Interview: Candy Gunther Brown: How I Became an Expert Witness on Yoga and Meditation

Debating Yoga and Mindfulness in Public Schools: Reforming Secular Education or Reestablishing Religion? By Candy Gunther BrownToday we welcome a guest post from Candy Gunther Brown, author of Debating Yoga and Mindfulness in Public Schools:  Reforming Secular Education or Reestablishing Religion?, just published by UNC Press.

Yoga and mindfulness activities, with roots in Asian traditions such as Hinduism or Buddhism, have been brought into growing numbers of public schools since the 1970s. While they are commonly assumed to be secular educational tools, Candy Gunther Brown asks whether religion is truly left out of the equation in the context of public-school curricula. An expert witness in four legal challenges, Brown scrutinized unpublished trial records, informant interviews, and legal precedents, as well as insider documents, some revealing promoters of “Vedic victory” or “stealth Buddhism” for public-school kids. The legal challenges are fruitful cases for Brown’s analysis of the concepts of religious and secular.

Here, Brown discusses her book with UNC Press Publicist Alison Shay, and how she became an expert witness in legal proceedings over the legality of yoga and meditation in the public schools.

Debating Yoga and Mindfulness in Public Schools is available now in both print and ebook editions.


How I Became an Expert Witness on Yoga and Meditation

Alison Shay: When did you first think about testifying as an expert on yoga and meditation?

Candy Gunther Brown:  When I started graduate school at Harvard in 1993, I never imagined studying yoga or meditation, let alone serving as an expert witness in four legal challenges over whether these practices are too religious to be taught in public schools. Neither did I suspect that more lawsuits—over teaching mindfulness and banning yoga—might be on the horizon.

This isn’t to say that I had no prior interest in religion or law. Growing up, I became obsessed with television courtroom dramas: Perry Mason, LA Law, Law & Order, Against the Law, among others. As a Harvard undergraduate, my favorite elective was a constitutional law class at Harvard Law School; the best part was arguing as an attorney before a moot Supreme Court. I majored in History and Literature and somehow always gravitated to religious subjects. I planned to attend law school. I applied and was accepted by Stanford, Harvard, and Yale, and I deferred admission at Yale Law School. I knew I would love law school, but I worried that I would hate the practice of law—and so I decided to first spend a year working as a paralegal. Now that was a self-fulfilling prophecy. It took me less than two weeks to come to detest the politics and billable hours. So, I applied to graduate school and accepted Harvard’s invitation to return and study the History of American Civilization. I again gravitated to religious subjects. I studied many religious and spiritual traditions, but I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation and first book about evangelical Christians who had played an important role in shaping American culture.

AS: What events led up to your first experience testifying as an expert witness?

CGB:  My first two faculty appointments were in departments of History (Vanderbilt University) and American Studies (Saint Louis University). In 2006, I moved into a department of Religious Studies at Indiana University. This shift pushed me to think more comparatively, since I now had colleagues who specialized, for instance, in Hinduism and Buddhism. I wrote and edited several additional books about Christianity for major university presses such as Harvard and Oxford, but I also started writing more about other religious and spiritual traditions. One of these books, The Healing Gods: Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Christian America, was in press, and I was taking a much-needed sabbatical in the UK, when two law-professor colleagues sent me word of a developing legal challenge to public-school yoga in California. They thought I might be interested because Healing Gods includes a chapter on yoga, and the conclusion assesses the constitutionality of public-school programs. I e-mailed book announcements to the lawyers named in news coverage, hoping that my academic research might inform popular discussions. I expected that to be my only involvement. Several weeks later, the lawyer representing concerned parents e-mailed me, asking if I would consider serving as an expert witness. He wanted me to explain academic and legal definitions of “religion” and “yoga” in a written declaration and possibly to testify in court. I had never before served as an expert witness, but I had given many media interviews and public lectures to community audiences in the line of service as a university professor, so I agreed.

AS: Why did you write a book about your expert witness experiences?

CGB:  I planned to conduct some research on the specific yoga program, write up my findings for a short declaration, possibly fly in and out to testify, and move on with my regular work. I did testify in court—for six hours. What I discovered along the way was so much more complex and fascinating than what I anticipated that I devoted six years to writing a book: Debating Yoga and Mindfulness in Public Schools: Reforming Secular Education or Reestablishing Religion?.

AS: How did your first expert witness service lead to subsequent cases?

CGB:  As I became publicly identified with the California yoga trial, parents, school districts, and lawyers in other states and countries contacted me, volunteering their experiences, and asking for my advice. So many of those who sought me out desperately longed to confide in someone about traumatic encounters that no one seemed to understand: teachers who had lost their classrooms for refusing to teach mindfulness, children agonizing that they had disobeyed God by obeying teacher instructions to color a mindful mandala, parents convinced that their children were being forced to commit idolatry by bowing to the sun god.

I accepted three additional invitations to serve as an expert in legal challenges to school programs—testifying for school districts, and consulting with both parents and program leaders. I didn’t opt to charge the first time; as a professor, I’m used to being asked to do extra service without additional payment. I soon realized, however, that learning enough about a specific program to testify as an expert takes many, many hours of preparation. I started accepting compensation—though when parties on both sides of a controversy sought my advice, I offered it without payment from either.

AS: How did you research school yoga and meditation?

CGB:  In the course of my research, I had many formal interviews, mealtime chats, phone calls, and e-mail exchanges with parents, kids, school principals and superintendents, yoga and meditation program leaders, lawyers, reporters, religious leaders in Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Catholic, Protestant, and other spiritual traditions, as well as with atheists and secular humanists. I also read hundreds of promotional and critical texts and observed hours of yoga and meditation.

Personally, I don’t practice yoga or mindfulness, but I respect those who do and share values with them. I teach at a public university and have children in public schools where I volunteer weekly as a competitive speech coach. I appreciate the public education system and applaud the goal of supporting students, parents, teachers, and administrators.

AS: What conclusions did you draw about the school programs you studied?

CGB:  The closer I looked at specific yoga and meditation programs the harder it became not to see how they fit legal definitions of “religion,” despite being advertised as “secular” and “scientific.” The most troubling thing I observed was a lack of transparency and voluntarism. Some program leaders actually boast about their “Vedic Victory” or “Stealth Buddhism.” Kids and teachers may feel pressured to join in—because programs are supposed to be secular and good for everyone. My own kids felt uncomfortable when teachers introduced yoga in gym class, or, in home period, asked everyone to follow along with a video of children meditating with a Tibetan singing bowl.

I’ve concluded that schoolchildren should be free to practice yoga and meditation, but schools shouldn’t force or encourage them—any more than they should nudge kids to pray or read the Bible. Offering programs during regular class-time—even as an “elective” or allowing kids to “opt out”—stamps them with school endorsement. Kids who want approval from teachers and peers may experience subtle, if not direct, coercion to join in. Instead, offer programs before or after school or during lunch recess, and invite kids and teachers to “opt in” rather than requiring them to “opt out.” Finally, don’t just advertise health benefits. Parents and kids deserve to know that they might get injured doing yoga, become more stressed while meditating, or have “spiritual” or “religious” experiences that conflict with their own religions.

My new book offers best practice recommendations to parents and taxpayers, teachers and school administrators, and lawyers and judges. Although my interests in religion and law took a different turn than I imagined 25 years ago, my unusual experiences have allowed me to address timely debates.

AS: Have you summarized any of your findings in online articles or talks?

CGB:  Yes, I have published online articles for The Washington Post, The Conversation, Religion Dispatches, Psychology Today, Huffington Post, and Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.

I also talk about my findings for Tricycle and the American Society of Church History.


Candy Gunther Brown (Ph.D. Harvard University) is Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University and the author or editor of six books. Follow Dr. Brown on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Psychology Today.