Yoga In Schools Raises Religious Questions
It seems that not all parents are happy to see yoga classes
implemented in their kids’ schools, despite the ever-growing body of evidence
demonstrating the benefits
of yoga for children. A group
of parents in California claim it infringes on their religious freedom by
forcing their children to participate in “a kind of prayer.” It’s easy to
dismiss these concerns as xenophobic and uninformed, or explain how little these
classes resemble their historical roots; but this has already been done…multiple
times. Instead, perhaps it’s time to examine how the yoga community may unconsciously
fuel this fear while simultaneously, and sometimes vehemently, denying there is
any validity to it.
Many yoga teachers and yes, bloggers, discuss how yoga is so
much more than just asana, the physical exercises. We talk about the importance
of the deeper teachings, not only special breathing and meditation techniques,
but also the ethical guidelines for “right living”, the yamas
Then we talk about how practicing all of these aspects of yoga can help you
become a more peaceful and happy person. Some of these concepts we’ll explain
with Sanskrit words.
Now, strip the “yoga” out of there and this is what’s left:
physical demonstrations that include, among others, kneeling, bowing, and hands
held in a gesture of prayer, meditation, mantra, and chanting (actual prayer), a
moral code, promises of inner peace and happiness if you follow the rules and
participate regularly, and regular use of a dead language. Sounds a bit like religion
so far. Throw in “keeps you young” and “improves your sex life”, and it starts
to get downright cultish.
Imagine how these ideas might sound to someone unfamiliar
with yoga and deeply committed to a doctrine with different ethical teachings and
who is perhaps a little afraid of these ideas being challenged. If that isn’t
enough to make the whole idea of yoga seem a little more radical, imagine what
happens when they inadvertently stumble across yogi evangelists preaching about
Ganesh’s freshest attributes, the glory of the Shiva-Shakti union, or the non-existence
of all things.
Which brings us back to the irony that many compassionate,
open-minded yogis will still go on the defensive to prove that yoga as
practiced in the west is not religious.
It’s true that the majority of yoga in the U.S. really
doesn’t espouse Hinduism and that people from all faiths and cultures do find
perfectly secular satisfaction in yoga exercises; but it can’t be denied that
many people find something more.
What this “more” is isn’t easily defined though. It could be
considered divinity or a “kind of prayer”, or it could be a mere physiological
response, or maybe it’s something in between, or both. Regardless, it’s often
in this attempt to label this sensation we start to lose each other.
Yet, the effects of children’s programs are profound—kids don’t attempt
to judge or define their experience. And the results demonstrate that when yoga
is stripped of everything except the movements, it still effectively increases
coping behaviors, focus, relaxation, and a sense of stillness. Children are
dealing with higher rates of obesity, diabetes, ADHD, and exposure to violence
than ever before, and yoga has been shown to improve the conditions or ability
to cope with of all of these. So perhaps it is a prayer, one for a brighter
future for those of all denominations.
Do you think there is any validity to the concern about yoga