Puragreen Productions

Ed Hird, Encinitas, and the Fear of Yoga, an Interview with Anton Drake, Part 2

I bounce some more questions off the author of Atheist Yoga


Hollywood, CA -- (ReleaseWire) -- 05/09/2013 --[USA], May 9th, 2013: This is part two of my interview with Anton Drake, author of the new book Atheist Yoga.

[Q.] “So, there’s been some controversy recently with the Encinitas lawsuits against the teaching of yoga in public schools. Do you have any thoughts on this issue?”

[A.] “Not really.”

[Q.] “Ha. Well, since your book is called Atheist Yoga, and since the Encinitas lawsuits seem to be alleging that yoga is in fact a religious practice and therefore not suitable for a public school setting, I thought you might have some thoughts on the matter.”

[A.] “I really don’t find it all that interesting, to be honest. My book is aimed at what I would call the more ‘hardcore’ practitioners or yoga, and atheists.”

[Q.] “Well, I recently read an article by the Reverend Ed Hird in which he made a somewhat forceful case that yoga is in fact an explicitly religious activity; this is very close to what the plaintiffs in the Encinitas lawsuit seem to be alleging as well. It also seems to be a position that is diametrically opposed to what you are advancing in your book.”

[A.] “I have in fact read Reverend Hird’s article. But again, I can’t say there is much overlap with the content of my book. Think of it this way: if someone is an atheist, they lack a belief in God. Also, we might also say that they lack a personal mandate or inner motivation to force themselves to believe or to pretend that they believe in God—if we examine the situation carefully we can see that this is perhaps the more interesting distinction; not whether or not one ‘believes’ or ‘has faith,’ however we might quantify that, but whether someone feels obligated to try to believe or to ‘act like’ they believe. Anyway, not to get off the point here, but from the perspective of an atheist, there are no spiritual polarities or forces at work, no push and pull between the divine and the demonic; yoga, to the extent that it exists and is a pleasing and healthful activity that increases contentment, peace and inner calm just is what it is. From an atheist perspective, there must of course be an atheistic way of understanding what yoga is; my book simply seeks to fill that gap and to further an understanding of the art of yoga from the perspective of atheism.”

[Q.] “Ok, but you still haven’t told me what you think about the Encinitas yoga lawsuit.”

[A.] “Right. And to be honest I don’t really know the particulars of that lawsuit; from what I understand the plaintiffs are Christian, and they feel that yoga represents an alternate religious teaching of sorts. From the Ed Hird article, I think it was called ‘Yoga: More than meets the eyes?’ if I’m not mistaken, he seems to be taking the position that even though there may not be any explicit mystical or metaphysical yoga teachings taking place, no sermons, prayers, mantras or that sort of thing, he feels very strongly that the yoga postures and exercises are themselves implicitly religious and deeply significant spiritually, having evolved from a Hindu culture and therefore themselves being Hindu, and possessing some kind of spiritual force that is intrinsically opposed to Christianity. To be honest, although I am what you might call a dogmatic atheist, I find the reverend Hird’s ideas on this matter to be quite prejudicial, and even somewhat racial and xenophobic; in any case, they can really only be made sense of by someone who is deeply enmeshed in a similar religious worldview. To an atheist such ideas appear nonsensical or crazy, and these ideas are probably likewise incomprehensible to most Indians.”

[Q.] “Can you explain?”

[A.] “Sure. I mean, first of all, in my experience Hindu culture is very inclusive and peaceful in nature. Many of the Hindu friends that I’ve had through the years have actually kept a picture or a statue of Jesus on their altar or puja, right next to the other pictures of gurus and deities they revered. That always impressed me; although in my early days of practicing yoga I was usually just chasing the fun of it and didn’t think too deeply about the philosophical aspects, this always struck me as a very sophisticated attitude toward things. I remember that when I happened to be staying in an ashram, on Christmas there would invariably be a big celebration, you know, a nice meal, decorations, chanting and so forth, and I’ve heard yoga gurus speak at length on Jesus, saying some very thoughtful and kind things about Jesus at Christmas time—that he in essence represented pure love and what is best in mankind, that he should be regarded as a divine incarnation, and this kind of thing. Again, this is neither here nor there, and I am in fact a complete dogmatic atheist, so I am certainly not the one to comment on the theological aspects of all this. I’m just mentioning it because in my experience I found that to be very highly evolved; utterly devoid of sectarianism or religious jealousy, and multicultural in a way that most westerners cannot really fathom. What first struck me about the Rev. Hird’s article was that he immediately made the leap from saying that yoga had some ties to Indian culture or Hinduism, directly to the conclusion that it was therefore evil or demonic in origin, and that it ‘kills the mind’ and so forth. It’s somewhat laughable, really; he even mentions that he began with the practice of martial arts, and then later had the insight that the poses and movements of martial arts, as well as those of yoga, were somehow imprinting a spiritual culture upon his mind that was alien to his intrinsically ‘Western’ nature and to what he calls the ‘lordship of Jesus.’ So he’s essentially saying that because yoga or the martial arts come from Asia and are ancient in origin, that they therefore pose a direct spiritual danger—they represent illicit demonic or sectarian forces being smuggled into western culture in the guise of mere exercises, which then have the power to imprint upon the misguided Christian soul the sinister debauches of Asian spirituality. He of course takes it completely for granted that any spiritual tradition outside of Christianity or western culture is intrinsically evil and antithetical to every form of goodness. To be blunt about this, I’m quite sure that if we ask him he will also say that Pokemons, Sushi, Thai massage, Boba Tea, Anime cartoons, Indian curry, Chai tea and the music of Psy are also demonic in nature and also represent spiritual hazards for Christians. On another level, I cannot help but think that this is also to some extent because yoga and Eastern spirituality are in a sense far more evolved than Western religion; I mean, for at least ten years Catholic friends of mine have been telling me that when they go to Catholic retreats they are being taught Zen meditation, yoga stretching and deep breathing by the nuns or priests there; so the techniques of yoga, which as Rev. Hird admits are primarily physical and do not require any faith or indoctrination for their practice, are already being co-opted into Western religious traditions, for the simple fact that they work. This fact also contains a big hint about where Rev. Hird is really coming from.”

[Q.] “What do you mean?”

[A.] “Well, we know that yoga philosophy evolved from Samkhya, the oldest of the Vedic schools of philosophy, which was in fact atheistic. Patanjali added the idea of God to the equation and thereby an explicitly spiritual or religious aspect. Through the years various groups have made superficial imprints upon the art and have tried to claim it or to bend it to their purposes; in his own way, Rev. Hird represents something similar, which is voiced by the intuitive recognition that, ‘hey, these techniques are powerful and they change people’s bodies and minds for the better, but as xyzists we have to remember that everything we do must give credit and glory to xzy, and that must always be the main priority.’ Because if your religion doesn’t mention yoga, or know about yoga, then how can you explain the great results people are getting with yoga or meditation? If ‘God,’ so to speak, didn’t mention yoga in his treatise on x-y-z-ism, how can it be effective? This necessitates reframing yoga or meditation as dangerous or demonic, or representing it as an alien spiritual tradition of some sort; it’s actually a somewhat predictable cultural immune response. We can go further and easily predict that at some point in the future a modified form of the ‘healthy stretching and calisthenics,’ that Rev. Ed describes will be rebranded as explicitly Christian. One can easily imagine that in 200 years time there will be explicitly Christian forms of yoga that might be quite common, and will shamelessly use every opportunity to influence the beliefs of their practitioners. In fact the online debate on this issue of ‘Christian yoga’ seems to be taking place on precisely this level: whether or not yoga can be rebranded as something explicitly Christian or, having come to us from the deepest and most ancient regions of Asia, is irretrievably and intrinsically alien and non-western, and therefore antithetical to Christianity. I think that on some level Rev. Hird understands this; his concern is clearly the furtherance of Christianity, and if anything he is pushing back against the ostensible benefits or perceived value of yoga more than anything else, seeking to discredit them as a form of dark Asian magic and warn people away from them. Although his article is fairly well written and seems to make some good points on the surface, if one looks a bit closer it reveals itself as absurdly, almost comically xenophobic; simply consider how easy it would be to apply the same arguments he uses to sushi, origami, or Asian forms of dance. At its core yoga, like all great arts, is a uniquely human activity, which has evolved from the extended introspection and innovation of its more outstanding singular practitioners throughout history. Any cultural ornamentation it might seem to possess are simply the natural charm and flavor of its geographical and human origins; at bottom, however, the things that are most valuable in the art are, and must always be, universal in scope and nature, and it is precisely these aspects of yoga that are its true core. Schoolchildren should obviously be allowed to learn yoga; restricting western children from learning yoga on the basis of religion is barbaric, and not just from an atheistic point of view. Imagine if we didn’t let students see the Mona Lisa because DaVinci was a Catholic, for instance, or didn’t let them read Dante’s Inferno, or if we concealed the Egyptian pyramids from them or forbid the writing of Haiku poetry; intuitively, we recognize how absurd this would be, because the substance of such art transcends by far any and all religious or sectarian distinctions.”

[Q.] “Thanks for talking with me.”

[A.] “You’re welcome.”

The book Atheist Yoga by Anton Drake is currently on sale on Amazon.com in both paperback and electronic format, and was released March 24th, 2013.