November 4, 2010

Yoga in Gym Class?

…Gym Class in Yoga?

Would you want to learn yoga from this woman?

Should I ever find myself flashing back to seventh grade gym in yoga class, I’ve been known to say, I’m rolling up my mat and walking out.

As such, I must confess to mixed feelings about yoga in gym classes.

These feelings might be reduced to two conflicting (or, should I say, competing) visions:

First, there’s yoga as I’ve been fortunate enough to have experienced it, brought to the kids: qualified, compassionate teachers dedicated to opening minds and hearts as well as bodies. Gently nudging children and adolescents toward greater physical health. Allowing them to find their centers when everything, particularly their bodies and emotions, seems so frighteningly in-flux. Creating a calm space, a in the midst of the often tumultuous, competitive, and sometimes hostile environments of their schools.

Used in this way, yoga has the potential to significantly affect the experiences of countless kids, perhaps reducing bullying and teenage suicide, helping students to be more focused in class, and giving young people a healthier sense of their own bodies, possibly even reducing the prevalence of eating disorders and substance abuse.

And I think: how wonderful! Yoga should be in gym classes everywhere!

Then, however, there’s gym class as I was unfortunate enough to experience it for twelve years: a place where social hierarchies based on physical strength and aggression are maintained and encouraged, where bullying is, essentially, given the official sanction of the school. Its popularity continuing to grow, yoga will likely, if it hasn’t already, become a more regular activity,  taught by regular phys. ed. staff rather than yoga-specific instructors brought in from outside. I picture one of the harsh “teachers” I knew belittling some poor fat or effeminate kid for his clumsy downward-facing dog, pointing enthusiastically toward the smirking jock on the next mat and saying “now that’s what I call yoga!

While physical education is often held up as essential to keeping childhood obesity in check, as often as not, it seems to encourage it, glorifying those who are athletic (who would probably keep themselves in shape through sports without that interval in the midst of the school day) and making those who are less athletic feel humiliated and hopeless. Our society is filled with people suffering from an exercise-phobia (and that certainly includes yoga-phobia) developed, at least in part, in gym class when they were kids.

And I think: what a travesty! Yoga should be kept out of gym classes at all costs!

The nexus of yoga and gym class is, it seems to me, a lot like that of yoga and postmodern capitalism—which, as perceptive Elephant readers might’ve noticed, has been the basis of an awful lot of rancor of late—as concepts and practices that seem to be inherently at odds are brought together. (And that’s not even mentioning inevitable controversies both in the yoga world and world at large about the spirituality or lack thereof of yoga in a public school context). Sure, competitive yoga existed well before the current yoga craze in the West (and, actually, originated in India). And, I’m told, there are phys. ed. instructors who try to run their classes in a ways that are actually more Free to Be You and Me than Lord of the Flies.  As such, I’m really not concerned that gym class is going to kill yoga as we know it, and I doubt that yoga’s really going to kill gym class as we know it.

Ultimately, though, as the practice becomes more widespread, gym class could be the first—or only—place where most Americans encounter yoga. There’s great potential for transformation in both directions. The question is, which direction that transformation will go, and how might the yoga community point things in a healthy and compassionate direction?

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