Should Yoga be Banned from Public Schools as a Religious Activity?
Earlier this summer, a California judge ruled that Encinitas Union School District's yoga program can continue because it is not religious in nature. The sponsors of the yoga program want to roll it out to other public school districts. Should schools allow it? We asked three Christians who have written on yoga and Christian views of the body to weigh in.
Set Limits, Not a Ban
Amy Julia Becker blogs for Her.meneutics and is the author of several books, including Why I Am Both Spiritual and Religious.
My children began to learn yoga through our local public preschool a few years ago. They came home eager to show me "butterfly," "snake," and "dog" poses. At the school's Mother's Day celebration, they showed off their skills with a mixture of stretches, creative movement, and feeble attempts to sit still and breathe calmly.
Although I attended a regular yoga class myself, I was somewhat concerned that my children were learning yoga in school. I knew about its Buddhist and Hindu roots. I didn't want my kids to be indoctrinated. And it felt almost like an affront that they might be taught yoga in school, but wouldn't learn about Christmas or Easter there.
Once I thought it through, I realized that my kids were benefitting from the same aspects of yoga I experienced in my local studio. My kids weren't being asked to raise their hands in prayer or to chant, "Om." There were no statues of the Buddha. Rather, they were learning strength, balance, and flexibility. They were learning how to quiet their minds and bodies. They were learning that physical challenges can happen beyond the athletic fields and competition.
Yoga in public schools is appropriate as long as it is practiced within parameters that separate church and state. As far as I can see, two possibilities exist. One follows the model of my children's school. If yoga is a school-wide aspect of physical education or other classes, then it should be permitted only within proper and appropriate boundaries.
Yoga can be practiced in a purely physical manner as a way to provide students access to strength training, flexibility, and balance, as it was for my children. But just as a physical-education teacher shouldn't quote the apostle Paul before asking students to run a lap, the spiritual aspects of yoga have no place in a public school.
But yoga could also be practiced, even in a spiritual way, if done through a student-initiated voluntary group. Although public schools need to protect the separation of religion and state when it comes to any mandatory activity or curriculum, schools also should allow students freedom of religious expression.
Just as student-initiated Christian prayer groups should be allowed on public school campuses, voluntary student-sponsored yoga that draws on Buddhist or Hindu practices should likewise be permitted.
If my kids continue practicing yoga, inside or outside school, I will teach them that yoga has its roots in a spiritual tradition. And I will teach them that the Christian tradition also seeks to connect the mind, body, and spirit. I will explain to them how yoga has become one way for the Holy Spirit to work in me to begin to integrate these parts of my being. And I will be grateful that they learned the physical benefits of yoga at a very young age.
Context Is Everything
Matthew Lee Anderson is author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith and lead writer at MereOrthodoxy.com.