October 15, 2012

Let’s Get it Straight: Yoga in Schools is Not A Religious Practice. ~ Lisa Flynn

Courtesy of author

The last few days have brought a new wave of discussions about what has come to be known in the school yoga movement as “the religion question.”

Courtesy of author

The most recent story picked up by mass media has been powered by some parents in southern California, who have slammed the district’s twice-a-week yoga program, accusing it of religious indoctrination—seeing ‘yogis’ slamming these parents back is disappointing to say the least (really, guys?).

Clearly, a ball was dropped in communication and you can hardly blame these well-meaning parents for questioning what may not have been clearly presented to them in the first place.

As yoga is gaining popularity in the education system, it is imperative that we clearly define the relationship between yoga and mindfulness-based programs—and religious paradigms. Being open, clear and flexible when addressing this question is the only acceptable way to handling and preventing similar controversies.

Ultimately, it is the duty and responsibility of the school to let the parents and school community know of the benefits of the program being offered, just as they would when instituting a new math curriculum or bullying prevention program. A well-designed school yoga program should be able to provide to the school tools and templates for these communications.

Here are a few suggestions that can go a long way to ensuring parent support of a yoga program in schools:

1) Offer a “Program Info Night,” co-presented by the yoga program and administrator/s.

Provide a clear, professional presentation that includes notation of supporting research, an interactive “experience it for yourself” component and an opportunity for Q&A’s. Proactively bring up the “religion question” and clearly answer it; note that yoga in schools does not emphasize any religious perspective. The dictionary definition of religion is:

•       the belief and worship of a super human controlling power, especially a personal God or Gods
•       details of belief as taught or discussed
•       a particular system of faith or worship

Note that none of these definitions apply to what their children will experience in school (if that’s not true, it legally can not be offered in a public school). Emphasize that the focus on stretching and other motor breaks, community building, breathing, relaxing and the development of focus skills—all essential elements for success in school and overall health.

Offer that student participation is always optional and parents are welcome to observe and participate at any time.

2) As not everyone will be able to attend the informational night, be sure to send home a “Program Kick-off Letter,” addressed to parents from the school or district administrator.

Again, these communications should include a description of the benefits of yoga for children, specifically in the learning environment and should reference supporting research. In addition, it should be clearly stated what will (and what will not, e.g., Sanskrit, etc.) be shared in the classroom or gym.

3) Include ongoing “Parent Education” as an integral component of the program, providing transparency and open communication while encouraging parent participation at home. An example of this would be a weekly handout or email, or inclusion of a “what we’re learning in yoga” section of the school newsletter, sent home from the administrator or classroom teacher.

Along with other educators and researchers, we strongly believe that it is possible for schools to nurture the hearts and spirits of students, without violating the individual beliefs of families.

Courtesy of author

At the heart of the yogic and mindfulness practices are the concepts of social-emotional learning, character education, positive psychology, modern neuroscience and psychological science. An integral part of child’s regular experience is personal development and spiritual growth, which is currently under emphasized or completely left out in our educational system.

With school programming rooted in practices that address the whole child development, educators are attempting to bridge the goals of modern education and inner, spiritual, lives of children.

Yoga and mindfulness are essentially self-care tools and reflective approaches that support the holistic approach to human development by integrating social and emotional learning with healthy lifestyle habits. Secular in nature, contemplative approaches have the ability to support development of attention, creative problem-solving and insight, emotional self-regulation, empathy and compassionate action.

Interestingly, the Holy Yoga for Kids program, created by Rachel Glowacki, successfully merges specifically Christian beliefs with yoga for children.

In this interview with Glowacki, the description of how yoga is not a religion and how the practice can be applied, in fact, to bring one closer to one’s own belief system, is well presented. Certainly, as this curriculum is aligned with specific religious beliefs, it would not be appropriate to teach it in public school settings. But we offer this example to our readers to make a point: yoga, as presented in American culture, can be used within any religion, or none at all.

So, let’s get it straight, once and for all.

At school, yoga and mindfulness education is shared as a secular practice with the purpose of improving learning while supporting the health and well being of students and educators. Having said that, it’s essential that yoga program and school leaders practice due diligence in educating parents and the greater school community that this is so.

We have no doubt this extra effort will not only ensure parent support, but will ultimately support the growth of the school yoga and mindfulness movement as a whole.


Lisa Flynn, E-RYT, RCYT, is an inspired Mom, author and Smartwool fanatic. She’s also the Founder and Director of ChildLight Yoga and Yoga 4 Classrooms, organizations providing evidence-based yoga education to children in schools and communities and to professionals whose work supports the well-being of children. Her books include Yoga 4 Classrooms Card Deck and Yoga for Children, to be published Spring, 2013 by Adams Media, an F+W Media company. She can be reached at [email protected].






Editor: Bryonie Wise

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