Yoga in Gym Class?

Via Jay Winston
on Nov 4, 2010
get elephant's newsletter

…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?


About Jay Winston

Jay S. Winston, founder and proprietor of Yoga for Cynics (, has a PhD in English, making him the kind of doctor who, in case of life-threatening emergency, can explain Faulkner while you die, is currently (semi-)(un-)employed as a freelance writer and editor, teaches creative writing to homeless men, tutors recovering addicts in reading, was recently certified as a Kripalu yoga teacher, gets around mostly by bicycle, is trying to find an agent for his novel, resides in the bucolic Mt. Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia, State of Mildly Inebriated Samadhi, U.S.A. and, like most people who bike and practice yoga, used to live in Boulder.


12 Responses to “Yoga in Gym Class?”

  1. ARCreated says:

    All fitness has it's place… Let gym be gym…running, volleyball, etc they can be taught by the qualified gym teachers. Offer yoga as an alternative to gym? as an after school class? SURE but IN gym…like the author it sort of scares me. And although I happen to be a yoga addict I dont' think it should ever be forced on people…and I too question the spirituality aspect..isn't it a bit in conflict with public education?
    Personally I would rather see a school wide morning calesthenics program with midday stretches…and leave yoga to yoga classes…
    for the record…I'm actually surprised that is how I feel…my immediate "REACTION" was YOGA FOR ALL…but in practicality it doesn't make sense.

  2. Diane says:

    I would have loved yoga in gym class because I was not interested in any other physical activity in school.

    In fact, when the gym was empty I would daydream a bunch of people with me on mats stretching, yet I had never even been introduced to yoga.

    Hooray for yoga at school!

  3. lovelysd says:

    Yoga in gym class may be the only exposure a student has to the amazing, life-changing physical and emotional benefits of yoga and breathwork. While the spiritual aspect is not addressed in this format, I still feel strongly that this offers the opportunity to introduce yoga to an entirely different and diverse populatin that would normally not be targetted by or interested in a traditional yoga studio. The more yoga the better!

  4. Linda-Sama says:

    I have to say that I don't understand what the concern is in your post, Jay.

    I taught yoga for 7 years on the community college level in the physical education department. In my area yoga is a common PE class in jr. colleges and it's not taught by gym teachers. I taught the full range of yoga in my class, including meditation, not just asana. I even spent a day on the yamas and niyamas, the only part of yoga philosophy I talked about separately. They also had to do papers. My friend, another certified yoga teacher, took over the class from me and also teaches the full spectrum of yoga.

    I can only speak for my area but yoga would not be a separate class on the HS or elementary level.

  5. Heather Saunders says:

    have a certified "guest" teacher over a certain period of time in the same time slot as gym(even better offer it year round) if the school has the space. Let the kids/parents decide(some people still think it is a religious thing):( what to take. Some will be more curious and drawn to, others will not. I would have benefited greatly from the exposure to yoga in my tween/teen years. I taught it to children up to 5th grade in private school and they loved it.

  6. I'll have to recuse myself, since if Yoga hadn't been offered at my tennis club, where I took it up originally solely to improve my flexibility for tennis, I probably never would had gotten into Yoga in the first place, and you all would have missed me, right?

    Bob W.

  7. ARCreated says:

    I have no doubt that you can competently teach yoga. But the question becomes spirituality in public schools. And although I personally don't have a problem with it I can understand and agree if not all parents would be OK with it…I am both a yoga guide and a personal trainer myself but I teach to adults that choose…I never implied that a yoga teacher couldn't be into sports training or vice versa — I just think yoga is so much more than physical exercise and shouldn't be PRESUMED to be for everyone. PUBLIC schools are secular…and even though I feel everyone can benefit from yoga I do not feel it is my duty to force it on anyone…that was my point.

  8. ARCreated says:

    glad you are here…but I think the key word is "offered" it was not part of the curriculum correct?

  9. Thanks, ARCreated. Yes, you are right. My response was very unclear. Sorry about that.

    What I meant to convey is that I like seeing Yoga available widely, even if it's just exercise, because because it's good for people at any level, and exercise Yoga is often the entry point for those who go on to other aspects of Yoga, like I have.

    I didn't mean to equate Yoga in a tennis club to Yoga in a school gym class. Obviously those are different things. I meant to convey that I'm biased towards embracing all forms of Yoga exposure, including Yoga in schools, because of my own personal experience of coming to highly traditional Yoga (=Gita Yoga) from an unusual beginning. I love Yoga so much that I wouldn't want anyone else to miss that initial exposure to it.

    Sorry I didn't write that more clearly the first time!

    Bob W.

  10. We'll be covering this topic during a Blog Talk Radio interview next week with Lisa Flynn of ChildLight Yoga

  11. Julia Jonson Cohn says:

    I, too, think that yoga should never be something that is required in schools. That said, I do think it's something that should be offered to kids. It seems that making the practice mandatory would take away that element of free will and desiring something more out of life which is what brought me to the mat almost 20 years ago. As someone who practices yoga with my own young children I can tell you when they tell me they are not up for it on any given day I simply say OK and we do something else.

  12. […] the way they taught gym in my school was just about guaranteed to inspire those who weren’t particularly athletic to stay […]