What You Need to Know about: Yoga in Public Schools

The most recent case is enough to make anyone’s head spin. It involves a disgruntled former school administrator, yoga stretches, and community prayer rallies to help “Jesus to rid the school of Buddhism.” Sic.

yoga in sschools

Look out! Flying Buddhists!

Here’s what we know: This case has roots back to 2014, when Cobb County (Georgia) elementary principal Bonnie Cole introduced a yoga program into her school. Local parents protested. Cole was transferred and is now suing the district. She claims that pro-Christian religious influence unduly hurt her career.

Cole insisted that her use of yoga was not at all religious. She used it for purely secular reasons, to help students stay healthy and manage stress. The school already removed some religious elements of yoga practice. For instance, they didn’t allow students to say “Namaste” or press their hands to their hearts. Students were also not allowed to color mandalas.

In this case, though, the specific lawsuit isn’t about whether or not yoga is a religious practice. Rather, it is about whether or not Christian protesters exerted undue religious influence on the school to ban yoga. Principal Cole explains that parents would press their hands up against her office window to put prayer-pressure on her to stop teaching yoga. And in this case, that Christian influence is the legal issue, not the notion of yoga as a religion (or not).

Clear as mud!

In an effort to clear up some of the religion-in-school fog, we’ve dug through our ILYGYBTH archives for relevant background material. Here’s some earlier coverage you might find interesting:

wellness programs are likely the next theater of battle in our ongoing but evolving educational culture wars… in which the earnest claim of the Encinitas superintendent that “it is just physical activity” sounds ever more naïve.

  • In that Encinitas case, Professor Candy Gunther Brown of Indiana University thought the judge goofed. As we observed at the time, Prof. Brown thought that certain forms of yoga practices—and certain deep-pocketed devotees—insisted that yoga practice would “automatically” lead people to god, “whether they want it or not.”
  • The controversy over yoga as a religious practice in school is nothing new. As far back as the 1970s, religious conservatives—Christian ones—were protesting against such “religious indoctrination” in public schools.
  • Last but not least, evangelical Christians are divided over the religious implications of yoga. As we noted, some think the practice can be done in purely secular fashion, one acceptable for public schools. Others disagree.

Of course, none of this helps us sort out this most recent case from Georgia. Legally, after all, the religious nature (or not) of yoga is not in dispute. Bonnie Cole accuses the school district of succumbing unfairly to Christian pressure. Of course, underneath that complaint festers the unanswered question of yoga’s religious nature.

Under current rules, if yoga constitutes religious practice, it shouldn’t be taught by teachers in public schools. It could be taught about, of course, but yoga classes actually engage students in yoga practice. On the other hand, if yoga is done as a secular pursuit for purely secular reasons, it would be okay for public schools. However, in that case, religious devotees of yoga would likely complain—with good reason, IMHO—that the school districts were unfairly appropriating their religious practice and mutilating it into something it shouldn’t be.

Just another example of the ways nobody knows quite what to do about religion in public schools!