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December 19, 2009

The Debate on Yoga

Yoga Practitioners Should Get Out Their Hymnals and Vedas

By Jessica Peck Corry
Colorodo Springs Gazette

Yoga, marketed as a way to find personal peace through perplexing poses, is now at the center of a growing debate over whether that sweaty Saturday morning of downward-facing dogs should be federally recognized as a religious service.

Owners of yoga studios in at least one state might be chanting a few prayers these days in response to a November decision by the state to collect a 4 percent tax on yoga and Pilates, with the studios classified as commercial in nature and places of “amusement, entertainment, or recreation.”

The move has prompted talk about whether yoga should be classified as a religion, and similar to more conventional sanctuaries, would be exempted from paying federal taxes. While the change could mean substantial cost savings for the industry, yoga’s biggest voices remain opposed or conflicted.

The American Yoga Association insists on its Web site that “yoga is not a religion. It has no creed or fixed set of beliefs. The practice of yoga will not interfere with any religion.” The organization maintains that yoga’s rituals predate Hinduism by centuries, and argues yoga shouldn’t be classified as a religion simply because multiple religions, including Hinduism, have adopted many of its positive teachings.

According to Bresee Sullivan, the analysis is more complicated, with yoga’s teachings allowing for either secular or religious observances. As Sullivan, a 24-year-old married Denver mother, celebrates two milestones this month — finishing law school and becoming certified as a yoga instructor — she believes classifying yoga as a religion would lead to massive confusion, even among its most devout participants, and especially in the law. As she explains, the physical practice of yoga is called Asana, an element that “is just one small subset of a larger philosophy also called yoga. This philosophy also includes a religious component.”

While Sullivan has taken yoga classes for six years, she has “only recently begun exploring the spiritual practice,” and believes that “if you are just seeking to make the physical practice of yoga a religion, you are either discrediting the true meaning of the spiritual study of yoga or you’re granting a workout religious status.”

While political correctness often blurs the line between spirituality and religion, Trisha Feuerstein of the California-based Yoga Research and Education Center argues that yoga is not a religion, telling reporters that “really, it’s a spiritual practice, and we don’t equate spirituality with religion.”

Some of yoga’s most devout former supporters allege that at least one yoga sect is a cult. In an ongoing lawsuit, 26 former followers of Dahn Yoga, allege that Dahn requires “absolute devotion to Defendant Ilchi Lee and his ‘vision’ (requiring) that members dedicate all of their available cash and credit to the Dahn organization... and disconnect from their previous life, including friends and family and any personal interests outside of Dahn.”

Dahn, which was imported from Korea and is practiced at more than 130 centers across the United States, is promoted as a mix of healthy physical and mental exercises blending yoga with tai chi and martial arts. Still, cult experts, including Steve Hassan, aren’t persuaded with Hassan classifying Dahn as a “destructive, deceptive, mind control cult.”

With yoga’s popularity soaring across Colorado, some school districts are getting in on the action, not always greeted with the most favorable response. I

n Aspen, public school parents objected when yoga instruction was introduced to the classroom, saying the move violated federal limits on religious activities in public schools. “You can’t separate the religious from the spiritual,” Aspen pastor Steve Woodrow told reporters, advocating a position in stark contrast to Feuerstein’s. “Why not teach Pilates or aerobics if it’s just stretching?”

Aspen schools now offer a watered down version of the real deal. Instead of closing each session with “Namaste,” a Sanskrit term meaning “the light in you is the light in me,” students close with “peace.” More than 100 schools across the nation offer yoga programs. At New York’s Massena High, parents alleged the school’s yoga program indoctrinated students with Hindu rights. As a result, yoga is out at Massena and a more secular “Raider Relaxation” is in.

On that note, Namaste, peace, or as we say in the non-yoga world, until next time.

Jessica Peck Corry is area lawyer and mother who appears on Fox News. Visit her website at