I heard on the radio yesterday morning that parents of schoolchildren in California are preparing to sue their school district over a new program of yoga classes in the elementary schools. I looked it up and, while I’m not sure why this was showing up on my radio now, it is in fact true: ABC News and HuffPost reported on it back in October.
Considering that this is a yoga blog, my opinion on yoga in schools is probably obvious, but I’m trying to look at this issue from the perspective of the parents in question. I know how I feel about, say, including the words “Under God” in the pledge of allegiance. I think that it forces a religious question into something that’s not a religious subject, because many people are patriotic and proud of their country without identifying that country with a deity. And I think inserting those words into the pledge of allegiance could serve to make children who are in the non-Christian minority uncomfortable and uncertain, and could lead to bullying if that non-Christian child is singled out for not saying those two words. I don’t think you should force any set of religious beliefs on anyone, and I think doing so can be particularly hurtful when children are involved.
So now to apply those principles to something I do believe children should be taught. I can sympathize with parents who want to ensure that religious beliefs aren’t being taught in a public school, because teaching religion to a child is the parents’ job. I wouldn’t want my child being taught beliefs that I don’t share. And gym class and fitness are important for children, but why does it have to be religious stretching?!
You don’t have to pray to Krishna to get value out of a yoga practice. The physical benefits of yoga are myriad, and new studies are published all the time describing the benefits of yoga for, say, heart disease. For this reason alone one would expect parents to welcome a school yoga program in a nation where lack of physical activity and lack of healthy food choices are making obesity and poor health an epidemic among our children. Beyond the physical, yoga also has proven mental benefits. Yoga includes techniques that help the practitioner achieve a calm, focused mind, the advantages of which seem obvious for schoolchildren learning study skills and test taking, and that’s before you even get to the benefits of yoga for conditions like ADD, ADHD, PTSD, and depression.
When talking about a yoga program in schools, it’s hard to state a definite opinion, because we’re talking about an entire curriculum taught across several grade levels for 30 minutes twice a week (versus the addition of two words like in my example above). Without having any direct experience of the program, I would imagine that the yogis who created it would have anticipated a negative response from some parents and proactively removed any Sanskrit and any reference to spirituality, focusing specifically on yoga for fitness. That’s what I would imagine, anyway. I’ve read only a bit about the Tudor Joneses, but I would not imagine them to be so blinded by their love of yoga and desire to share it that they would create a program that would fail on this front. The principal and school board as well would hopefully not have accepted the money if they’d had any thought of the program being contested (but then, principals and school boards have to find money wherever they can). Overall I want to believe that the program they’ve adopted has been sufficiently de-Hindued so as to be acceptable to a mainstream audience.
Yoga is a truly multifaceted system. You can use it to advance your spiritual practice, or you can do physical postures for years without ever knowing that there’s an eightfold path. There’s no true parallel within Christianity – you could say that praying the rosary calms and focuses the mind, but the rosary in essence is still a prayer and always will be, because that is its purpose. Yoga is not a prayer, although some people use it that way. It is a systematic and holistic approach to personal health and wellness, which can include spirituality, but does not have to.
I would hope that, before pressing forward in a legal battle, the the parents in this school district will learn more. Review the full program plan, attend and observe some classes. It is foolish to judge something you haven’t taken the time to understand. That’s what I hope I will do someday if an issue arises at my child’s school that worries me.
Coincidentally, a friend who lives in another state sent me a photo the other day of her five-year-old son practicing yoga. He’d learned it in school. He was doing a mean triangle pose and was obviously having a great time.