Think Yoga is a Religion? Try Youth Soccer!

The Hindu-American Foundation (HAF) made front page news yesterday with its campaign to Take Back Yoga—an effort to broaden American awareness of Hinduism and its impacts on the history of civilization, including the manifold varieties of yoga now practiced by millions of Americans. Here at RD, we’ve already covered the charge made by Southern Baptist theologians that yoga and Christianity do not mix. But is yoga really a religion?

Not according to my guru. Full disclosure: I am twice-weekly practitioner of Bikram Yoga, the infamous 26-posture, 90-minute, 105-degree brand of hot yoga introduced to America and copyrighted by the eponymous Bikram Choudhury. Copyrighted? Yes, Bikram copyrighted his sequence of 26 postures, much to the chagrin of critics who say you can’t own sacred knowledge. But in the legal filing to copyright yoga, Bikram’s attorneys characterized yoga not as a religion but as something akin to a dance routine.

In their thinky Take Back Yoga treatise, the HAF issues a sort of call for yoga practitioners to… to… do what? It’s not entirely clear. They’re not asking us non-Hindu yoga practitioners to convert to Hinduism, but neither are they asking us to abandon yoga. They do seem to want a little recognition for the religion that started it all, as a way to raise esteem among Hindu-American youth who face broad misunderstanding of their religion. That’s certainly a fair enough request.

But at the core of the Take Back Yoga treatise is an unarticulated problem: how does a culture respond when it finds that its ancient religious rituals have been totally decontextualized from their original settings and recontextualized in American popular culture? It’s a problem familiar to Native Americans, whose religious lexicon—not to mention land base—have been pretty much looted by the colonists. And I’m not even talking about the sport of lacrosse which, yes, originated as a religious ceremony among the Anishinaabe/Ojibwe people of the Great Lakes region.

If there is a sport that is a religion right now, no question, hands down, it’s youth soccer. Soccer is like Saturday morning church in the suburbs. It’s pretty much compulsory. Dutifully we worship the small people wearing the brightly-colored silken vestments. Faithfully we line up to form “spirit tunnels,” touching fingertips with parents from opposing teams. Lovingly we serve juice box and orange slice sacraments. We hand-sew lavish new banners each season, banners we know will expire within a few weeks. Yes, soccer has become as ritualized as High Church Episcopalianism. Except it’s far better attended.