Yoga in public schools: a revelation on Education?

As I scanned through my newsfeed the other day, I saw an article by Matty Graham, from Reuters News, which caught my attention: 'Yoga in school not same as teaching religion, California judge rules'. 

Interesting? Yes. Relevant? Yes. Controversial? Very.

I read on. 

A California judge refused to remove yoga classes as part of a public school's physical fitness program, rejecting parents' claims that the classes were an unconstitutional promotion of Eastern religion. Judge John Meyer acknowledged that yoga ''at its roots is religious'' but added that the Encinitas Unified School District had developed its own version of yoga that was not promoting religion. 

Some of the parents argued that if yoga has any kind of religious aspects, it doesn't belong within the public schools. In 2011, Encinitas, about 20 miles north of San Diego, began a yoga program in one of its nine elementary schools. About 45 students - out of the 5,500 in the district - were taken out of the classes by their parents. A lawsuit was opened by these parents, asking the classes to be removed from the program, claiming that the children who opted out of the yoga classes faced bullying and teasing. 

This case is the latest in a broader national clash over the separation of religion from public education, which is a heated debate with issues ranging from student-led prayer to whether science professors can teach alternatives to evolution. 

The parents expressed concern that the school district had implemented the program with a $500,000 grant from the Pattabhi Jois foundation, which promotes Astanga yoga. The plaintiffs objected the Astanga eight-limbed philosophy with Sanskrit characters as they were derived from Hindu beliefs, the use of ''Namaste'' for greeting the class and several yoga poses said to represent Hindu deities. The school took the parents concerns into consideration, and by 2012 the school had made modifications to the program. They eliminated the use of the eight-limbed posters, and the Sanskrit language by renaming poses with ''kid-friendly'' descriptions, for example, ''gorilla'', ''turtle'', ''big toe'', ''telephone'' and Lotus to ''criss cross apple sauce''.  

Ultimately, Judge Meyer claimed the plaintiffs have an obvious bias against yoga and that the school system has effectively altered the program. The school officials applauded the ruling, and pointed out that the school district had been represented for free by lawyers provided by the parents who support yoga in the schools curriculum.

As a yogi myself, I tried to comprehend this situation first, with as little bias as possible. I put myself in the shoes of a parent who has never practiced yoga before, and I actually understand why they would be hesitant to support something that is unknown territory. It is possible, these parents were never given the correct information and the benefits of yoga for their children. Instead, acknowledging stereotypes of naked Sadhus on steps of temples in India, filled their minds with fear and apprehension. 

But in reality, that is the extent of the compassion I felt for these uneducated parents. I think it is our job as humans, but more importantly as parents (who are every child's role model and life teacher) to embrace the world - whether it is in the form of other countries, race, culture, religion, gender or education. I am not saying you must practice something you don't agree with, or you don't feel comfortable doing, but what I am saying is that you must be accepting of it

If these parents didn't approve of yoga for whatever reason, they should have given their children the choice. I believe it is a necessity for parents to educate their children and teach them to be critical, but ultimately, empower them to make their own educated decisions. 

I tried to bring relevance into my own education as a child, and thought of the very simple example of foreign languages within school curriculum in the US. It is mandatory that all children from a young age take a second language. I chose Spanish and remember my teachers never preached the culture or religion of Mexico, Chile or Spain, but instead, we were given the benefits of learning a new form of communication and expanding our minds to other places and people around the world. The example of language may seem obvious, but it is exactly why I chose it. Language has been incorporated in our education systems for so many years, that now it is expected and considered ''normal'' to take a foreign language. This leads me to believe that there is a possibility for yoga to make its way into more school systems. The more schools that introduce yoga, the more people will begin to understand, and maybe even support the practice. They may realize that it is actually not some freaky hippie cult, and that it has numerous benefits for their children. After all, most physical education programs incorporate sports, despite the culture of sports, which are often times very extreme and including drinking, violence and riots. However, we trust the physical education teachers to bring only the best and most positive aspects of the sports into the schools - the benefits of team work, communication and maintaining your physical health. 

I think that yoga should be included in all school curriculum. I don't believe we should take out all other sports and teach Sanskrit instead of Spanish, though I do believe we should offer other forms of physical activity, for those who may not be natural Michael Jordan's, or for those who are interested in the practice. 

Yoga has similar benefits to cardiovascular sports, as it helps to balance our internal systems, bringing fresh oxygen and blood to our organs to promote health throughout the entire body. But yoga has some unique characteristics which may differ from traditional sports.

  • Yoga promotes controlled breathing which creates a calm meditative state and enhances focus, while energizing the mind and body. This is something beneficial for kids, as most have very limited attention spans, and may even be taking Ritalin daily for it. 
  • Yoga is an extremely safe physical activity where the risk of injuring muscles and ligaments is very low, instead working as therapy to heal injuries, which makes all sizes, shapes and bodies perfect for the practice. This could help to boost kids self esteems as yoga is non competitive and is not a race to see who is the fastest.
  • Yoga is a great example for learning, as it is process-oriented, the more you practice the more results you will see. This can be applied to any subject or extracurricular activity that kids want to pursue. Patience and practice are two extremely important themes that resurface when you are learning and growing. 
  • Ultimately, yoga brings limitless possibilities for growth in self-awareness. It is a priceless opportunity for children to become more aware of themselves, others around them and evolve into who they would like to be. 

I am not a Mother myself, but I know well enough that every parent wants only the best for their children. Yoga can offer happiness and health for kids, parents and their communities within and outside the schools. I think that bringing yoga in more school systems will begin a whole new revolution on alternative education. As a child who went through the public school systems in the US, I can speak from experience that most schools do not embrace the endless opportunities that education can bring. Instead, classrooms are designed as they were in the 1800's with wooden desks facing a whiteboard at the front of the room, and if your lucky you have windows for ventilation. This lack of enthusiasm from most public schools system create an endless cycle of repetition and mindless education. Of course, there are always exceptions and teachers who break the barriers and are able to connect with their students and see real results - a few of mine come to mind and I am forever grateful for their efforts. However, even if you have a great teacher willing to engage students on another level, you will always have a percentage of students who are resistant to the system. This is where we create the endless cycle, of students having to conform to standardize tests and subjects they may not succeed in. It is imperative for more school systems (public or private) to recognize that we are all different learners and have different passions. By approaching education with open minds, we can expose children at a young age to the creative sides of education in order to enhance diversity and expand their possibilities to spark a fire and passion within them. 

It is our personal duty as citizens of the world (parents or not) to be open minded and respectful of the world we live in, and of all the people, places, and cultures in order to bring more happiness, creativity and peace into our lives. 

LAUREN LEE E-RYT 500 is passionate about living with purpose, exploring the world, and empowering others to live as their most authentic, radiant Self. Founder of Raise Your Beat, dedicated teacher and forever student on the path of yoga, she leads transformational workshops, retreats and trainings to awaken the individual and collective consciousness. Read more about her here

Lauren Lee

LAUREN LEE E-RYT 500 is passionate about living with purpose, exploring the world, and empowering others to live as their most authentic, radiant Self. Founder of Raise Your Beat, dedicated teacher and forever student on the path of yoga, she leads transformational workshops, retreats and trainings to awaken the individual and collective consciousness. Read more about her here