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!

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Yoga in School? Yes, No, Maybe So

Is yoga a religious practice?  Can it be taught in public schools?

Here at ILYBYGTH, we’ve been following the story in Encinitas, thanks to contributions from Natalia Mehlman Petrzela.  In that case, the judge said yoga was okay, in spite of the powerful argument made by religious studies scholar Candy Gunther Brown.

Today three evangelical writers weigh in at Christianity Today.  Can yoga be part of public education?

Laurette Willis says no way.  Yoga, she warns, turns children’s minds towards the “idols” of Hinduism and Buddhism.  Even if the practice is taught in a secular, physical way, it instills in young children “warm fuzzies” about Hindu imagery and theology.

Matthew Lee Anderson says, “It depends.”  If it is taught as physical exercise only, then it should be fine.  If it is used to proselytize for Hinduism, then no.

Amy Julia Becker says bring it on.  Yoga as physical exercise should be encouraged in public school.  What’s more, yoga as spiritual exercise should also be encouraged in public schools.  It is important for people of all religious faiths, Becker argues, to insist on the rights of children to engage in spiritual practice in public schools, as long as that practice is student-initiated and student-led.  Just as evangelical Christian students insist on their right to form public-school prayer groups, so evangelical Christian groups should insist on the rights of students of other religions to form their own spiritual groups.

 

Yoga—Not for Public Schools

 

Does the Constitution allow US public schools to teach religion to children?

Only if that religion is not about the Bible, according to religion scholar Candy Gunther Brown.

Thanks to contributions from Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, we’ve been following a case from Encinitas, California.  Some parents complained that teaching yoga forced religion onto their children.  The program had been funded by the Jois Foundation, though classroom teachers developed the specific yoga curriculum on their own.  Recently, Judge John Meyer ruled that public schools may use yoga as an exercise program without violating the Constitution.  The school district, he decided, had sufficiently purged the religious heritage of yoga and engaged in yoga for sufficiently secular purposes.

One of the participants in that trial was Professor Brown.  In a recent interview at the Oxford University Press blog, Brown explains why she thinks Judge Meyer got it wrong.

As she testified at the trial, Brown explains why the yoga practices are inherently religious.  Such practices, in the vision of Ashtanga devotees,

will “automatically” lead practitioners to experience the other limbs and “become one with God,” in the words of Jois, “whether they want it or not.”

Brown argues that the practices in Encinitas would be—and indeed had been—perceived as religious by objective outside observers.  As she puts it,

EUSD teachers displayed posters of an eight-limbed Ashtanga tree and asana sequences taught by the “K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute”; used a textbook, Myths of the Asanas, that explains how poses represent gods and inspire virtue; taught terminology in Sanskrit (a language sacred for Hindus); taught moral character using yamas and niyamas from the Yoga Sutras; used guided meditation and visualization scripts and taught kids to color mandalas (used in visual meditation on deities). Although EUSD officials reacted to parent complaints by modifying some practices, EUSD classes still always begin with “Opening Sequence” (Surya Namaskara) and end with “lotuses” and “resting” (aka shavasana or “corpse”—which encourages reflection on one’s death to inspire virtuous living), and teach symbolic gestures such as “praying hands” (anjalimudra) and “wisdom gesture” (jnanamudra), which in Ashtanga yoga symbolize union with the divine and instill religious feelings.

Furthermore, Brown charges, Judge Meyer ignored crucial evidence and even got his facts wrong.  School district teachers, Brown says, used Jois Foundation funds to take children to an Ashtanga conference.  Nor did teachers secularize the practice as much as Meyer implied.  Meyer stated in his decisions that religious terms such as the “lotus” position had been renamed with neutral names such as “criss-cross applesauce.”  But Brown points out that the term “lotus” appears 194 times in the spring curriculum guide.

So is yoga religious?

Brown makes a powerful case.  Simply because some teachers did not engage in the practice for primarily religious reasons does not make it a secular practice.  Simply because Judge Meyer did not think children would see the practice as religious does not make it so.

Atheists could pray for secular reasons, but teaching children to pray in public schools would not be constitutional.  Similarly, in other religious-dissent cases, the perception of religion has been decided by those who feel marginalized.  For instance, in the Schempp case (1963), the feelings of non-religious people that school prayer forced religion upon them carried legal weight.

The question forced upon us by Professor Brown is a good one: Do we allow yoga in public schools simply because we like it?  To be fair, do we need to recognize the dissent of conservative Christians who find the practice religious and therefore offensive?