From the Archives: Yoga, Schools, and “Those Dirty Books”

As Natalia Mehlman Petrzela has argued in these pages recently, a yoga program in Encinitas public schools has raised the ire of some religious conservatives.  The story has subsequently been  picked up by the New York Times and National Public Radio.

As Professor Mehlman Petrzela pointed out in her article, such fears of yoga as religious indoctrination are not new among American conservatives.

During my research into an earlier generation’s fight over school textbooks, I discovered such complaints as early as 1974.  In that year, a school controversy exploded in Kanawha County, West Virginia.  As journalists such as Trey Kay and scholars such as Carol Mason have described recently, the bitter fight over new textbooks led to a months-long school boycott and repeated shootings and bombings.

In 1974, the beleaguered Kanawha County Board of Education appointed an eighteen-person committee to investigate the accused textbooks.  A majority of the committee found the books unobjectionable.  But in November, 1974, a minority splinter committee issued a blistering 500-page denunciation of the textbook series.  The minority report included specific objectionable passages with comment.

For instance, from a first-grade teachers manual from the DC Heath “Communicating” series, the committee extracted the following suggested discussion-starters: ‘Has anyone ever awakened and found a stranger looking at him?  Has anyone ever broken a toy, a chair, or some other article the first time he was visiting an unfamiliar house?  Has anyone ever had a dream in which he talked with some animals?  Has anyone ever seen a deserted house?  Did you go in?’

In the minority committee’s opinion, “A child should not be forced to discuss his own personal feelings.  This constitutes an invasion of privacy.  This is also
behavioral change.  Why should a 6-year-old child be subjected to questions that will implant fears and frustrations in his mind.  Why not have questions on pleasant and wholesome attitudes?”

The minority report complained that the textbooks’ version of the Jack and the Beanstalk story was “more sadistic and gruesome than usual.”  Elsewhere, the minority report objected, students were instructed to make up their own myths, including one about why all humans don’t speak the same language.  “The question why men do not speak the same language,” the minority insisted, “is answered in the Book of Genesis.  The inference that the answer can be classified as a myth again presupposes that the Bible is based on a myth.”

Most interesting to the folks of Encinitas, however, might be the minority committee’s complaint that articles about yoga amounted to “religious indoctrination.”

Makes me wonder where and when else the conservative campaign against the teaching of yoga in public schools has surfaced.  As Mehlman Petrzela points out, school-yoga supporters in the press and school district seem utterly unaware of this longer history.  As she wrote in her December article,

“The press, the EUSD, and scores of online commenters expressed shock that anyone would suggest, ‘a little stress-reducing exercise ever hurt anyone,’ especially in the context of a much-discussed ‘obesity crisis.’ The Los Angeles Times couldn’t believe the degree of the plaintive parents’ worries, as yoga is regularly practiced in San Diego spots as disparate as the Camp Pendleton naval base and the Jois yoga enclave, which funds the school program. Glamour commented, ‘most people associated with the controversy are scratching their heads,’ quoting similarly incredulous Jois chief executive: ‘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.'”

Perhaps this posture of surprise is put on only to discredit conservative opponents.  After all, if anti-yoga activism seems startling and unexplainable, it might gain fewer political supporters.  But at least some of the surprise sounds genuine to me.  It seems another good illustration of the ways widespread ignorance of the history of conservative educational activism impairs any sort of useful discussion of current educational policy.