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The Tug of War over Yoga in the Public Schools

Should yoga be taught to children in public schools at tax-payer’s expense?  The issue seems to be dividing Moms across America

Some see yoga as a healthy alternative to traditional PE classes.  They feel the practice helps create a sense of calm that helps their naturally excitable kids stay focused on learning.

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And in many cases those Moms are yoga-philes, too.  They love the idea of seeing their children adopt the practice as their own.

But there’s been a backlash from conservative Moms, especially Christian parents who think yoga is a disguised form of the Hindu religion that is subtly influencing – and warping — the minds of their children.

In a number of locales, they have filed suit to block the use of taxpayer funding for yoga classes, saying it violates the separation of church and state.

But nearly all of these lawsuits have failed.  Judges, on the whole, have declared yoga to be a “secular” practice not a religious one.

However, in some cases, yoga teachers have been forced to strip their classes of Hindu symbolism and Sanskrit chanting, if only to reinforce their non-religious character.

It’s a confusing debate.  To many, the distinction between what is “secular” and “religious” is arcane.  If yoga seems to “work,” many administrators and parents are willing to embrace it.

Dr. Candy Guenter, a professor of religious studies at Indiana University, has decided to immerse herself in the intricacies of this controversy.  The answers she provides may not satisfy either side – not completely.

Her book Debating Yoga and Mindfulness in the Public Schools is the result of years of painstaking research as a serious academic.  But she’s also served as an expert witness in many of the court cases that have divided local communities – and their Moms.

Guenther’s basic argument is that yoga, stripped of its symbolism and terminology, and reduced to a set of physical postures and nominally non-religious meditative practices, is still, at root, a form of religion rooted in the cosmology of Hinduism.

She compares the controversy to the generations-long dispute over the use of Christian prayer in public schools.  Long accepted as natural in Christian-dominated America, the practice eventually came under fire

Though states still have some freedom to implement their own policies, the general view has been that mandating the use of Christian rituals and language in schools violates the separation of church and state.

But yoga is being viewed quite differently, Gunther shows.

Ever since its arrival on American shores at the turn of the 19th century, yoga promoters have tried to play down its religious roots and play up its secular “health” benefits.

“Hatha” yoga, the dominant form of yoga, focuses on callisthenic postures whose original names in Sanskrit have been translated into English with catchy names like “Downward Dog” or “Triangle Pose.”

Practicing these postures was originally part of a sophisticated Hindu cosmology that included a ritual worship of gods and goddesses that many Westerners might find paganistic.

But Gunther says the religious connection – like an umbilical cord – is still there and shapes the deeper meaning of yoga even when it’s “secularized.”

As Gunther shows, you don’t have to go any further than the words of most contemporary yoga traditions to see that Hinduism remains at its core.

All of the major yoga traditions from Ashtanga to Iyengar to Jivamukti among others make no secret of their deep roots in Eastern mysticism and their embrace of Hinduism as their religious paradigm.

What complicates matters, though, is that many yoga organizations – including corporate entities like Core Power — are avowedly secular and formally disavow any desire to proselytize or promote Hinduism.

It’s just stretching and exercise, they insist, and it’s good for everyone, including kids.

According to Gunther, yoga lobbyists and their lawyers – yes, they do exist — are highly adept at promoting yoga as non-religious or religious, depending on the setting and what’s to be gained.

For example, the Virginia-based Yoga Alliance lobbied against the state’s proposed regulations on yoga teacher training programs by arguing that yoga teachers were practicing “freedom of religion” and could not be bound by government-mandated vocational training guidelines.

Similarly, yoga studios have fought against efforts to impose a sales tax on their classes by maintaining that these studios offer a religious practice that should be “exempt” from taxation,

Yoga groups won that battle in Virginia and have generally beat back efforts to have their programs and operations regulated by outsiders.

Further complicating the issue is that even some Christians have decided to embrace yoga without any reference to Hinduism.

Organizations like Praise Moves and Holy Yoga look almost the same as the mainstream yoga groups, except that the language used in their classes is derived from Scripture — not the Hindu Bhagavad Gita.

Part of what yoga critics are up against is the pronounced American tendency to ignore official labels, including religious ones, and to invent their own hybrid practices tailored to their personal needs.

Where others see eclecticism, and even religious heresy, Americans see iconoclastic self-invention.

Americans, in fact, tend to be extremely uncritical and gullible about foreign “mystical” practices — intrigued by their allure and far too eager to embrace them without inquiring too deeply into their darker history or implications.

Mix a little Hinduism with your Christianity?  Why not?  It could add some spice.  And don’t we all worship the same God anyway?

Gunther sees this quintessential American attitude as naïve, even dangerous.  Americans should pay more attention to the snake-oil they’re being sold, ask more probing questions and practice more discernment, she suggests.

But it’s clear that most American parents could care less.  When studies show that sending their misbehaving kids to a “mindfulness time-out” — rather than detention — allows them to stay in school and to develop better behavior to boot, they’re pleased beyond measure.

In the end, Gunther doesn’t really show what she fears most: that the Western embrace of yoga, and its adoption by impressionable youth, will harm American culture and traditions.

Still, she’s probably right about one thing:  Schools shouldn’t be in a position to impose yoga across the board.  Parents that want to “opt-out” of yoga as PE should be allowed to do so, and without penalty.

After all, parents have the right to decide what’s good for their own children.  Can you really force kids to practice yoga any more than you can compel them to recite the Lord’s Prayer?

Even yoga zealots who think their practice could one day save the world would likely say no in the end.

Candy Gunther Brown, Debating Yoga and Mindfulness in the Public Schools, Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2019

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About Stewart L

Stewart Lawrence is a trained sociologist and political scientist and a regular columnist for the Washington Times and the Federalist. He is also a former feature contributor to Inside Philanthropy, Counterpunch and the Huffington Post. In 2012 and 2016, he covered the US presidential election campaign for the conservative news magazine Daily Caller. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor and Washington Post. He is currently working on a book about the politics of US immigration policy.

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