Schools, Yoga & the Religion Issue

What began as a local story of a few California parents objecting to classroom yoga has, over the past couple weeks, ballooned into one of national interest, garnering mainstream media coverage.

According to the original North County Times article about the dissent, the parents and a lawyer voiced concerns to Encinitas Union School District trustees that the yoga program now in elementary schools amounts to “religious indoctrination” and “violates religious freedom.”

The program is funded by the Jois Foundation, and its impact will be studied by researchers from UC San Diego.

“Yoga practices and poses are not merely exercise; they’re religious practices,” said Marsha Qualls, who has a student at Olivenhain Pioneer Elementary School, calling the techniques “a kind of prayer.”

Some of the parents said they have already asked to have their children removed from the classes.

“I will not allow my children to be indoctrinated by this Hindu religious program,” said Andy Vick, who has three daughters at Mission Estancia. “Because of this, you’re forcing me to segregate my children.”

Vick said some of the children who are pulled from the yoga classes are ostracized and bullied, comparing the situation to Nazi Germany.

Happily, an informal survey of responses to the story shows cooler heads prevailing. People understand that the Encinitas program, like Yoga Calm, is wholly secular, including no Sanskrit, chanting or religious concepts. At the same time, though, all the new conversation about yoga and religion can seem to some as though it’s a matter of debate – something about which reasonable people can disagree without coming to blows (or invoking Nazis).

The title of a post at Elephant Journal puts it bluntly: “Yoga in Schools Is Not a Religious Practice.”

We totally understand the exasperation embodied by that title. Yet we also understand how there can still be confusion amongst those outside the yoga and education communities.

Yoga evolved over thousands of years in the context of the spiritual and religious traditions of India. The first Western expressions of the practice were often from teachers who were also practicing one of the many forms of Hinduism, Sikhism or Buddhism. Old styles evolved and new ones developed, likewise influenced by the culture in which they arose. Consequently, yoga as practiced by most in the US today is overwhelmingly focused on the physical practice of poses and breath work.

We have been fortunate in that through more than 10 years of teaching Yoga Calm and with more than 3000 teachers using it in public schools, we have had very few instances of teachers, staff, administrators or parents objecting to its use. When the issue has arisen, we’ve insisted that

when schools are looking at adding any new activity, a key consideration is to determine its appropriateness, not just lump it into a category because of its name or to disqualify it because something like it once was used in a religious context. In fact, if one-time spiritual or religious practice were the criterion for disallowing an activity in public schools, we would have to stop activities such as choir, lacrosse and character education programs. Even writing classes would have to be banned, for they have their roots back in the day when only monks were taught to write so they could transcribe bible and hymn verses.

For more tips on navigating the issue in your own school district, see our previous post, as well as Lisa Flynn’s helpful article at Elephant Journal.

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9 Responses to Schools, Yoga & the Religion Issue

  1. Lisa says:

    Excellent article. This is especially interesting comment…”if one-time spiritual or religious practice were the criterion for disallowing an activity in public schools, we would have to stop activities such as choir, lacrosse and character education programs. Even writing classes would have to be banned…” How true!

    The school in CA actually had a yoga program integrated before Jois Foundation with no issue. I think the key lesson here is that school yoga and mindfulness programs need to really think through their presentation to ensure it’s school-appropriate. In addition, communication and transparency with parents is a must. Thank you for sharing this post and link to your tips and our recent Elephant Journal article as it relates to this issue.

  2. Rachel C says:

    Yoga is offered at my daughter’s Catholic college prep school. I’m amused that any parent would object to their child learning yoga – especially free of charge!

  3. Jackie says:

    Yoga is such a help with focusing kids. If the kids have fun and it is helping them, I fail to see the problem – other than some people love problems (and they should also do Yoga).

  4. Pingback: Parenting - A Blog Roundup - October • Mom's Choice Matters

  5. Mary W says:

    The problem is that it all depends on who is doing the instruction. Yoga, if done for anything other than the physical benefit, necessarily has a “spiritual” or “emotional” benefit. I stopped allowing my child to participate in the Yoga Calm program at our Catholic School when the description of what they did that week was simply too similar to prayer and ritual. I don’t know if what they did was part of the Yoga Calm program or was just the teachers “doing their own thing,” but that was the last straw for my husband and me. I am sure there are really good yoga instructors out there who focus on the physical benefits of it. But don’t ignore the fact that there are also “yogis” out there who do view it as a religion or spiritual practice and believe that is the primary benefit of it. Parents have every right to object to these people instructing their children in yoga. The devil is in the details.

  6. Yoga Calm says:

    As a matter of fact, this is an issue we addressed in an earlier post on the topic: http://yogacalm.wordpress.com/2009/12/07/yoga-and-religion/

    In that post, we share and comment on of the most thoughtful posts we’ve yet run across on the Christian objection to yoga – one that provides a reasonable and rational model for making those objections known. As we wrote,

    We commend the mother for taking those concerns to the teacher – and the teacher for working with the mother to ensure that the practice of yoga in the classroom in no way infringed on anyone’s personal faith or spiritual practice.

    The post also highlights why, in developing Yoga Calm, it was so important for us to make it a wholly secular program. It uses no Sanskrit, meditation, chanting or religious concepts. Children are never asked to empty their minds or to think or say anything other than, “I am strong; I am in control; I can do it; I can be responsible.” Consequently, in our seven years of teaching it to children and with nearly one thousand teachers currently using Yoga Calm in public schools, we have had very few instances of teachers, staff, administrators or parents objecting to its use.

  7. Mary W says:

    I am not challenging the claim that Yoga Calm is was designed to be secular in nature. Rather, I am pointing out that Yoga Calm has no way of policing what is said by the instructors in class. You can write the program to be as secular as it can be, but if the instructors want to inject their own “spirituality,” they can. Yoga Calm needs to acknowledge that parents can have legitimate concerns about the way the program is being taught at their school and that the problem is not necessarily the parents but the instructors.

    At our school, the students are taught to think and say more than, “I am strong; I am in control; I can do it; I can be responsible.” For instance, in one of our classes, the children were instructed to “think good thoughts” (which can be legitimately construed as the secular humanist alternative to prayer) and then told to “bow to seal in their goodness” (sounds like a religious ritual to me). Based on your post above, I assume this is not part of the Yoga Calm program and was something the instructors at our school added on their own. Which supports my point that Yoga Calm has no way of knowing whether the instructors at any particular school are deviating from the program.

  8. Jeff C says:

    I have wrestled with the idea of is Yoga calm teaching a religion or not. After studying and researching this I am now fully opposed to it. I understand the creators of it have tried to take the religion out but I think that is impossible. As pointed on this page it has “.. evolved over thousands of years in the context of the spiritual and religious traditions of India.” So you aren’t teaching the religion per se, but you are teaching the principles of it and the traditions. Much like the old saying: “You can take a boy out of the country but you can’t take the country out of a boy.”

    If a school were to teach the 9 commandments – remove the first and tweaking the others to remove God (2 could be don’t swear and 3 could be you should have a day of rest) I suspect the opposition would quite loud with numerous lawsuits. [Just look at any criticism of Darwinism for an example of the fierce opposition.]

  9. Yoga Calm says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful response. The religion issue is a complex one, with many opinions among Christians alone, as we’ve written about before (http://yogacalm.wordpress.com/2009/12/07/yoga-and-religion/). That’s also the idea underlying this terrific article we recently read on the Christianity Today site: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/september/should-yoga-be-banned-from-public-schools-as-religious-acti.html. As one of the writers of this piece suggests, context is everything:

    Try telling any Christian who practices yoga that it can’t be extracted from its ostensibly Hindu roots. They will likely point to the physical benefits of posture, breathing, and so on, while denying that there has to be any spiritual content to it.

    Then go tell a Hindu apologist that, in fact, yoga has roots in early-20th-century British “physical culture” and was an Indian reaction to the YMCA’s attempt to Christianize India through importing Swedish stretching (as Mark Singleton argues in his excellent book, Yoga Body). They will not like that story much.

    The fact is, though, that whether yoga is a religious practice has a good deal to do with who is leading the particular event and what it involves.

    Just as choir singing is religious when done in church, it doesn’t remain a religious practice when done in a secular setting, for and with a secular purpose.

    Or to follow your analogy of the 10 Commandments, many character education programs are, in fact, derived from them. Yet you hear no uproar over such programs in the schools.

    Ultimately, the courts have ruled that yoga is not a religious practice: http://articles.latimes.com/2013/jul/01/local/la-me-ln-yoga-ruling-20130701

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