Teaching Yoga in Schools

Examining the Issues Raised by the Alabama Bill

written by Crunch Ranjani

The news that Alabama would lift a ban on yoga in public schools was met with a range of reactions within the yoga world. For many, it was shocking that for almost 30 years, yoga had been banned in public schools in Alabama. Indeed, it appears that Alabama is the only state to have banned yoga since 1993.

After the initial shock (that yoga had even been banned) had passed, many yoga teachers commended Alabama legislators for taking a step in the right direction. There was a lot of positivity expressed in this thread in The Connected Yoga Teacher Facebook group, with many yoga teachers in support of lifting the ban in Alabama public schools.

However, the bill that passed with a vote of 73-25 does not completely overturn the initial ban, but rather, allows for yoga to be offered at the K-12 level with certain restrictions.

The bill outlines specific exclusions in the yoga that is permitted in schools, but a few were called into question, particularly:

  • All instruction in yoga shall be limited exclusively to poses, exercises, and stretching techniques.
  • All poses, exercises, and stretching techniques shall have exclusively English descriptive names.
  • Chanting, mantras, mudras, use of mandalas, and namaste greetings shall be expressly prohibited.

In response to these restrictions, some yoga teachers, particularly those of South Asian descent, raised the objection that this cherry-picking on the part of Alabama legislators was a clear instance of the whitewashing of yoga, and cultural appropriation.

In this article, we seek to explore some of the different issues that have been raised as a result of this bill being passed in Alabama. We do not claim to have any answers – instead, we aim to ask meaningful questions and share different perspectives that hopefully help to shed light on a complex topic, so that you can make your own decisions.

Yoga in Schools - image of classroom

Yoga and Religion

In 1993, the Alabama Board of Education voted to prohibit yoga as well as hypnosis and meditation because of pressure from conservatives about yoga’s Hindu roots. But does having roots in a particular religion necessarily make the practice a religious practice?

It is generally accepted that yoga originated in India over 5,000 year ago, but beyond that, there are often disagreements about where, why or how it came to be practiced. Yoga is often thought to be a part of Hinduism, but studies have shown close links to Jainism and Buddhism. Traditional yoga teachers have also been known to bring in elements of their own religious practices in teaching yoga.

In addition to this, yoga asanas often have names related to Hindu gods and goddesses, such as Hanumanasana, named for Lord Hanuman, Natarajasana, named for Nataraja (Lord Shiva depicted as the divine dancer), and Surya Namaskar, a series of asanas that pay homage to Surya, the Sun god.

It seems evident that yoga and Hinduism are inextricably linked in some way, but is the practice of yoga necessarily the practice of Hinduism (or any other religion that originated from the Indian subcontinent)? Is it possible to practice yoga while maintaining faith in another religion, or is the practice of yoga necessarily at odds with other belief systems?

These are perhaps personal questions that can only be answered by each individual practitioner (or non-practitioner) who either believes that their values and beliefs either align with or oppose the teachings of yoga. Either way, to determine that to practice yoga is unequivocally the same as practicing Hinduism may be a stretch. 

 

Secularism and Separation of Religion and State

A common objection raised as to why yoga in its “full form” cannot be taught in schools is because schools are meant to be secular. To teach all aspects of yoga would be akin to endorsing or advocating a “yogic” religion. The US is also well known for its stance on the “separation of church and state” to protect the religious freedom of individuals. As such, “true” yoga cannot be taught as it would be unconstitutional.

Consider however, that the US Pledge of Allegiance includes the phrase “under God”, and is commonly taught in public schools, including those in Alabama. While students are not required to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, they are still taught it. Does this go against the principle of separation of church and state? In the case of yoga being taught, it is not mandatory and students can choose to opt-out. Would this not be akin to teaching the Pledge of Allegiance but not requiring students to recite it – students can be taught yoga but not required to practice it? If not, is this merely a case of the dominant / more widely practiced religion being “approved” for consumption in schools, but alternative religions being suppressed?

In schools, students also often participate in the celebration of religious holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah, even practicing gift exchanges and other customs related to these holidays. In this case, are these religions not being endorsed over other religions, seeing as that religious holidays of other religions are not celebrated, observed or even taught in schools?

It is evident that religion in and of itself is not the problem. This idea that teaching yoga in its “full form” in schools goes against secularism may just be a way of keeping non-dominant religions in check. Where the dominant religion (Christianity or other Christian denominations) gets a free pass, other religions run up against bureaucratic obstacles.

We may also ask ourselves – where does one draw the line between teaching about a religion and practicing it? And where does yoga fall in that spectrum?

 

Can Language be Religious?

One aspect of yoga that was strictly forbidden in the Alabama bill was the use of Sanskrit names in teaching yoga. One must ask – why?

Some yoga teachers have commented that it is to increase accessibility of yoga to students who may struggle with Sanskrit names. However, in the teaching of ballet, French words like Emboité, Ciseaux, and Pirouette are not avoided to make it easier for students. Why should yoga be an exception?

Perhaps it is because of the religious association of Sanskrit, which leads to the question – why is Sanskrit being linked to religion? Indeed, can language be religious at all?

Just because Sanskrit originated from the same place as yoga and Hinduism doesn’t make it a religious language. Language is a means of communication, and just because the teachings of a religion are shared in a particular language, does not make that language a religious language.

Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek are recognized as the biblical languages, yet these are not considered particularly religious in daily use. The Catholic church uses Latin in its liturgical rites, yet Latin is still considered an acceptable language in anatomy, botany and a variety of sciences. Yet, when it comes to Sanskrit, why is its use in schools being rejected on the basis of its religious association?

Do we hold different standards for different languages? Why, and why is this acceptable?

Legislating Yoga

Why is Alabama Different?

Yoga is offered in more than 940 schools across the United States, yet Alabama stands alone in its legislation of how yoga should be taught in schools. In other states, schools are left to their discretion (and that of individual yoga teachers) about how yoga should be taught to students. While on occasion, there have been complaints from parents, for the most part, how yoga is taught in schools has been kept out of the courts.

Yet, Alabama bucks this trend, and it is easy to see why.

Alabama is well-known as a conservative state, and is also a part of the “Bible Belt”, a section of the US with high religious affiliation and practice. In fact, a vast majority of Alabamians identify as Christian.

There is no doubt that the religious leanings of Alabama residents was a key factor in how the Alabama bill was drafted. By stripping yoga of all religious and cultural elements, Alabama legislators sought to make yoga more “palatable” – but what impact does this legislation have?

 

Is This Yoga?

The Alabama bill outlines expressly what is allowed and what isn’t in the teaching of yoga. As a result of this, many people have said that what students would be learning in “yoga classes” in Alabama is not yoga. So, what then is yoga, and what makes yoga, yoga?

Some yoga teachers are of the opinion that yoga is all about meeting people where they’re at. In a place like Alabama, where most people have misguided notions of what yoga is, what it entails, and what it represents – the restrictions on yoga that Alabama has put into place are necessary to share yoga in a way that is comfortable for the people there. However, is keeping people comfortable the most important part of sharing yoga?

If yoga teachers only teach breathing, meditation and movement exercises, and leave out the philosophy and roots of yoga, is that still yoga? What makes this form of “yoga” different from a stretching and exercise class? What is the need to put the label of yoga without embracing all aspects of the practice?

 

Exploring the Idea of Progress

Many of the yoga teachers who commended Alabama for lifting the ban on yoga in schools raised the point that being allowed to teach yoga in schools in any form is a step in the right direction. They pointed to the benefits that students would see from practicing asanas, breathing techniques and mindfulness, and celebrated the fact that yoga was getting more exposure in places where people are normally unaware or resistant to it.

While it may not be what is typically considered “true yoga”, this form of yoga being shared may inspire students to pursue it outside of the school setting, instead of never having been exposed to it. For a state like Alabama, some said – baby steps are all that can be expected, and a small step is still a step toward progress.

However, is any progress better than no progress at all?

South Asian teachers in particular have criticized the bill and spoken up about how the Alabama bill negatively impacts the yoga community, especially already marginalized South Asians.

Shailla Vaidya, who spoke about Cultural Appropriation in Yoga on The Connected Yoga Teacher Podcast, emphasized that the issue with the Alabama bill is that it is legislating what would be forbidden (i.e. illegal) in schools. 

While many yoga teachers use their own discretion to adapt how they share yoga with their students for specific contexts (e.g. to a Christian yoga group, or a group with language barriers, or even children’s yoga outside of the school) to make it accessible and acceptable for them, legislating yoga in such a manner crosses a line. Forbidding key aspects of yoga and a person’s culture, whether teachers choose to incorporate them or not, is the issue, she said.

Pooja Virani also commented that expressly forbidding the teaching of yoga’s culture and history institutionalizes white supremacy and cultural appropriation. She said “Capitalizing off of a marginalized group’s culture while erasing the culture itself is exploitation [which] promulgates further violence and marginalization”.

Having guidelines in place for how yoga should be taught is acceptable, but making certain aspects of yoga illegal is where Alabama falls short.

Other South Asian yoga teachers on social media platforms have also reiterated that idea that stripping yoga of what white legislators deem “inappropriate” and only keeping what they feel is palatable or relevant is white washing of yoga and codifying cultural appropriation. It also sends the message to impressionable young children that it is acceptable practice to take what you want from other cultures with no respect or consideration for people of that culture. Is this the lesson we want to be teaching future generations?

Ahimsa, not doing harm to others, is one of the key pillars of yoga. If South Asian yoga teachers are speaking up about the harm that is being done to them because of this bill being passed in Alabama, should we not give their pain and hurt due consideration – instead of prioritizing the benefits to white people?

In looking at what’s happening in Alabama with legislating yoga and putting restrictions on what is allowed and what isn’t, we must ask ourselves the important questions – Who does this law benefit? Who does it marginalize or harm? Going further, we need to also question – Are we okay with this, and why or why not?

Yoga for Children vs. Yoga for Adults

Teaching Yoga in Schools Examining the Issues Raised by the Alabama Bill

Another issue that is often brought up is that yoga for children is different from yoga for adults, and should be treated as such. Ideas that children are too young to be taught the “heavy” part of yoga, or “don’t need” to know about the history or cultural roots of yoga are often shared in defence of the restrictions Alabama put into place.

However, we need to consider what exactly that means, and why we hold on to such views with regards to the education of children.

As Pooja Virani also pointed out in her comment, children are taught about the religious and cultural underpinnings of the Holocaust, the Crusades, and other historical events – this information is not deemed “heavy” or unnecessary to them. Around the holidays, children sing Christmas and Hanukkah songs. Why is learning about the cultural or historical part of yoga any different?

There is no doubt that part of the driving force for the Alabama bill is fear. Particularly in (but by no means limited to) the rural South, there is a great deal of fear – fear of the other, fear of things that are different, fear of anything that people are not used to, including yoga.

What, really, are people so afraid of? As this article highlights, for highly religious people, the fear of religious coercion is very real. However, as some comments on this article point out, if the mere practice of yoga is sufficient to persuade children to abandon their faith, it is perhaps reflective of the fact that their faith wasn’t particularly strong to begin with.

In contemplating the difference in teaching yoga to children and yoga to adults, perhaps we should really be asking ourselves if these differences really exist (e.g. consideration for the development of the child’s body vs. a fully developed adult body) or are merely social norms (i.e. children don’t need to know or are not capable of understanding certain things).

Self-Reflection on Intention

The passing of the Alabama bill has brought many issues to the fore, and in this article, we have raised many questions surrounding this topic. These are not easy questions to answer, and they definitely do not have any clear-cut answers.

Our purpose in this article is to encourage you to broaden your minds and explore different perspectives, even those you may not have considered.

To that end, we’d like to leave you with some final questions around intention.

  • What does it mean to practice yoga? 
  • What is your intention in practicing yoga?
  • What is your intention in teaching yoga?
  • How do these intentions shape your perspective on the Alabama bill?

 

As you reflect on these questions, do also keep in mind that intention does not outweigh impact, particularly negative impact. Many South Asian yoga teachers have responded to the passing of the Alabama bill by expressing their hurt at their culture, heritage, traditions and roots being erased for the benefit of white society. 

It is important that we do not brush aside this harm being done to an already marginalized community by pointing to our good intentions of sharing yoga to the wider community. Instead, we can take this time to delve into why this decision has provoked such a reaction, what we can do to address it, and how to avoid such a situation in the future.

We would love to know your thoughts on this issue. Do leave a comment below, or join the discussion in The Connected Yoga Teacher Facebook group.

About the Author

Crunch Ranjani is a copywriter & editor who specializes in writing content for health & wellness professionals.
She loves to travel and has been a digital nomad since 2013.
Visit Crunch's website.