Yoga In School Stirs Ongoing Controversy

The controversy over a yoga program offered in Encinitas, CA public elementary schools continued to escalate in a board meeting last month. About sixty offended parents argue the classes look religious, and posit the poses and teachings are inextricable from their Hindu roots. Dissatisfied with the opt-out clause, they have threatened litigation if the program is not rendered an after-school option. Yet school administrators stand by the program, maintaining that it’s “a physical exercise regime practiced by millions of people all over the world representing many different religious beliefs.” Most parents are also supportive.

As YogaBasics recently discussed, this issue is by no means clear-cut. For a large number of yoga practitioners, yoga is “just fitness,” a value-neutral adjunct to their faith or, for agnostics/atheists, the absence thereof. Yet many in the western yoga community and traditional Hindus argue that yoga cannot be separated from its spiritual roots (this logic is notably inverted when it serves, a la yoga in schools).

Who, then, is right? Is yoga “just” exercise? Does yoga in schools broach the separation between church and state, equivalent to prayer in schools? Are school districts implicitly sanctioning Hindu or spiritualist indoctrination, while conveniently assuming the mantle of secularism?

Diving into yoga history, the answer is muddy. According to yoga scholar Mark Singleton, most of what passes for modern yoga is a cross-cultural fusion of western gymnastics with Indian yoga philosophy and Hinduism, a hypothesis vigorously disputed by traditionalists. And the US has its own history of spiritual gymnastic postural practices that allegedly predate yoga’s importation. These practices, developed and practiced primarily by women, were intended to facilitate heightened states of awareness via a synergy of posture, breath, and relaxation. The gradually increasing popularity of yoga over the course of the past century thus had a fertile precedent often overlooked in our attribution of “yoga” to solely Indian forms (as much philosophical bounty as these traditions have imbued).

In other words, modern yoga is not inextricably linked to Hinduism or yoga philosophy. It is rather co-constructed within the context of multiple cultures, and transformed by each that it comes into contact with.

The wellness program in Encinitas is funded by a $500,000+ grant by the Jois Foundation, an organization devoted to the dissemination of Ashtanga Yoga (developed by the late Patthabi Jois). Yoga classes (which include meditation and breathwork) are complemented by nutrition and life-skills curricula that teach “perseverance and responsibility,” according to the Encinitas Superintendent (all-American values if we’ve ever heard them).

Adds Jois Foundation Director Eugene Ruffin, “They give you character exercises—‘Thou shalt not steal, thou shall be honest, thou shall be respectful to adults.’” This, he notes, “is typical of athletics programs for kids,” and the ideals are neither specific to Hinduisim nor conflict with his Catholic upbringing.

But without having seen the curricula, it seems rooted in yoga’s eight-limbed path—healthy diet, yamas and niyamas (the yogic ten commandments), asana, pranayama, and meditation—reframed for a secular environment. As such, the resistance conservative parents are experiencing may be understandable from the perspective of their faith.

This is Part One of a two-part series.
Next up: Are we applying one standard to “modernized” yoga and mindfulness-based curricula in the schools, while applying another to conventional religion?  

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