Yoga In Schools
Yoga is now being offered in many U.S. schools. Some question the judgment of those offering yoga classes for children. In some schools, parents have protested against it. First Lady Michelle Obama is a strong proponent of yoga in her “Let’s Move” national anti-obesity program. She also gives talks on school visits about the benefits of yoga. The White House Easter Egg Roll has included a Yoga Garden, complete with mats and instructors, for the past five years. It was part of the day on April 1, 2013. (Sequestration did not cause this event to be canceled.)
Critics who object to yoga being taught in public schools say there is an Eastern religious bent to the practice, that it is linked to worship that some religious observers should avoid, and that children should not be used as guinea pigs told to participate in an activity schools may know little about.
The Sanskrit word “yoga” literally means “to join or yoke together.” Although scholars say yoga predates Buddhism and Hinduism, the meditation and physical postures have long been integrated into those faiths as a means to worship various gods. It is common to see people on the streets of India doing yoga poses in front of statues of gods, as a means of worship.
“Many schools are looking to yoga for a holistic approach,” states the director of physical education for the Charleston County Public School District in South Carolina, in defense of the teaching of yoga. Claiming to be a Christian, a yoga teacher at one Charleston school claims, “Yoga isn’t a religion. It is an art, a philosophy. It’s a tool for mind and body control.” Another SC yoga instructor at a public school says, referring to karma, which is aligned with Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh beliefs, “Karma means doing good or simply stewardship, but the language barrier can have an unexpected negative response with an uninformed audience.” (Post and Courier, 02-27-13) A closer examination leads to questions about who exactly is uninformed.
In California, parents in the Encinitas Union School District looked to the National Center for Law and Policy to fight against yoga instruction in schools. The stretches, breathing techniques, and postures seem harmless enough on the surface, but one Encinitas parent who observed her son’s class told National Public Radio:
They were being taught to thank the sun for their lives and the warmth that it brought, the life that it brought to the earth and they were told to do that right before they did their sun salutation exercises.
Although some parents are unhappy about the yoga program, the district plans to expand it to all nine Encinitas schools. (National Public Radio, 01-09-2013)
It is disingenuous to argue that yoga is not deeply rooted in Eastern religious thought. Even pro-yoga books support this. Some also point to the dangers of practicing yoga. The emptying of the mind sought by a yogi is what allows him to free himself from worldly physical distractions. Emptying the mind is not a goal that, for example, a Christian would seek to achieve.
According to Georg Feuerstein, Ph.D., author of The Yoga Tradition, “Yoga is the union of the individual psyche with the transcendental Self.” Speaking of psychiatrist Carl Jung, an article on Livestrong.com says, “He also opened the door for many conversations regarding what could be considered an enlightening religious experience and what might constitute a psychotic episode. He saw the two as closely related.” (03-15-2011) Carl Jung studied yoga for two decades. William J. Broad in The Science of Yoga, quotes Jung, saying, “Advanced yoga ‘can let loose a flood of sufferings of which no sane person ever dreamed.’”
While those who object to yoga in the schools may not be worried about it creating psychotic episodes, it is not “uninformed” to recognize that further and better research should be done before yoga is promoted in schools because to date we don’t know exactly what we are promoting.
In addition to spiritual questions about yoga, William J. Broad, the author of The Science of Yoga, says there is risk of injury and even stroke. He says, “Yoga at the start was an obscure cult steeped in magic and eroticism. At the end, it fixated on health and fitness.” But he further claims, “Yoga does not promote weight loss. Rather, it reduces the metabolic rate of practitioners leading to fewer calories burned.” Thus yoga will not combat childhood obesity and may even promote it, especially because time children spend doing yoga is taken away from other physical education activities such as sports and free play.