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

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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.”

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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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51 Responses to “Let’s Get it Straight: Yoga in Schools is Not A Religious Practice. ~ Lisa Flynn”

  1. leah says:

    amazing that this is even an issue anymore! thanks for addressing it so clearly.

  2. Sharon says:

    Well explained. Thank you for explaining it clearly and for also clearly suggestions the roles of everyone involved so that we may be successfull in brining yoga into schools.

  3. Sara says:

    Very well written with great suggestions for parental support. Clear communication is key in implementing new approaches to benefit all involved, especially the students.

  4. Excellent article, Lisa. I think you are spot on with giving information upfront – it is a key piece to successful children's yoga programming.

  5. Michelle says:

    Great article! As a parent, I am on board with anything that can help academics and overall well being. Providing information upfront is a simple solution to implement. I know my daughter has enjoyed the yoga she has had in her classrooms and I have seen her using some of the skills during "stressful" times.

  6. Angela says:

    Excellent info Lisa! I have to be especially careful to avoid using any props or lingo here that could be perceived as having religious connotations.

  7. Articulated beautifully. Thank you for sharing suggestions to include parents throughout the school year. I agree, if we are educating the children in schools, we have to have a way of educating the parents at home.

  8. jodi komitor says:

    thanks lisa for this timely powerful piece ~ you landed it!!

  9. Abby says:

    Thanks for bringing clarity to this issue, Lisa. As educators, our job doesn’t begin and end with our students. Especially as yoga educators, we must create context with our entire school communities.

  10. Shilo says:

    Well written, Lisa! As a Kindergarten teacher in a small Maine town, I found that the parents LOVED the idea of bringing yoga into the classroom on a daily basis. Clearly explaining the physical, as well as social/emotional benefits is certainly key. Glad you shared easy ways for teachers and schools to communicate these benefits to families!

  11. Clearly explained and well written. Thanks Lisa for underscoring the impact yoga can have to help children develop socially, emotionally, intellectually and physically. Teaching yoga in schools is an honor and privilege. Communicating the goals of a school based yoga & mindfulness program is essential for everyone to positively contribute to every child's learning and growth.

    Donna Freeman
    founder, Yoga In My School (http://yogainmyschool.com)

  12. Thanks so much Lisa. It's amazing how far open communication can go. The only time we had a parent object to yoga for her child for religious reasons, talking with her and letting her observe classes meant she ended up participating in our community adult class by the end of the year!

  13. abby says:

    Sharing this post on the religion question. The comments add to the conversation nicely, including those from Lisa. http://www.shantigeneration.com/blog/yoga-in-scho

  14. PranaMama says:

    I completely agree with the author. It’s too bad misunderstanding and miscommunication leads to dissension. Thanks Lisa for setting the record straight.

  15. Rachel Glowacki says:

    Thank you Lisa for addressing a main concern of parents that "yoga is not a religion." The out-line you provided will be a great resource for any school considering yoga as part of their program. Thank you for highlighting Kids' Holy Yoga as an example that yoga can be used as a tool to enhance faith. We intentionally teach children to pray and play as we bring the Bible alive through movement. I love yoga so much and want all children to experience the benefits that I am also the Co-Founder of Kids' Yoga Journey, a yoga company that creates innovative ways to connect kids to movement, music and art through great stories and ground-breaking technology. Kids' Yoga Journey is committed to bringing yoga to schools in a public-school friendly way! So as a mother/yoga teacher who teaches Christ-centered yoga and public-school friendly yoga it can be done in and the one's that benefit are the children, as they learn tools to manage the daily stresses of life, strengthen their bodies, and cultivate habits that will carry over into adulthood! I wish I had yoga in my elementary years.
    Peace and Health,
    Rachel Glowacki
    Director of Kids' Holy Yoga (www.holyyoga.net)
    Co-Founder of Kids' Yoga Journey (www.kidsyogajourney.com)

  16. Kathy Bousquet says:

    As a classroom teacher who has included practicing yoga with students, I have observed so many benefits. My students learn that yoga is a way to enhance well-being. They notice that they are able to focus, to relax, to experience a sense of calm and to feel energized following even a few simple breathing exercises or poses. Their learning is supported in so many ways, including an understanding of diversity (all children work at their individual level, and this is not the same for everyone) and of the importance of practice! So often, increased self-esteem and awareness result as well! I do feel that it is important to educate families as to how yoga will be implemented in the classroom and the many benefits it has for their children. I, and many teachers, received training through the Yoga 4 Kids program and an important component was being aware of the research supporting yoga in schools. I know that like everything, when parents have information such as this, they are more than open to trying and supporting new learning for their children. This was a great article, Lisa, and a reminder of how and why communication is key!

  17. corinna says:

    First of all, Excellent explanation Lisa. I hope that parents with concerns will read this article to better understand the purpose yoga for children in all settings and clarify their concerns. Children of this generation have alot more demands and pressure. Yoga4Kids in the classroom is an invaluable tool that will stay with them for their lifetime! And as a physical Therapist, i admire the physical benefits immensely! Keep on educating.

  18. Grounded says:

    Thank you Lisa! This is a great article we can all share with schools interested in having a yoga program. In our opinion, It needs to be the decision of the school to want yoga, not the agenda of the yoga teacher/company to sell yoga. There is no reason to make yoga mandatory for every student. In our experience, It works best as an offering/elective during or after school.

    • @undefined says:

      Well said and so important. It has to be the idea of the school certainly, especially if they are paying for or fundraising for an in-school program such as Yoga 4 Classrooms (www.yoga4classrooms.com). Even then, the presentation to the administration should provide clarity on this topic. I agree that ultimately, an 'on the mat' program works best as a scheduled elective or after school program. But there are other programs that use phys ed time for yoga, or even focus on integrating yoga right into the class day (again, Yoga 4 Classrooms is one of these). Thanks so much for your contribution to the conversation and for all you do at Grounded!

  19. Stephanie says:

    This is a prefect article to be handed out to parents before a yoga program begins in school. Thank you!

  20. @undefined says:

    I'm so glad you think it will be useful. My intention, exactly 🙂

  21. Vision_Quest2 says:

    This attitude should be relegated to the dustbin of history. I am of that generation in the U.S. that as a primary-schooler in a big city public school, was asked nearly every day to have a "moment of silence" – and it hadn't been engendered by the occasional mourning of a relevant, kid-centric tragedy in the news, either … don't deny the spirituality (separate from religion); don't preach a religion either …

    Brought up in a straightlaced but non-religious, non-ritual-observing family … I can tell you right now, i hadn't understood what that "moment of silence" was all about at age 7 or thereabouts …. yoga should be about the same …

  22. Carrie Tyler says:

    Fantastic Lisa!! Well said! We need yoga in schools.

  23. Lynda West says:

    Great suggestions for clearing up any confusion. It's such an important program to have in schools!!

  24. april says:

    Lisa, great article! I think sometimes the focus and pressure with children and academics takes away from self worth. Our schools need to teach children to be kind, considerate, and to treat others with respect while keeping their bodies/minds healthy. We need to continue to implement yoga in our schools and educate parents on the benefits of yoga in our school curriculum. :),,

    April Mc

  25. EncinitasParent says:

    Can you please provide the links or references for the research that shows the benefits of yoga for kids? I have heard a lot of discussion about the research that has been done for adults, but I was told there is not any research for children. I would really appreciate knowing that there have been proven results and that it has been shown to be physically safe for kids.__Here is another big issue for me. Our schools have adopted this program as part of the Core Curriculum. In some of our schools, kids are doing yoga at the time they would normally do math. With limited opportunities to put more into the normal school day, things have to be sacrificed. I think it is wrong for kids to be doing yoga instead of math

    • abby wills says:

      Thank you so much for coming forward and entering this conversation. Here is one link to a most recent study. l know more will follow, as my colleagues are mindful of research. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21647811

      I completely agree that yoga cannot and should not take the place of mathematics. These are two different disciplines that are not interchangeable. This appears to be a problem with programming and scheduling, though, not a problem with yoga. Yoga practice will assist some students with their math work by reducing stress, but it is in no way a substitute.

      Yoga can be integrated into any class period and/or as an enrichment class.

      I would love to talk more with you:
      [email protected]

      • childlightyoga says:

        Yes, well said Abby! This is an important conversation – surely yoga time should be 'replacing' other aspects of core curriculum. This is one of the reasons the Yoga 4 Classrooms program is focuses on training educators to integrate yoga throughout the day, rather than as a separate 'class' period. See my comment below.

    • childlightyoga says:

      Dear Encinitas Parent,
      I sincerely apologize I did not see this post until now as it was listed on another page. Yes, please take a look at this page. Near the bottom there is a PDF with a list of related research references that may be of interest to you: http://www.yoga4classrooms.com/supporting-researc

      I understand your concern about yoga being done during math time. Research and our experience has shown that the practice of yoga actually helps children focus and learn and also has a positive effect on overall classroom culture and behavior which ultimately leads to less time spent on behavior management and more time spent on learning.

      Please let me know how else I can help or support you!

  26. Karen H. says:

    Great article Lisa! It's important for parents to know what's being taught in their children's school. Often times people don't know, what they don't know. Preconceived ideas and thoughts about yoga can lead to closed minds. Education, information and communication will hopefully broaden minds and open hearts that yoga in schools benefits everyone – students and teachers alike.

  27. Aruna says:

    Its an honest mistake to think of yoga as religious, because of its roots. But yoga has changed in the west. I agree with Lisa that there are ways to make sure people understand the differences. All those suggestions are wonderful ways of educating. Well said Lisa.

    Hopefully people can get past their fear and see the health benefits for children.

  28. Diane says:

    Thanks for an excellent article Lisa, with concrete strategies for managing the essentials of communication between parents and schools when a yoga-based program is in place. Your article drove home the importance of clear communication up front, so as to avoid misinformation, as well as keeping the lines of communication open with parents throughout the duration of the yoga in school program. Parents like to know what their kids are doing, and the examples such as the Parent's Kick-off Night and providing weekly parent notes about the lessons, will not only help ensure parent support but offers them a greater understanding of how yoga in schools is benefitting their children.

  29. erica says:

    The truth that yoga is rooted in an ancient philosophical system that evolved to bring people to higher states of consciousness should not be in conflict with Christianity. Yoga is a spiritual practice, not a religion. As a spiritual practice, any religion can use the principles to deepen their religious practice. I do not see what is wrong with using Sanskrit words such as namaste, which means that you recognize the light in you and then you see it in others. I see it as a wonderful thing to introduce children to the culture where yoga came from.

    • childlightyoga says:

      I agree about the word 'namaste'. We do use the word in the Yoga 4 Classrooms program and define it clearly. In general, we steer away from Sanskrit, at least initially, as it's new and foreign and instills 'fear' for some reason. One step at a time. In our studio classes, we LOVE Sanskrit of course 🙂

  30. Nikhil says:

    Thanks Lisa, great article

  31. […] title of a post at Elephant Journal puts it bluntly: “Yoga in Schools Is Not a Religious […]

  32. karuna says:

    Great information and educative

  33. Sydney Solis says:

    Lots of holy wars going on….. people dying over their metaphors for the eternal!

    I always explain to people that yoga is a science. It's a fact that meditation and breathing calm the nervous system and improve test scores. It's a fact that yoga asana improves muscular skeletal alignment. Anything else is a projection of meaning by the mind and is considered mythology. Is it a bunch of beads on a string or is it a rosary? A mala? People need to know the difference between science and mythology.

  34. Sydney Solis says:

    Here is an excerpt from a Blog Post I wrote March 8, 2010 during a school residency in which parents were upset about yoga in school.

    Typically, a few parents are misinformed that yoga exposes their children to Eastern religion and had them pulled from class. I gave the teachers this response to give to parents.

    Dear Parent,

    I understand your concern about unfamiliar concepts being taught in your child’s school.

    Storytime Yoga is a firm supporter of the first amendment and separation of church and state.

    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

    None of these definitions apply to Storytime Yoga and what your child will be doing in school.

    Storytime Yoga is an educational program based on scientific and factual methods of exercise combined with the art of storytelling intended to improve children’s health and literacy.
    Any meaning that an individual creates about the stories and postures and projects onto these factual methods is up to him or her.

    We invite you to come and observe or participate for yourself to better understand these facts and the benefits your child will receive from experiencing Storytime Yoga.

    best wishes,

  35. Sydney Solis says:

    Let's have a Second Coming of the Enlightenment! Study mythology as a subject ! http://www.storytimeyoga.com/blog/kids-yoga-in-th

  36. […] skills, improves self-regulation and builds social emotional skills in children. Teaching mindfulness and yoga skills in schools reaches 100 percent of kids, as well as teachers, parents and the greater community helping all to […]

  37. Josh says:

    I was chatting with a Catholic preist who began his path to Catholicism in India. I asked him the big (possibly ignorant)question: "Does the diocese see yoga and your religion as a conflict?"

    His answer was, of course, 'No'. They were actually required to practice 2 hours a day.

  38. […] are new, our conclusions are the same: industry self-regulation is not accomplishing enough to protect children’s health from junk food […]

  39. […] There is not a single school of yogic thought, not one in all of my experience, that forces its stud… There are mentions of the gods and the texts of Hinduism and Buddhism, yes, but these are not […]

  40. […] Elephant Journal “the religion question” article […]

  41. Great, Lisa! I'm so proud to call you my friend. You do so much for the Yoga Community at large. Thanks for this thoughtful post and much needed response to the Encinatis California situation getting so much press right now.

  42. […] promoters argue that yoga’s not a religion because it doesn’t require belief in a particular god or doctrine. Still, I can understand why […]

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