Changing Perspectives Pertaining to Yoga being Taught in Public Schools: A secular program or an exercise tainted with spirituality?

Posted on December 11, 2013 by

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How Yoga in Public Schools is portrayed in the Media

By: Jordan Anderson

 

            The American public school system is an integral part of American education with both positives and negatives shown in the media year round. From lack of funding for extra curricula’s due to bankruptcy of states to outstanding student scores on standardized tests, public schools have had their fair share of controversies in American media. The topic of religion has always been a taboo for American schools as it states in the constitution the separation of church and state. Through this understanding of it being illegal for any religious aspects to be “promoted” in any way in government run programs, anything remotely religious, or perceived as religious, have been banned from public schools. This stance on separation of church and state is what has ultimately led to the long-term debate over whether yoga is inherently religious and if it an appropriate technique to utilize in public schools. The media has taken different stances on this topic as recently news has revolved around the decision made in favor of yoga being taught in a school in Encinatas, California. This lawsuit that was covered by the media over many months began after the school was sued by parents Stephen and Jennifer Sedlock on behalf of two-hundred fifty community members who signed a petition against the practice of Ashtanga yoga in the district’s schools. (Ebrahimji). This topic becomes interesting due to the broad range of people and groups that have taken to different media outlets to state their opinion; opinions on the topic have come from a wide range of sources including religious communities, principals of public schools, parents, teachers, and in my opinion most importantly, the students. The topic of practicing yoga in public schools holds both positive and negative connotations depending on what media source presents the idea.

            In the first two news sources I analyzed, both articles focused on, in particular, the Encinitas case against yoga in public schools before branching into a larger debate over the history and background of yoga. The main question is whether yoga is secular or religious; this becomes the main point in not only the articles that are discussed but in the court case as well. In the article from PANTAGRAPH.com, the author incites interest in the topic by creating a sensationalized title, “Battles erupt over yoga in Public Schools”, promoting an interest by indicating a strong controversy. Haynes does acknowledge that yoga has religious roots and that it originated in ancient India as a school of Hindu philosophy; through this admission he attempts to stay neutral about the subject by also mentioning the many schools that have adopted yoga programs have claimed to be secular in defense of the framework from which yoga originated. Haynes proposed both sides of the yoga debate; he mentions a program called “Grounded” that embodies the Eastern religious traditions of yoga, but then ends that explanation with a quote from Yoga Ed, that “yoga is science, not religion” (Haynes). By acknowledging both sides of yoga, Haynes does not make religion a kind of evil in the yoga debate, instead he presents how yoga can be taught in different ways in schools, and the public school systems can choose which one they would want to use.  

            In contrast to Haynes article on the history of yoga and presenting two different types of programs that could be taught in schools, the article from CNN had biasness to it that I did not find in the first article. The author Ebrahimji begins by describing a scene in which schoolchildren are practicing yoga, and then incorporates a quote from a student; “I like the way it helps me learn how to control my emotions and just to have fun in life” (Ebrahimji). This quote has a positive connotation about the yoga program and this positivity is mirrored throughout the rest of the article. The court case is more deeply dissected than in Hayne’s article, as it describes how although The American Yoga Association states that yoga itself is not a religion, the problem is the fact that religion, specifically Hinduism, is incorporated and associated with yoga. A bias towards the secularity of yoga is emphasized, as there is one paragraph given towards a woman who pulled her son out of the school district’s yoga classes after finding that “the religious ritual” was inappropriate for school and “did not align with the family’s chosen religion of Christianity” (Ebrahimji). The rest of the article then focuses on how yoga is really just a physical program, a program that in its barest form “relates to your body”.  In its essence, the article seems to come as a positive reinforcement after the ruling by San Diego Superior Court Judge John Meyer ruled in favor of the Encinatas school district and its yoga programs, as the Judge decided that the curriculum “didn’t emphasize religion” (Ebrahimji).

            The CNN article emphasizes the perspective of the non-spiritual side to yoga, explaining in detail the physical benefits, such as cultivating balance and strengthening muscles along with personal benefits, as children learn to “self-regulate” and release tension resulting in students becoming less stressed and having greater control over their negative emotions (Ebrahimji). Similarly, a blog post written by a former teacher turned yoga instructor argues in favor of the physical and emotional benefits of practicing yoga in schools, disregarding yoga as an inherently religious experience. Ebrahimji utilizes hard facts in her article as she gives statistics such as “childhood obesity rates have doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past thirty years” to promote the necessity of yoga in schools to encourage physical fitness. Religion is thus put on the backburner and cast aside as a factor within yoga while only emphasizing the physical aspects of yoga, the actual exercise part of it, without any of the spirituality portion. She includes additional information from studies that suggest positive changes in student’s moods and attitudes due to yoga, along with an improvement in their posture, a more relaxed state after classes, and an increase in energy (Ebrahimji).

Correspondingly, yoga instructor Michelle Bickley took to a popular health blog/site ELEPHANT to argue in favor of yoga being a life changing and positive experience for students. The blog is written as an argumentative piece, unlike the article written by Harvey or the short piece by Jared Whitlock summarizing the happenings of the trial about public schools in California. Bickley writes from the position of a former teacher who was unhappy with the education system she worked in at a Los Angeles public school. For Bickley, yoga is a tool, she argues, that should be used in order to fix an education system that is in “need of a major overhaul” (Bickley). Bickley’s argument does not come from a place of religion or religious vs. non-religious yoga; instead the argument is centralized around the American education system and the state of disarray it is in. In the blog Bickley cites a study that suggests that middle school students who did yoga “had better work habits, cooperation, attendance, and higher GPA’s than their counterparts” (Bickley). The mental, emotional, and physical benefits are promoted in detail while avoiding any spiritual benefits from students practicing yoga in schools.

Bickley takes a brief paragraph in her three-page article to explain that in her ten years in teaching yoga in schools, there was never a religious aspect involved. Instead, the program was simply focused on physical practice and breathing techniques, all values, Bickley argues, that are extensions of the existing school curriculum (Bickley). Bickley explicitly states the outcome of the controversy about the Ashtanga based yoga program in Encinitas schools citing the Judge’s ruling that “even though yoga dates back to 1500 BC, and has its roots in Hinduism, the EUSD came up with a curriculum… that emphasizes respect, proper breathing, and posture” (Bickley). She then tells the reader to “move on” from the religion controversy in yoga. This blog article differs from any of the other articles analyzed in this paper as it comes from an author with a personal experience with the subject they are writing about, instead of writing from a place of research and solely based on facts. Bickley takes it a step farther by suggesting how to implement a yoga program that will promote these physical and emotional benefits; PE is an “obvious” suggestion, and she also suggests that yoga can be a part of an arts program through creative movement or dance. Providing actual steps to create and maintain a program gives the reader a sense of positivity about yoga programs and instead of questioning its secularity, the reader becomes more focused on all of the benefits that yoga as a physical exercise will afford students who participate in the program.

Religion, especially Eastern religions such as Hinduism that Western cultures and schools seem to shy away from, has always been restricted in public secular settings. The issue of yoga in public school systems exacerbates the controversy of separating church and state and citizen rights while attending public schools. After analyzing different media sources and their outlooks on yoga and religion, I have concluded that yoga and religion in general is all about context, and that context is based off of an author, their opinions, and the circumstances surrounding those opinions. 

 

 Citations

 Bickley, Michelle. “How Yoga Can Save Our Schools.” Elephant. (2013): n. page. Web. 10 Dec. 2013. <http://www.elephantjournal.com/2013/10/how-yoga-can-save-our-schools-michele-bickley/&gt;.

 Ebrahimji, Alisha. “Is Yoga Too Religious for Schools?.” CNN. (2013): n. page. Web. 10 Dec. 2013. <http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/22/health/yoga-in-schools/index.html?sr=sharebar_twitter&gt;.

 Haynes, Charles. “Battles erupt over yoga in public schools.” Pantagraph.com. (2013): n. page. Web. 10 Dec. 2013. <http://www.pantagraph.com/news/opinion/columns/charles-haynes-battles-erupt-over-yoga-in-public-schools/article_928a8dfa-8857-11e2-8156-001a4bcf887a.html&gt;.

 Whitlock, Jared. “Attorney’s deliver closing arguments in school yoga trial.” Coast News. (2013): n. page. Web. 10 Dec. 2013. <https://thecoastnews.com/2013/06/attorneys-deliver-closing-arguments-in-school-yoga-trial/&gt;.

 

 Additional Information:

GreenTree Yoga- Sustainable Yoga in Elementary Schools 

This interactive site is a place where schools can purchase this interactive yoga set.Image

“Sustainable Yoga in Elementary Schools.” GreenTREE Yoga.<http://greentreeyoga.org/Programs/Elementary_LittleTREE_Yoga/elementaryyoga.htm&gt;.

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