Is Ashtanga yoga a religious practice?

According to a bunch of parents whose children are getting trained in it – it is. Some private institution with the mission of promoting Ashtanga yoga gave a public school district a half million dollars to fund a program to teach it. Apparently, depending on who you talk to, it’s exercise, spiritualism, philosophy, or religion.

My first thought when I saw the headline was that some grumbling Christians were upset at the very idea of something that sounded vaguely “pagan” or just not Jesussey enough. But I understand that’s a personal bias I have, and the story, if the allegations are true, suggests that maybe there are in fact religious attributes to at least this particular form of yoga, which IMO has no place in public schools.

But my ignorance in this area is pretty complete. What do you folks think?

I don’t think there is a strict line between philosophy and religion. It’s more of a continuum, depending on the ratio between the concrete and the arcane. You can definitely isolate physical yoga into just the exercises, and have it still be a complete and worthwhile activity on its own, but you can’t ignore that it comes from a tradition that is also associated with more spiritual, and even in some cases, supernatural material.

Sort of like, you can have secular Christmas with Christianity.

I would be concerned about whether it’s being taught with some of its historical baggage, but if done intelligently its a fantastic practice that is incredibly beneficial.

It also annoys me that parents are complaining that it takes away from PE time as it is a particularly vigorous form of yoga. You definitely break into sweat performing the poses.

Terms can be slippery. The Sanskrit term aṣṭāṅga means ‘eight limbs’. No, it has nothing to do with arachnids. It refers to the eight progressive stages of yoga practice described by Patañjali:

  1. yama (don’ts)
  2. niyama (dos)
  3. āsana (seat/posture)
  4. prāṇāyāma (breath control)
  5. pratyāhāra (withdrawal of external attention)
  6. dhāraṇā (concentration)
  7. dhyāna (meditation)
  8. samādhi (transcendence)

As you can see, there is nothing specifically religious in this schema. An atheist can carry it out as well as a religionist. This schema forms a theoretical basis for various kinds of elaborations of yoga practice; many of them are religious.

That said, the term has also been used, capitalized as “Ashtanga,” in the name of a particular yoga organization. I don’t know much about them. They may well be a religious form of yoga. They aren’t necessarily. In the context of that organization, “Ashtanga” is a brand name. But classical aṣṭāṅga yoga theory is something completely different from this one group’s brand name.

The problem is obviously that anything short of the kids themselves ratting out the instructors, it’s not going to be proveable what some weirdo teacher’s intentions are.
Remember this is grade schools, not liberal college campuses with self righteous professors pedaling their own agenda.s

Ultimately, whether religious, spiritual or physical, it shouldn’t be in schools.
Normal P.E. classes and sports is fine. Kids goto school to learn in a structured environment about subjects that affect life and careers with no specific focus until they reach a certain age.

If Yoga is allowed, then so should be Tae Bo and Pilates right???
To which I would further say, why on Earth would anyone have a mission to promote Ashtanga yoga? - especially at that cost?
Would you spend that kind of money to promote Pilates?
No…I didn’t think so…

Smells of ulterior motive to me.

It can be used in a religious way, but most places don’t. It is used as a physical activity with some mild psychological/spiritual/meditation aspects (clear your mind of everything…, focus your breathing…, etc.)

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And the spiritual component is beyond anything a public school should teach. And I like Saraya’s idea. Why this specific brand rather than a general program of yoga?

And why does it matter if it’s really spiritual? I know many Christians who object to yoga in general due to it’s spiritual origins. Why should those kids be forced to violate their religion? Sometimes that type of forcing is okay (like stopping ritual sacrifice or something like that) but what’s the benefit here that can’t be met with alternatives?

Ashtanga is also used as a term for a particular set / style of physical yoga in some places - I wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case here, just as yoga refers to a larger set of practices, but is more often used colloquially in the west to just mean the physical poses.

I don’t see any problem with doing Tae Bo or Pilates in gym class. PE in its current form is pretty lame, and often doesn’t involve much actual fitness.

Yoga is incredibly great for fitness and general well being. I’d rather have my kids doing that than playing volleyball.

Objecting to it on religious grounds is like objecting to basketball for its origins.