Opinion: Secularization of School-Based Yoga Programs Displaces Traditional Knowledge

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LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA, June 16, 2020 (LA Times): When Swami Vivekananda brought yoga across the Atlantic to the United States in 1893, he made a pivotal articulation of the practice — one which has had severe implications in how we consume yoga today. At the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, Vivekananda advocated for a kind of spiritual universalism in order to appeal to the multicultural American masses. By defining yoga in terms of an ambivalent spirituality, Eastern philosophy quickly gained positive reception in the West. Flash forward to over a century later, where current estimates determine yoga participation in the U.S. to be around 55 million, according to Statista. It is no exaggeration to call this a second “Age of Aquarius” — 1960s counterculture aesthetics and admiration of Eastern philosophy have seen a revival but in a markedly different way.

Most striking about this new yoga, however, is not its commercialization, but rather a complete change in pedagogy. An emphasis on “mind-body” wellness has, according to research by Mary Grace Antony, restructured yoga into a mindfulness tool rather than a vehicle to unite with the divine. This displacement of yoga from its philosophical origins is especially pronounced in the secular yoga we see in school-based programs. It appears we’ve grown comfortable with the idea that yoga is secular. On one hand, non-religious yoga expands the accessibility and reception of the practice to an otherwise uninvolved population. On the other hand, there is a question raised regarding traditional knowledge and intellectual property: to what extent can yoga be separated from its Vedic origins and still be branded as “yoga?”

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