Yoga in Schools: Good Fitness or Religious Indoctrination?

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Yoga in Schools: Good Fitness or Religious Indoctrination?
We delve into the recent controversy over teaching of Yoga in public schools. While some see it as a healthy way for children to gain strength and flexibility, some parents are viewing it a religious indoctrination.
A new trend appears to be sweeping some public school districts, despite the alarm by a handful of parents. Yoga has recently been introduced into a number of school systems across the country, allowing students the opportunity to stretch, breathe and focus their bodies and minds during a busy school day. While many tout the new program as a healthy way for students of all ages to gain additional fitness benefits, some are concerned that the religion attached to the movements violates the separation of church and state in public schools.

Introducing Yoga to California Students

One school district that has fully embraced the health benefits of yoga in public schools is Encinitas Union School District in North San Diego County, California. The North County Times reports that the yoga program has been going strong in some district schools over the past three years. This year, thanks to a $533,000 grant from the K.P. Jois USA Foundation, the program has now been expanded throughout the district.

Approximately half the schools in Encinitas now provide yoga instruction for 30 to 40 minutes at a time, twice a week, the publication reports. Yoga joins other enrichment programs offered in the district, including music, reading and gardening. The additional classes serve a dual purpose by providing students with instruction in new subjects while freeing up teacher time for planning and other duties.
The schools, which claim to have removed all religious references from their yoga program, assert that the yoga sessions provide valuable physical fitness to students. Yoga is also somewhat unique from other types of fitness programs because it teaches students stress reduction and management, as well as the health benefits of exercise. Students learn deep breathing techniques that relax their minds as well as their bodies.
This video describes yoga for the classroom.
The Problem with Yoga
While yoga has been a part of public school instruction since 2001, when a pilot program was launched by YogaEd, some Encinitas parents have voiced concern over the recent spread of the program into more of their schools. These parents, according to Diets in Review, have stated their worries over the potential for religious indoctrination by bringing yoga into the classroom. Ashtanga yoga, the type taught in Encinitas classroom, has traditionally been tied to the Hindu religion.
However, school officials have tried to reassure parents that all religious aspects of the discipline have been removed for the purpose of classroom instruction. Tim Baird, superintendent of Encinitas schools, explained to Diets in Review that students are currently taught the positions, along with traditional deep breathing techniques. Baird adds that the benefits of yoga, including stress relief and relaxations, have proven beneficial to the students.
Some parents do not agree. They have threatened to sue the school district if they don’t stop the teaching of yoga in the classroom, according to a report at United Press International.
“There’s a deep concern the Encinitas Union School District is using taxpayer resources to promote Ashtanga yoga and Hinduism, a religion system of beliefs and practices,” Dean Broyles, an attorney representing the parents, stated in an email to Superintendent Baird. Broyles also warned of legal action if a move was not made to take yoga out of the schools. Concern was also raised about the fact that taxpayer dollars are supporting a program with religious teaching in the schools.
This video describes Bright Kids Yoga, a collaborative project teaching yoga in schools in rural northeastern Pennsylvania.
No Indoctrination, Health Benefits Primary Focus
The school district assures parents that no religious teaching is accompanying the yoga instruction, and insists the health benefits make this a program worth keeping. One of the members of the Encinitas school board, and a yoga participant, told the North County Times that parents and their attorney are looking for a problem when none exists. She stated that while parents can object, and even keep their children out of the activity, getting rid of the program for all students would be unfortunate. To date, only a few children are not currently participating in the yoga sessions at their schools.
The assistant superintendent of Encinitas, David Myashiro, agrees. Myashiro told the North County Times that the schools are not teaching religion – not because it is unconstitutional, but simply because that is not their policy. He added that the yoga sessions were providing healthy benefits for the students, based on early assessments of the program.
“I think we’re slowing down the game at school a little bit so kids can be more thoughtful about what they’re doing and learn how to deal with stress and pressure, whether that’s coming from a test or coming from another kid,” Myashiro told the North County Times.
Yoga Works in New York
California is not the only state introducing yoga into its school day. Staten Island Alive reports that several Staten Island schools are now incorporating yoga as well. Instructors from Time for Yoga have been visiting a number of schools in the area to demonstrate yoga techniques to the students. Classes have been taught at the elementary, middle and high school levels, in hopes of getting students of all ages interested in the ancient practice. The goal of the program is to promote both the health and peace benefits of yoga while addressing the obesity epidemic sweeping schools across the country.
This video illustrates how Cambridge Public Schools in Massachusetts trains their teachers to create a calmer and balanced classroom environment through yoga. 
While Staten Island continues to explore the possibility of yoga in public schools, the fight in California appears to be far from over. Yoga classes in Encinitas schools will be expanded to additional school locations in January, furthering concerns of parents even while it extends the health benefits of the discipline to more students across the district.
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