Is teaching yoga to kids a form of religious indoctrination? About a month ago, a California judge ruled that yoga could be taught in the Encinitas Union School District without violating the constitutional separation of church and state. But the plaintiffs will probably appeal the decision. The story hit home for me, because I’ve been one of those skeptics of yoga—and I’ve also been a yoga instructor.
My grandparents were Christian ministers in a nondenominational Christian church, and I grew up in a very conservative household. (I never even went trick-or-treating, because I was told Halloween was for devil worshipers.) So when a new-agey college friend invited me to a session of yoga, the very idea conjured up fearful images of drugged-out people chanting in a strange tongue and worshiping statues of deities with six arms.
But I was balancing a full load of classes, internships, and waitressing work, and I was desperate for any sort of tranquility. So I resolved to try yoga once.
My first class was not as I expected. It was fast-paced, and a Rolling Stones mix tape was on the stereo. As Wild Horses played, I slipped into a mild trance and felt light and happy. Then I felt apprehensive: maybe they were trying to lure me in. Still, over time, I stopped fearing yoga. It taught me to take better care of my body, to be slower and more intentional, to find stability, and to be grateful, graceful, and playful. It is a part of the week when I can turn off the constant to-do list that’s rattling in my head and rely on muscle memory to lead me through 90 minutes of aerobic bliss.
In 2009, when state budget cuts were leading some elementary schools in Los Angeles to drop their physical education classes, I thought I could do something small to help fill the gap, so I connected with a teacher from a local school and started going in once a week to teach the kids yoga. A few of my friends told me they wanted to help. So we organized, partnered with experts, and trained about 20 volunteers to teach twice a week in several classrooms in Southern California.
We were careful from the beginning to steer clear of religious language, and we kept classes focused mainly on physical activity and healthy eating. Still, we delved a bit into emotional health. For one class we brought in slate boards and had the kids paint a few strokes on the board with water. The kids were told to be quiet and watch closely as the water evaporated and the picture disappeared, and then slowly raise a hand when it was completely gone. We taught them that the calm and focus they felt were the feelings they should summon up in the classroom.
The second year, the kids started asking for yoga homework assignments! We were happy to oblige, but these take-home lessons caused problems. Teachers told us that some parents were starting to complain about yoga in school. I suspect they were uncomfortable with the assignments that focused on emotional health. Ultimately, we decided to tell parents their kids could opt out of the program. Some did, but most didn’t.
Is yoga a sly form of religion? I don’t think so. Even in its purist form, yoga is not really a religion; it is a practice that is prescribed by various religions as a means to achieve inner peace. But yoga does embody certain values. They include harmlessness (ashima), truthfulness (satya), and greedlessness (aparigraha). We never used Sanskrit terms in class (apart from “yoga”), but we incorporated these ideas into lessons in the form of kid-friendly ground rules: being nice, taking turns, telling the truth, and sharing. The yoga we brought to schools taught that emotional, physical, and mental health is important and that being a good person is part of a healthy lifestyle. None of that seems very divisive to me, but schools are always a battleground for value wars.
Eventually, because of jobs and moves, I ran out of time to keep the program going. But I like to think our classes were good for the kids who took them. And, given the chance, I’m always happy to suggest an exercise for kids, like creating a pose inspired by your favorite vegetable and staying balanced for a minute or two. Is standing on one foot and acting like a carrot religious? I doubt it.
Jessica van Alderwerelt is program coordinator for Zocalo Public Square, for which she wrote this.