‘Soul of Yoga’ at Stake in Texas Regulation Push

A vote away from the desk of Texas Governor (and potential 2012 Republican candidate for president) Rick Perry is a bill that has ignited a debate over the so-called “soul of yoga” and who, if anybody, is entitled to regulate it. SB 1176, which recently passed both the Senate and the House committee on Economic & Small Business Development, would exclude yoga from the definition of “post-secondary education,” thus exempting yoga teacher training programs from career school licensing requirements.

For many Texas yogis, nobody is entitled to regulate yoga. Consider the cover of a recent “Belief” section of the Houston Chronicle, which featured an image of Jennifer Buergermeister, a local yoga practitioner, teacher, studio owner, and advocate, in fashionable yoga attire and in the posture of a Hindu goddess, complete (thanks to clever photography) with six arms. Below the image, the headline reads, “THE SOUL OF YOGA.” For those yogis interviewed in the article, yoga is not a mere body practice or commodity. It’s a deeply transformative and vast tradition, beyond the scope of regulation. Many yoga practitioners, including Buergermeister, even describe how yoga has helped them get closer to “God” or “divinity.”

Such a religious understanding has everything to do with the politics of yoga. Since 2009, Buergermeister has led a movement infused with religious discourse opposing laws that require yoga teacher training programs to be licensed by the State of Texas.

Until the last few years, Texas approached the regulation of yoga as it approached the regulation of religious institutions and organizations: it didn’t. But in January of 2010, The Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) informed the program directors of yoga teacher training programs in Houston and Dallas that they may be running career schools as defined by Chapter 132 of the Texas Education Code. They had already sent such letters to directors in Austin. Arguing that the regulation of career schools benefits consumers by monitoring programs, ensuring that they are legitimate businesses, and providing an avenue for student complaints, the TWC requested directors to choose one of the following: apply and secure a career school license at the cost of up to $3,000 per year, close training programs altogether, file for an exemption and secure it, or face a $50,000 fine. The directors were given 14 days to comply.

To be clear, there is no law, nor is the TWC attempting to establish a law, regulating yoga teacher training curriculum. In other words, the TWC is not challenging nor is it providing guidelines for yoga teacher training. The current normative guidelines in the American yoga community are set forth by Yoga Alliance, the national education and support organization. Yoga Alliance has a Yoga Teachers’ Registry and a Registry of Yoga Schools in which it keeps an inventory of those individuals trained and those programs training according to the organization’s minimum standards and curriculum.

But even those standards and curriculum are not uniformly adopted in all teacher training programs across the country, and yoga teacher training will continue to vary whether or not states require career school licensing. Furthermore, programs that directors identify as religious or avocational as well as programs that do not offer marketing or business classes, last less than twenty-four hours, do not result in a degree or certificate, and cost less than $500 are exempt from the licensing requirement.

Nevertheless, concerned that the TWC’s requirement will have undesirable effects on the Texas yoga community, many yogis oppose it. They argue that this is the first step toward requiring all yoga teachers to obtain state licenses. Most importantly, they argue that smaller, locally owned studios and programs would not be able to survive under new restrictions and costs imposed by the TWC, which they suggest will result in higher costs for teacher training and classes, less diversity in the community, and the corporatization of yoga.

So they are fighting back.

Texas yogis hired an attorney and a lobbyist to work on their behalf. Conversations culminated in the formation of a coalition, the Texas Yoga Association (TYA), to advocate against state regulation of yoga. They also wrote letters, made calls to their legislators, and collected over a thousand signatures for a petition in opposition to the TWC’s actions. Their efforts resulted in the introduction of two bills in the Texas legislature. The first, noted above, excludes yoga from the definition of “post-secondary education,” while the second amends the definition of a “career school” to exclude anyone who provides recreational classes that do not lead to an educational credential. This bill has been introduced in the House.

The Texas yogis aren’t the only ones fighting this battle. In Virginia, Wisconsin, and New York, state governments have required vocational licensing for programs training yoga teachers. Some opposition to such attempts has been successful. After the New York State Education Department tried to assess fines on and to require permits from yoga teacher training programs, a group of yogis responded with legislation that successfully exempted yoga teacher training programs from the licensing requirement.

Opponents argue that the law makes no difference with regard to public safety or public good; that states seek to regulate yoga for the sake of revenue alone; and point to the fact that, like yoga, practices deemed avocational or recreational, including martial arts, sewing, and physical fitness, are exempted from state regulation. It’s entirely plausible that yoga, which according to a 2008 study has become a nearly six billion-dollar industry, is being targeted for its potential as a source of revenue. Yogis add that, by targeting yoga and imposing a requirement that would affect small businesses more than corporate ones, the licensing requirement would limit free enterprise, which is acceptable only when the public good or safety is at stake.

And modern yogis often avoid the term “religion” in order to avoid associating yoga with any authoritative institution or doctrine. But as a scholar of religion, I’ve been trained to think more broadly about how to define religion than most people would. And I would say that yoga, whether in the context of an Indian ashram or an American strip mall studio, has religious dimensions. Yogis themselves often point to those dimensions, though they don’t call them “religious,” in opposition to state regulation.

For instance, yogis argue that yoga is a “way of life” that is “handed down from teacher to student” in the “sacred space” of a yoga studio. They point to yoga’s vastness, arguing that no government has the necessary resources to understand or regulate such a complex system. J. Brown, a yoga advocate in New York, argues that yoga is “sacred,” that it is an “all-encompassing whole Truth,” and that it functions to explore the “self, health, and life.”

A broader evaluation of American society’s views on yoga also shows that a significant number attribute religious dimensions to it. Consider a 2009 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which found that 39% of liberals believe yoga is a spiritual practice and 15% of conservatives believe it is a spiritual practice. Furthermore, popular evangelical Christian leaders have proclaimed that Christians should not practice yoga because it is religiously Hindu. Fundamentalist Hindus agree that yoga is indeed Hindu and has been inappropriately co-opted by members of other religions.

Because the politics of yoga is so intimately tied to the religious dimensions, we need to critically examine decisions about what counts as religious for their political implications and real-life consequences. If members of society, both yogis and non-yogis, attribute religious dimensions to yoga, then what does it mean to impose state regulations and/or definitions upon it? The debate has brought questions to light about how one would even formulate a legal definition of yoga—if it’s even possible. Such an attempt to legally define yoga would amount to identifying a bounded tradition of symbols, practices, and ideas, which in reality vary across yoga studios and ashrams within the United States alone.

In short, the problem with any legal definition of yoga, whether for the sake of promoting or preventing regulation, remains: who’s to say what is yoga?

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A. David Lewis is a Ph.D. recipient in Religious Studies from Boston University and the co-editor of Graven Images: Religion in Comic Books and Graphic Novels. He serves as a steering committee member on the “Death and Dying” area of the American Academy of Religion, and he is an Editorial Board member of The International Journal of Comic Art. He teaches in the Humanities at colleges throughout the Greater Boston area.