Yoga In School: Double Standard?

As discussed in Part One, the sticky boundaries of church and state are often blurred in the fervor to share yoga’s benefits with schoolchildren. In fact, it’s highly likely that the Encinitas yoga program is poised to render a beneficial effect on children, as preliminary research on yoga in school settings suggests. However, the potential efficacy and salutary benefits of a given practice cannot be the only consideration when the setting is a school. For instance, research has shown prayer to be a beneficial coping mechanism, but this does not render it suitable for school settings.

Parent legal representative Dean Broyles, president and chief counsel of the National Center for Law and Policy, a nonprofit law firm devoted to religious freedom and traditional marriage, argues that it would be the same “if we substituted for this program a charismatic Christian praise and worship physical education program.” In yoga’s defense, many practitioners claim the practice is either inclusive of all spiritual/religious orientations, or a purely secular fitness pursuit. Yet considering the nature of the granting organization, the Jois Foundation, Broyles may have a point.

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Although the yoga program in Encinitas has been secularized and scrubbed of any mention of mysticism or spirituality, the Jois Foundation promotes a form of yoga (Ashtanga) that is deeply rooted in traditional yogic philosophy. They are researching the program with scientists from UCSD and UVa; if shown effective in improving student wellbeing, there are hopes to offer it nationally.

To be fair, such goals are not the exclusive providence of the Jois Foundation. Other contemplative organizations have made quiet inroads into school settings, including MindUP, and YogaEd. These claim no affiliation to eastern spirituality or mysticism. Yet, while the practices are renamed, eradicated of contemplative philosophy, and reframed as valuable emotional skills training and wellness initiatives, their origins are indisputable.

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In this case, protesting parents are hip to the Jois Foundation’s traditional orientation, which is the primary source of controversy. If the grant were from a large, value-neutral organization to provide nutrition, character and fitness education, there would likely be no issue.

Cutting to the heart of the debate, Jois director Ruffin comments, "It’s hard to know how to respond to someone who says if you touch your toes, you’re inviting the devil into your soul.” Yet, is yoga “just” touching your toes? Kids have been touching their toes in gym class for the better part of a century without sparking fears of devil worship. When we call something yoga, and adhere to a fairly traditional practice such as Ashtanga, can we say touching our toes is “just stretching”? Can we take the spiritual out of yoga, in such a context? Upset parents argue you cannot.

In the culture wars, prayer, Bibles, and intelligent design in school continue to spark progressive outrage. Objectively, yoga in schools is no different a cultural flashpoint. As pointed out recently, this debate has put conservatives in the position of arguing against God in schools—just a different form of God than their own.

If progressives find conservative ideology and practice in schools infuriating, those at the other end of the spectrum find yoga in the schools equally so. Despite yoga being more of a grey zone than, say, Christian prayer, there does currently seem to be a double standard. As much as I enjoy yoga and would love to see my kids take it in school, I also have to appreciate the nuanced complexity of this issue. We can’t all have our cake—and eat it too.

Do you see yoga in public schools as a double standard?

This is Part Two of a two-part series. Read Part One here.

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