining about the use of Latin (used in many religious texts as well, no?), and even my rural Alberta high school had a Latin motto emblazoned on the gymnasium wall and the school hoodies.  Yes yoga posture names are indeed originally in Sanskrit, but to say for example, "Hanumanasana" gives away less about Hinduism than saying "monkey jumping across the ocean to defeat the evil bad guy posture."  If people are going to go to such an effort to make a fuss, why don't they do even the simplest of research first?  This language bit is just one example of the silliness.  I don't know how these classes are being taught, but if they resemble at all a traditional Ashtanga class, there can't be too much religious indoctrination happening.  Thinking of my friends from all over the world in the yoga community, hundreds of people, I can only think of a few who would identify as Hindu.  Just saying.

To me, yoga for kids is a great idea, and something I would have loved when I was growing up.  Childhood obesity is undoubtedly on the rise, and children don't seem to be getting enough time in their schools for physical education anymore, but it would almost be better if the Jois Foundation could make it into a free extra-curricular activity.  The movement, breathing, and concentration aspects of a yoga practice are undoubtedly good for children, as well as the fact that it is entirely non-competitive, but sounds like parents just want the option of getting their kids involved or not.  Why such a hullabaloo though?  I simply don't understand.     

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Eating Animals

It has been over two months since I last posted, oops.  My mum wrote me a message the other day asking what happened to my blog, and thought maybe I had changed something without telling her.  Nope.  Just busy? lazy? not that interesting, therefore have nothing to write about?  I have considered shutting this little blog down altogether, because I do wonder from time to time why anything that I have to say would be of any importance to anyone else, but I'll set aside that nagging feeling of this all being a bit silly and try and be better about writing something more often.

Since arriving back in Bondi, things have been a bit hectic, with having to try and find a place to live in high season, sort out some visa/immigration issues, get back to work, start a course, and recently recover from the plague (aka summer cold/flu).  Nothing thrilling in there that needs to be shared on the internet.  However, this course that I am taking (a mind numbing excuse for an education) is only moments away from the library, so it has inspired me to get back into a regular schedule of borrowing books.  At the moment I am averaging about two a week, but yesterday I finished something that strongly affected me,  'Eating Animals' by Jonathan Safran Foer.  This is the author behind some quality fiction, works like 'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close', and also 'Everything is Illuminated', but here he takes on the mission of discovering what it actually means to eat animals, as he steps into fatherhood and has the massive task of considering what is best to feed his child.  He writes from the perspective of curious consumer, as explains that through his life he has dabbled in vegetarianism, but never stuck to it, and looks at the research process as a way of finding some answers about the role of meat in a modern diet from a cultural, agricultural, and environmental perspective.  This is not written as an evangelistic vegan treatise; nothing is much more annoying to read than  a severely one-sided argument with a sole intent of converting the masses, but he does present a lot of facts and testimonies that make it pretty hard to consider how the modern taste for mass consumption of flesh has any virtue whatsoever.  Check out 

I have been a vegetarian for over ten years, something that started when I was in high school biology, and the assignment was to dissect a fetal pig.  I looked at that little pig and couldn't tell how it was different than maybe a puppy, or even really a human fetus, and had to walk out of class in tears.  I grew up on a farm, a dairy, and I had to help my dad from the time I was very small, and for a long time it didn't quite correlate in my brain that these creatures, with their big, long lashed eyes, and swishing tails and distinct individual personalities were the same things that we put on our plates at dinner.  Something about seeing that fetal pig made that connection, and I went home from school that day and told my family that I was no longer eating red meat. They assumed it was a phase and I became the family laughingstock at dinnertime.  About a year later, I stopped eating animals altogether, unable to decide on what qualifier made it morally acceptable to eat some flesh and not others.  Flesh is flesh.  A corpse is a corpse.  I gave up on ever trying to really 'convert' anyone, because it is pretty apparent that unless you are committed to something for your own reasons, it won''t actually stick.  This post may be the closest I am coming to trying to change any one's mind, but more than that, get informed.  If you have ever thought about the impact of your food choices, please read this book.  If you think it is all a bunch of hype, that factory farms aren't so bad, read this book.  If you have ever wondered about where all the poo from all those creatures goes, read this book.  It gives you a lot of answers to questions that you might not have even considered yet, and if it leaves you feeling OK about the idea of things being fine just as they are, you must have a much stronger stomach than me.

"Perhaps in the back of our minds we already understand, without all the science I've discussed, that something terribly wrong is happening. Our sustenance now comes from misery. We know that if someone offers to show us a film on how our meat is produced, it will be a horror film. We perhaps know more than we care to admit, keeping it down in the dark places of our memory-- disavowed. When we eat factory-farmed meat we live, literally, on tortured flesh. Increasingly, that tortured flesh is becoming our own."              
(Jonathan Safran Foer)

It is a bit funny really, that for the amount of books I read, I very rarely mention them on here; out of 150 (ish) posts, there are about three on books, one of them is about Michael Pollan's "In Defense of Food".  Why are these books on food getting me fired up enough to write blog posts about???  When you stop and think about the old saying that we are what we eat, it rings a little too true.  You put things in your mouth for nourishment and pleasure, and they become your flesh, the skin and bones and muscle that you walk around in every day of your life.  People consider what their clothing is made of, what their houses are made of, what their dishes are made of, but one of the most important decisions you can probably make is regarding what you eat.  What are you actually made of?  It is a big question, one that is worthy of a fair bit of consideration, in my humble opinion.

If I keep writing, I run the risk of sounding like the exact type of hysterical cow hugger that vegetarians can be stereotyped as, so I will quit writing before I head too far in that direction.  But please, read the book, and then think for yourself. 

"While it is always possible to wake a person who's sleeping, no amount of noise will wake a person who is pretending to be asleep."              
(Jonathan Safran Foer)