Yoga a “Distinctly American Cultural Phenomenon,” California Judge Decrees

Though its roots are in India, American yoga is a whole different thing

Photo: Lyn Tally

Yoga is as American as apple pie, or American cheese, said California Judge John Meyer, decreeing that yoga “is a distinctly American cultural phenomenon.”

The ruling came about from a court case, leveled by parents against a California public school, who claimed that a kid-friendly version of yoga used as part of the school’s gym classes equated to “an unconstitutional promotion of Eastern religions,” says the Chicago TribuneNBC:

Parents of two children in the Encinitas Union School district in San Diego County sued the district because they claim the Ashtanga yoga classes being offered in place of more traditional physical education instruction indoctrinate the children. But on Monday afternoon, Judge John S. Meyer ruled in favor of the school district.

Deeming yoga American may seem like cultural appropriation by court ruling, but Judge John Meyer’s point has truth to it: America has a long, and odd, fascination with yoga.

The fundamental purpose of yoga in India, says the New York Times, “ is identified as one of the six main schools of classical philosophy as well as a form of intellectual training, ethical behavior, meditation, alternative medicine and physical culture. (The Sanskrit word itself means “union,” of the individual self with the cosmic Self.)”

But just like apple pie, America’s yoga is nothing but a spin-off of the long history of yoga in the world. And, like American cheese, America’s yoga has abandoned much of what makes yoga what it is—including the implicit religious connotations. The history of yoga in America as described in a recent book, says the Economist, is an example of “the country’s ability to assimilate just about anything.”

“The strange history of yoga in America show, even the most esoteric and ancient spiritual tradition mutates weirdly when it meets a modern culture pursuing happiness with ever diverse means,” says the New York Times.

Rather than a religious experience meant to help you align yourself with the universe, over time yoga in America became a part of the “secular therapeutic culture of America’s liberal elites.”

As early as 1969, Syman writes, “yoga was something the hippies had in common with their putative enemies: the middle-class conformist, the corporate drone, the happy housewife.”

So where yoga is, in its roots, a religious practice, the American version is tied more to Starbucks and Lululemon than the “cosmic Self.”

More from

A Preview of the World’s First Exhibition on Yoga in Art (Photos)

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.