Yoga in pandemic times: fitness or religion?

A legal case in Switzerland is once again raising the question of the religious nature of yoga and similar practices, especially during a public health crisis. A yoga studio in the Swiss canton of Aarau has refused to shut its doors despite federal sanitary regulations temporarily banning sport and fitness activities, including yoga and dance studios. Yoga teacher David Scherwey considers his work a spiritual activity to which the country’s rules allowing religious meetings with adequate distance and an upper limit of 50 participants should apply, according to reports in the Swiss media. While yoga and similar practices have been a matter of dispute in a variety of countries and contexts (e.g., in regard to the permissibility of teaching yoga at public schools), the case also touches on wider issues of the boundaries of religion in a time of individualized spiritual practices, writes Simon Hehli in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (February 5). On the welcome page of his yoga studio’s website, Scherwey stresses that his teaching has nothing to do with “sports yoga” and asserts the spiritual dimension of yoga to be central.

Moreover, he states that the physical presence of yoga students is necessary to create a sacred space in which individuals can experience themselves as transcendental beings, something that a livestream class cannot replace. Because of this spiritual dimension, Scherwey claims that his yoga studio should enjoy the same measure of freedom granted to religious meetings despite the pandemic. In a legal brief made available on Scherwey’s website, lawyer Patrick Villoz agrees that a 2013 decision of the Swiss Federal Court had considered some yoga exercises to be permissible at a kindergarten only to the extent that they were purely physical and not associated with any religious or sacred symbols.

Drmirshak, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons.

Scherwey has insisted precisely that such practices be explicitly and openly spiritual, however. But such an argument has not convinced the local authorities, who argue that the simple claim that a practice is religious does not constitute sufficient grounds for making it a religion. The police have intervened to close the doors of the studio, but Scherwey has announced that he will not give up, and it looks likely that some judges will once again have to deal with the definition of religion and the nature of yoga.

(Website of Yoga Atelier (in German):