Is Yoga Too Religious for Schools?

Conservative parents in San Diego aren't fans of the age-old practice.

(Photo: Blend Images/Ariel Skelley)
Suzi Parker is a journalist whose work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

Jim Gillen of Yoga Calm, an educational children’s yoga program based in Portland Oregon, understands why some Christian parents think yoga in schools is a religious practice.

“Given that yoga’s history goes back thousands of years and has influenced Hinduism, Buddhism and many other religions, we understand the potential for confusion,” he writes in a polite letter that he sends to people who ask the religion question. “Adding to it is the way yoga is practiced. New styles are added consistently, with 17 million Americans currently using some form of it in a wide variety of settings, from professional sports programs to health clubs, hospitals to churches and synagogues.”

This connection between yoga and religion has ignited protests from a small group of conservative parents at Paul Ecke Central Elementary in San Diego. At the public school, students partake in mandatory 30-minute yoga classes.

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The parents state that the classes are religious indoctrination in line with the Hindu religion and a violation of the First Amendment. They point out that the pilot classes are funded by the Jois Foundation, which is a nonprofit founded in memory of Krishna Pattabhi Jois—the father of Ashtanga yoga—who brought that type of yoga to California from India in 1975.

“They’re not just teaching physical poses, they’re teaching children how to think and how to make decisions,” one parent told The New York Times. “They’re teaching children how to meditate and how to look within for peace and for comfort. They’re using this as a tool for many things beyond just stretching.”

On the Jois Foundation website, it states, “The Jois Foundation, with the University of San Diego & the University of Virginia, is measuring the results that yoga has on school children. This is done with the purpose of bringing Health & Wellness into the forefront of our education system: healthier children, improved educational performance, better quality of life, investing in our future.”

Yoga Calm’s Gillen says that the benefits of yoga are already evident in young kids. He and his wife created their program in 2002 in direct response to the increasing levels of stress and behavior problems that Lynea was seeing at her elementary school, which was in a rural, conservative and “very Christian Oregon community,” he says.

He says the “key consideration for schools is to look specifically at any new school activity 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.”

As parents ponder whether to sue the Encinitas Unified School District in San Diego over yoga, the school district broadened the yoga classes earlier this month to include all students, not just elementary students, as part of a “life-skills curriculum.”

The Gillens feel that yoga has a calming effect on students and helps with obesity, self-control, attention, emotional resilience and other social and emotional skills. Despite this, the pair throw out a caution flag. Gillen says, if schools want to teach yoga, they should make sure the practice is “entirely secular” with “no Sanskrit, chanting or religious concepts.”

Do you think yoga is too religious for schools? Share your thoughts in comments.

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