OK, this is a bit complicated. According to the New York Times, a school district in Encinitas, CA received a big grant to start yoga programs in the schools. The 30 minute program happens during the school day and is part of a larger wellness curriculum that includes nutrition and life skills. It doesn’t replace traditional physical education or outdoor play.
Sounds good, right? Yoga is very popular with 20 million Americans engaging in yoga practice. Practitioners cite physical benefits such as increased strength and flexibility, as well as head-clearing focus. Since it doesn’t require a lot of equipment or special facilities, it seems like a nice fit for schools that are always looking for ways to hep kids get active. And since this program is paid for with outside money, it should be a big win for the school district.
Or not. Some parents, after observing the yoga sessions, became concerned that it was an indoctrination technique designed to persuade students to take up Hinduism. According a report by KPBS, Mary Eady, a parent of an Encinitas student, is working to remove the program on religious grounds. “They were being taught to thank the sun for their lives and the warmth that it brought, the life that it brought to the earth,” Eady said, “and they were told to do that right before they did their sun salutation exercises.”
Eady is represented by the National Center for Law and Policy, a conservative group that focuses “on the protection and promotion of religious freedom, the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, parental rights, and other civil liberties.” The K.P. Jois Foundation, which bothers Eady according to the KPBS report, says, “The more she reads about the Jois Foundation and its founders’ beliefs in the spiritual benefits of Ashtanga yoga, the more convinced Eady is that it can’t be separated from its Hindu roots.”
Now, it is important to note that the yoga program is voluntary and parents may opt their kids out of it. Eady did opt her child out but felt so strongly that the program was religious in nature that she brought suit against the district. That has resulted in heated public comment sessions at school board meetings but no move on the part of the school to pull the program. In fact, the district plans to expand the program from five to nine schools this year.
I don’t know a lot about yoga, so I asked around to see if people feel they can separate the spiritual aspects of the practice from the physical part. If my readers are to be believed, yoga can be an entirely secular activity. According to Monique, author of the blog Surfer Wife and a parent of kids in one of the participating schools her kids are learning age appropriate poses with no religious teaching as part of it.
It seems like this controversy is one of perception. Some people think of yoga as a physical manifestation of a belief system and the practice cannot be done without passing along the spirituality of it. Others see yoga as a form of exercise that brings mental focus along as a positive benefit.
This is a tricky question in the on-going battle of religion and its place in schools. There is no equivalent to yoga in other religions–that is to say, a physical manifestation of worship that can be secularized. Perhaps the closest thing would be traditional music with lyrics that reference religion. I’d wager most people don’t get too concerned about students learning songs that are associated with world holidays as part of a larger learning unit. So why a fuss over yoga?
I certainly wouldn’t want my children to be the recipients of underhanded proselityzing in the their schools. I prefer to keep religion private and don’t relish the thought of anyone attempting to impose religious dogma on public education. However, I don’t object to my children knowing about world religions and their practices. I see nothing wrong with kids learning Christmas carols or tasting the traditional foods of Passover observance or sharing cookies and goodwill as part of Eid al Fatir. And I don’t think doing a salute to the sun will change the faith of anyone not already seeking such a change. But that’s just me.
What do the rest of you think? Can yoga be taught as simply a physical education curriculum or will spirituality always permeate it?
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