School-Based Yoga & the Religion Issue

by | Dec 7, 2009 | Yoga Calm

We recently ran across an interesting blog post by a mother who grew concerned when her daughter told of her class doing yoga at school – “not because I was opposed to the movement,” she writes, but because the particular practice involved activities that she considered “meditation.”

As I brushed her hair, unsnarling the tangles within it, I had an important conversation with Elisabeth. I let her know that I felt uncomfortable with this kind of yoga….that it began as a form of worship to another god, and that we are not to be emptying our minds or allowing others to tell us what to meditate upon, rather, we are to fill it with things of the Lord. I fully understand that we are in the public school and cannot expect them to cater to our beliefs, so as a family, we needed to problem-solve as to how we would respond.
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This was a time that we would need to draw a line and make a stand for our daughter and our faith. Together, we discussed the options….

While the daughter chose an option that included meditation on Bible verses during the meditation time, this ended up being unnecessary after the parent and teacher spoke together and came to an agreement that seems positive for all concerned:

Elisabeth’s teacher is a kind, young, wonderful woman. And as I laid out our dilemma before her, I told her that as a family, we try to stay away from yoga or anything that would ask us to think about spirituality in a way that is not in line with our faith. In that moment, she stopped me and apologized for not having thought the implications through. Would I rather it not be called yoga? With a smile hidden by the phone’s receiver, I replied that it wasn’t the name, or the movement that bothered me, it was the meditation. She completely understood and explained that because PE had been reduced this year, she needed these wiggly children to have some additional movement in the classroom. One of the moms happened to teach yoga, and volunteered her time to lead it. What the teacher had originally wanted for the children was the stretching. What had been brought in was the meditation as well.

I explained that I understood completely, and that I agreed that the children needed the additional exercise. However, as long as the meditation was involved, we would need to find another alternative for Elisabeth. I spelled out the options, making it clear that I didn’t want to disrupt the classroom in any way. After asking her opinion about which approach would be best, she said that she didn’t want Elisabeth to feel excluded or singled out. Her suggestion? She would talk to the mom and ask that all meditation be removed and that the exercise would be limited to the stretching. “Would you and Elisabeth be okay with that?”, she asked. Would we? You betcha! She promised to monitor the situation and that she expected Elisabeth to communicate with her if it ever crossed a line that she felt uncomfortable with.

We quote this at length for a couple of reasons. For one, this is one of the most thoughtful posts we’ve yet run across on the Christian objection to yoga and provides a reasonable and rational model for making those objections known. We commend the mother for taking those concerns to the teacher – and the teacher for working with the mother to ensure that the practice of yoga in the classroom in no way infringed on anyone’s personal faith or spiritual practice.

The post also highlights why, in developing Yoga Calm, it was so important for us to make it a wholly secular program. It uses no Sanskrit, meditation, chanting or religious concepts. Children are never asked to empty their minds or to think or say anything other than, “I am strong; I am in control; I can do it; I can be responsible.” Consequently, in our seven years of teaching it to children and with nearly one thousand teachers currently using Yoga Calm in public schools, we have had very few instances of teachers, staff, administrators or parents objecting to its use.

Of course, yoga, in and of itself, is not a religion. This confusion arose in our culture because Yoga evolved over thousands of years in the context of the spiritual and religious traditions of India. The practices of Yoga were appropriated into most of the different religious traditions of the East. When these teachings were first transmitted in the West, they were often taught by teachers who were also practicing one of the many forms of Hinduism, Sikhism or Buddhism. The pure teachings of Yoga were therefore often mixed with the cultural and religious associations of the particular teacher.
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Over the years, new styles were developed and added so that today, 17 million Americans currently use some form of it in a wide variety of settings, from professional sports programs to health clubs, hospitals to churches and synagogues. Indeed, there are many expressly Christian adaptations of yoga. For instance, Catholic priest and certified Kripalu yoga teacher Father Thomas Ryan has a number of books and DVDs on the subject, including Reclaiming the Body in Christian Spirituality and Let Your Body Be Your Prayer. Many other books likewise teach a Christ-centered yoga, including titles such as Yoga for Christians, Holy Yoga: Exercise for the Christian Body and Soul and Invitation to Christian Yoga.

Nor are school-based yoga programs restricted to public schools but can be found in places like Aurora, Colorado’s Regis Jesuit High School. As a feature in the Denver Post put it earlier this year,

How does yoga…fit into the curriculum at a Catholic prep school?

“Ultimately, it goes back to the definition of yoga, which is unification, yoking of body/mind. That has everything to do with the Jesuit idea of Cura personalis (care of the individual),” said Missy Johnson, the school’s World Language department chair and one of two yoga teachers.

Regis boys in grades 9 through 12 do not chant, but they do meditate.

“Over the four years I’ve taught yoga at the school, only a couple of parents have been concerned – especially about the meditation aspect,” Johnson said. “I remind them that meditation was important to St. Ignatius (of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order) and other Catholic mystics.”

Indeed, when schools are looking at adding any new activity, a key consideration is to determine its appropriateness, not just lump it into a category because of its name or to disqualify it because something like it once was used in a religious context. In fact, if one-time spiritual or religious practice were the criterion for disallowing an activity in public schools, we would have to stop activities such as choir, lacrosse and character education programs. Even writing classes would have to be banned, for they have their roots back in the day when only monks were taught to write so they could transcribe bible and hymn verses.

Thus, when the religious issue comes up, we invite administrators, teachers, parents and other interested parties to review Yoga Calm thoroughly, considering it on its own merits and proven benefits to children.

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