Yoga in Schools: Controversy and Praise

Photo by Deb Hultgren

As yogis most of us probably agree that offering yoga in schools is a great idea. Unfortunately, not everyone shares that same level of enthusiasm. Recently, parents in California raised opposition to the high cost of a yoga program offered in the Encinitas Unified School District, suggesting that the twice weekly yoga classes should be provided for free, or not at all. For me, this controversy raised a number of questions, among them, what is a reasonable price for providing yoga in schools, and what are the benefits for youth?

Created in 2012, the Encinitas yoga program was one of the first of its kind in the country. Funded by a grant from the Sonima Foundation, it provided yoga classes for students, as well as paid for instructors and supplies. In 2013 parents filed a lawsuit against the school district, claiming that teaching yoga in school was a form of religious indoctrination and worship that was in opposition to their beliefs. The lawsuit was ultimately overturned, but it was a sign of more challenges to come. Note: while yoga has many religious roots it is also an inclusionary and welcoming practice, open and accessible to anyone, no matter their belief system. It is also quite easy for teachers to modify pose names and phrasing, as well as offer alternatives to various chants and mantras commonly utilized in classes.

When the grant funding the yoga classes was discontinued, school board officials proposed keeping the program, but with the hefty price tag of $800,000. Parents continued to fight against the program even after the school board proposed cutting the funding in half. Final outcome: School board officials voted 4:1 to keep the yoga program going for the 2016-17 school year, and in addition, set aside money to help cover the costs of other types of enrichment classes, such as foreign languages, gardening programs, technology classes and various games/sports.

Studies on yoga in schools

A study done in a Colorado elementary school in the early 2000s showed that regular yoga and meditation practice greatly decreased incidents of bullying and other aggressive behavior within the student population. The journal Front Psychiatry presents compelling research showing that children who engage in yoga are more likely to have better coping and stress management skills, are more in-tune with their bodies and emotions, and are healthier and more balanced, both physically and psychologically. A study undertaken by the University of San Diego that focused specifically on the Encinitas yoga program produced similar results; however, in this case, yoga classes did not appear to improve school attendance rates.

Yoga has also expanded into many other arenas, such as mental health facilities and hospitals. The Psychiatric Unit at the Children’s Hospital in Colorado has initiated a Yoga Therapy program that has had great results in helping children cope with various illnesses and disorders and is also used in conjunction with art and other creative treatment therapies to make a holistic, balanced treatment plan.

The overall takeaway is that kids who practice yoga are more likely to deal with conflict in healthier ways, will be able to understand and communicate their emotions more clearly, and will generally feel happier in their own skin. With all that in mind, I think it is commendable that the Encinitas School District was so adamant in providing yoga for their student population. At the end of the day I’m pretty sure that we all want the same things for the children in our communities: physical health and vitality, compassion and gentleness, and a strong sense of their own worth as stewards of this planet. If yoga is one tool to help them along, who are we to deny them?

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