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?


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.

Scooping the New York Times

“All the News That’s Fit to Print” . . . eventually.

An article in yesterday’s New York Times describes the controversy over a yoga program in Encinitas public schools.  The same controversy that guest blogger Natalia Mehlman Petrzela analyzed in these pages a week ago.

I imagine NYT writer Will Carless had a stricter word count, but whatever the excuse, yesterday’s article doesn’t come close to matching the depth or context provided in Professor Mehlman Petrzela’s account.

Sorry, Grey Lady, ILYBYGTH got there first…and better.

School Wellness Programs: The Latest Frontier in the Culture Wars?

By Natalia Mehlman Petrzela

It was “showdown day” last Tuesday at a packed-to-capacity meeting of the Encinitas, California school board, during which the board faced angry threats of litigation in a heated dispute far afield of those predictable curricular lightning rods, sex education or science instruction. The embattled program is yoga.


In late October, about 60 Encinitas parents approached the board to strenuously oppose an Ashtanga yoga curriculum offered 30 minutes twice weekly to students district-wide. “I will not allow my children to be indoctrinated,” one parent insisted. Another expressed “a deep concern [the District] is using taxpayer resources to promote… religious beliefs and practices” on children “being used as guinea pigs.” Anxieties that opposing parents were forced to “segregate their children” reached fever pitch – one said kids opting out faced ostracism, comparing the situation to Nazi Germany.

As the local and national press has been quick to report, this vocal minority of parents “bent out of shape” or “in a twist” about savasana at school want the program terminated immediately. Their attorney, Dean Broyles, whose firm National Center for Law and Policy, is devoted to defending “faith, family, and freedom,” as well as “traditional marriage” and “parental rights” articulates the core issue as “the EUSD using taxpayer resources to promote Ashtanga yoga and Hinduism, a religious system of beliefs and practices.” The yoga community in Encinitas and beyond has responded fast and furiously, gathering over 2,500 signatures on a petition to preserve the program.

California is no stranger to heated educational controversy – beginning in the 1960s when the state was known (renowned by some, reviled by others) for its breakneck pedagogical innovation, the region became ground zero in some of the nation’s fieriest debates over sex education, character education, ethnic studies and bilingual education.  Such progressivism, conservatives charged, was expensive, immoral, academically unserious, and even un-American. Perhaps worst of all to grass-roots groups like POSSE (Parents Organized to Stop Sex Education) and CPR (Citizens for Parental Responsibility), the emphasis on critical reflection shared by these diverse initiatives undermined parental prerogative to determine their children’s worldview.

Encinitas might just be the perfect theater for a contemporary battle in these culture wars pitting traditionalist parents advocating for “the 3 Rs” against “hippie” pedagogies. The beachfront community embodies the cultural extremes defining California: Encinitas is known as a mecca for kale-eating freethinkers who seek out the diverse yoga practices with local strongholds and the open-minded environment, while surrounding San Diego County remains one of the country’s most politically conservative regions.

But the Encinitas yoga battle is more than just a new skirmish in an old fight waged by familiar combatants; it represents what will likely be a new theater of war in the educational culture wars in the 21st century.

The complaints among conservatives about yoga promoting Hinduism and mysticism are hardly of a piece with recent resistance to Christian Texas cheerleaders reading scripture at football games, as some press accounts have assumed. The rhetoric of the Encinitas parents’ protests may nominally be to free schools of religious influence, but the mission of Broyles’ firm is actually to defend the very principles the Christian cheerleaders espouse. A linchpin of the traditionalist perspective since the 1960s has been that liberals “took God out of schools and put sex [or Chicano studies or black children or the New Math] in,” as said one disgruntled father in the late 1960s. In the Encinitas case, however, the complaint is that there is too much God in the schools, just the wrong deity. This shift speaks to a transformation in how conservatives and liberals envision the appropriate role of spirituality at school… here conservatives position themselves as the defenders of civic secularism, in stark contrast to the stance which first galvanized their movement.

1960s culture warriors of any stripe couldn’t have fathomed the popularity “school wellness” would attain in the last two decades — enfolding not only yoga but also gardening, cooking, exercise, and meditation– and contemporary advocates of such curricula have difficulty understanding how these innocuous initiatives can inspire controversy. 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.”

Onlookers should not be so surprised at the perspectives Broyles raises, and should expect expanding wellness programs to generate more concerns, on the right and left. Encinitas parents are not the first social conservatives to oppose yoga; there’s even a cottage industry of Christian alternatives to the practice. Moreover, historians remind us that yoga’s well-scrubbed image today – think wholesome spectacles such as children doing yoga on the White House Lawn to celebrate Easter – elides the practice’s overtly spiritual and erotic origins. On the other end of the political spectrum, the field of Fat Studies argues the whole “obesity crisis” that provides the rationale for many wellness programs – including that in Encinitas – is fundamentally flawed, based more on our cultural aversion to fat bodies than on any objective health criteria. Michael Pollan, patron saint of the “real food” approach core to so many wellness programs, acknowledges that this new cultural terrain “mixes up the usual categories” even as the origins of the food and wellness movement are the same 1960s impulses that fueled the first round of the polarizing culture wars.

A familiar indignation over squandered tax dollars fuels the frustration of the Encinitas parents, though here it is largely misplaced, as the program is financed by a $533,000 grant from the private non-profit Jois Foundation. If the wellness movement suggests a newly fraught educational politics, so too does this funding situation. Nationwide, budget constraints are making public districts increasingly dependent on private initiative, especially for offerings such as wellness, which despite their popularity are usually deemed as “enrichment” rather than as a core academic need. As outside groups step in to fill curricular gaps and districts have fewer resources to shape these interventions, 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.

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is Assistant Professor of Education Studies and History at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts and is also co-founder of HealthClass2.0, a school-based wellness
program ( Her forthcoming book on culture wars in education is tentatively entitled SCHOOLED RIGHT: THE EDUCATIONAL ORIGINS OF CONTEMPORARY CONSERVATISM.