How to navigate yoga in schools

About 400,000 more children ages 4 to 17 practiced yoga in 2012 than in 2007
By: | May 20, 2016

Yoga in one Georgia district is under fire.

In March, Bullard Elementary School in Kennesaw made national headlines when parents opposed yoga in school—being used to relieve stress and increase focus among students—because they said it promotes a Far East religion.

After a public meeting, Principal Patrice Moore made changes. In a letter to parents, she wrote: “We will pull the following out of our school: When yoga moves are used in classrooms, students will not say the word ‘Namaste’ [a traditional Sanskrit greeting] nor put their hands to heart center. When coloring during ‘brain breaks,’ mandala coloring pages will not be used.”

A mandala is an Indian symbol representing the universe.

Moore’s actions quelled concerns.

Pockets of controversy

A handful of schools nationwide have faced similar controversies in recent years as yoga becomes more common in classrooms and physical education.

About 400,000 more children ages 4 to 17 practiced yoga in 2012 than in 2007, according to a health statistic report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The same report states that 21 million adults (9.5 percent of the U.S. population) practice yoga.

In 2013, a family filed a lawsuit against Encinitas Union School District in California, claiming a yoga curriculum was religious. In April 2015, the 4th District Court of Appeal upheld an earlier decision by the San Diego Superior Court that the Encinitas program is “devoid of any religious, mystical or spiritual trappings.” The appeal was dropped.

“Parents have the right to be able to—and should—question what their children are being taught” says Joanne Spence, executive director of Yoga In Schools, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit organization that provides yoga programming and teacher training.

In Bullard Elementary’s situation, administrators communicated directly with parents, which she says is critical when introducing yoga. Any yoga program in public education needs to be presented in a secular manner. And curriculum directors should evaluate programs to ensure they meet state and national standards and conforms to school policies.

Clearing misconceptions

Most apprehension is borne from misconceptions, says Spence. Yoga, which dates back 2,500 years to India, involves physical postures, focused breathing and deep relaxation to connect mind and body.

Although some practitioners also simultaneously meditate, it does not necessitate those components or have any religious aspects on its own, as was judged in the Encinitas case.

Confusion comes because many people use yoga as a spiritual practice, says Spence, who recommends administrators review Best Practices for Yoga in Schools, a guide for educators. It offers solutions and ideas in teaching secular programming in schools, such as promoting positive body image development and fostering self-awareness.

Some physical ed teachers teach yoga alone, as it gives students who may be averse to team sports a way to participate. “Yoga is also great for people with injuries or people who don’t know their left foot from the right” says Spence. “If you can breathe, you can do yoga.” —Ray Bendici