5 Reasons Why Yoga Might Be Too Religious for Schools.

Via Amy Taylor
on Feb 23, 2013
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We can’t strip yoga of its transformational properties with any integrity and respect for the practice; I think that’s okay but it does make the public school relationship a potential challenge.

I teach yoga in schools.

I love it, the kids love it and the teachers love it. When I leave the classroom, kids are calm, focused and ready to learn. I believe my classes support them on multiple levels: physical, emotional, social, mental and spiritual.

Whoa, wait a minute. Did I just say the “s” word?

Yup. And that’s why I can almost understand the concerns of the parents who have filed a lawsuit to try and prevent yoga from being taught in the public schools in Encinitas.

Yoga 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 people might think yoga smells kind of religious.

Because it does.

1. Yoga is infused with sacredness.

I don’t talk about Hindu gods and goddesses in my kids’ classes; I don’t talk about the divine at all. Still, there’s an underlying current in any good yoga class, a sense of the ancient and the sacred.

And it’s hard to avoid the core concept of “shining your light.” This is not some kind of secular spark, like the kind you make in Tech Ed—this is something else.

Deep breathing evokes the spirit within; hands folded at the heart invites prayer and quiet time with eyes closed, seeking peace, is meditation.

I suspect some atheists find these practices acceptable. Others may not.

2. Yoga teachers tend to be spiritual people.

Most of us who have chosen to entwine our lives with yoga find deep meaning and resonance in rituals including chanting, breath work, meditation and spiritual disciplines.

That’s how I feel—it’s not what I say, especially in public schools. But it’s who I am.

So, sure, I can see some atheist parents saying, “Hold on a sec. What’s this all about?”

When the folks in Encinitas looked into the roots of Ashtanga yoga, they found some things that concerned them. Fair enough.

3. Yoga runs parallel to some streams of Eastern religion.

Look no further than these pages to see what I mean. Yoga practice and the religious idea that the divine is within are close bedfellows.

If you don’t believe in the divine, this relationship might be troubling. Actually, I could see conservative Christian parents getting concerned about this one but, so far, it’s the atheists who seem ready to raise the ante.

Tilt the lingo as you will (no Sanskrit spoken here) but that’s not being transparent. Yoga has deep connections to Eastern religions, although its development in the West has been influenced by other things such as British gymnastics.

Yoga has proven useful in and adaptable to nearly any population and setting—I don’t believe this is because we’re secular beings—I believe it’s because we’re spiritual beings.

4. Yoga is much more than stretching.

This is why it’s been co-opted from the gym to the classroom. Yoga changes the way kids feel and behave; it may well be good for the body but that’s only a surface benefit.

Yoga doesn’t replace the need for aerobic exercise and recess and P.E. don’t replace the need for yoga.

We can’t strip yoga of its transformational properties with any integrity and respect for the practice; I think that’s okay, but it does make the public school relationship a potential challenge.

We have to decide: Are we okay with kids doing spiritual work in schools?

I know I am; others might not agree.

5. Asana is only the beginning.

By teaching asana (physical postures) to children, we are building the foundation for a practice that has the goal of enlightenment or samadhi, meaning a change in consciousness or a merger with the divine.

I’m not suggesting anyone would go there in schools; heck, many of us who teach and practice yoga never get anywhere near there. Still, the physical practice is believed to be a gateway.

For many of us, that gateway holds great promise and allure. But is it right to lead children through that gateway without parental guidance and consent?

It feels deeply right to me in some ways—but I have some lingering doubts.

I feel the same way about teaching Christian concepts in Sunday School: kids are susceptible and trusting—we have to approach that with great honor and respect.


Look, I want to keep teaching in the schools—I’ll keep it simple and straightforward when I’m in the classroom. But let’s not pretend there isn’t an issue here that deserves our thoughtful consideration and respect for divergent viewpoints.

If we believe kids today could use spiritual bolstering and yoga provides that, let’s name it and claim it.

We might just find space in the law and doctrine to stand in our truth.



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Ed: Bryonie Wise


(Source: Uploaded by user via Alice on Pinterest)


About Amy Taylor

Amy Taylor writes about parenting, yoga and other journeys for jconline.com, GaiamTV, elephant journal and others. Find her biweekly columns here. She completed 200-hour YTT at CITYOGA in Indianapolis in 2008 and teaches classes for all ages at  Community Yoga. When she's not writing or practicing yoga, Amy loves to read, research and have adventures with her husband and twin sons. Follow her on Twitter.


27 Responses to “5 Reasons Why Yoga Might Be Too Religious for Schools.”

  1. Erica says:

    Here in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, Kripalu Yoga teachers have been bringing yoga to the public schools successfully for a number of years. Part of the success comes from the stated intention of the program to assist the students in developing self-management skills. During the asana and pranyama practice, they are led to recognize their inner reactions to what is going on, to focus on being present, and to exercise non-judgement of themselves.

    Having been trained in the Kripalu in Schools method, I learned to lead class with no foreign terms while letting students know that the practice has roots in a classic form. While gaining insights in how to notice when they are in need of some deep breaths; when they can try a little harder; when they need to back off, they also gain respect for the discipline and for themselves. Yoga is not dumbed down for them, they are encouraged to reach up to their own abilities.

    The most frequent comment on the results of the practice from the students is that they have come to notice when they are uptight and how to respond effectively with that. The dirgha breath becomes a go-to for many of them.

    As to cleansing anything spiritual from one's teaching, I have found that regardless of how sterile the presentation of Hatha practice is, once a person begins to open the body, other aspects of them begin to open also. It's a beautiful process to observe.

  2. Amy says:

    Erica, thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

  3. devacat says:

    I'm a yoga teacher and a professor of poetry. Teaching literature and writing is of the spirit. Teaching anthropology is of the spirit. Teaching physics is of the spirit. Some states now want to exclude the humanities because they encourage critical thinking and might undermine the authority of parental and market beliefs; they want trade schools to produce worker drones. That's not education, and a skilled teacher of yoga or any of the above can kindle the awareness of our students without imparting dogma.

  4. Gabriela says:

    I agree with every. single. point. This is not about yoga being bad for children, this is about living in a secular society and respecting all beliefs. I do not agree that you can strip yoga of its spiritual aspect.
    * "Dhyana means absorbtion. It is the art of self-study, reflection, keen observation, or the search for the Infinite within. It is the observation of the physical processes of the body, study of the mental states and profound contemplation. It means looking inwards to one’s innermost being. Dhyana is the discovery of the Self."
    and then again
    * "The yogy does not look heavenward to find God for he knows that He s within, being known as the Inner Self. He feels the kingdom of God within and without and finds that heaven lies in himself"
    (B. K. S. Iyengar)

  5. Amy says:

    No one could be a greater fan of the humanities than I; however, I find it disingeneous to imply that yoga is merely an additional subject within this realm. Striving for more honesty and less wordy subterfuge here. But thank you for sharing your opinion!

  6. Amy says:

    I think we must be very clear on our intentions and methodology. As in many branches of yoga, that's not yet the case.

  7. Gabriela says:

    Exactly. I am not a teacher of yoga, but I wonder: if yoga was taught in schools (and in some instances, it is), who are the teachers and what formal instruction do they come from? It is not very difficult nowadays to get certified in teaching yoga, sometimes it takes as little as 3 weeks with no final exam requred. I applaud your honesty as well as your intention to avoid the deep aspects of yoga in your classes. However, as you well put it, let's not pretend they're not there. And if they're there, who teaches them and by what methodology? We are talking about wisdom that was handed down for thousands of years, after all.
    I still believe we're in the very beginning stages of Western yoga development and I hope that we are very careful of how we want to transmit this wisdom. I would not want to see a "soup" of every things mixed.

  8. devacat says:

    Beg pardon, but there's no line between my poetry and yoga. If you find it disingenuous, consider that you might be misreading through your own filters.

  9. Amy says:

    It takes a lot of discernment, for sure. It's easier to paint over the nuances with a rainbow brush. But I think these are important things for us to thnk and talk about.

  10. Amy says:

    I have studied poetry and literature and not found them akin to yoga in the particular ways I reference above, although certainly spirit and divine inspiration could be seen as common threads. Sorry if I offended. I appreciate your willingness to share your viewpoint.

  11. SaraCrolick says:

    Thank you for sharing this!

    Personally, I would love nothing more than to see yoga incorporated into my son's elementary school curriculum. He was exposed to some basic yoga while attending a different preschool, and he brought it home. His exposure even triggered family yoga sessions where we let him "teach," I can only hope that he follows in his mama's yogi footsteps.

  12. Myrna M says:

    Amy, Most interesting! I agree with everything that you are saying. And it's such a wonderful thing for children to learn to get in touch with a deeper part of themselves at a young age. It is unfortunate that some parents are still closed-minded, and I know that we can't tell people how to raise their children. But a world full of relaxed, happy, healthy children – what's better than that!

  13. Amy says:

    I would love to see yoga for young people more universally available, as well! My intention here is not to dampen that growing movement but rather to encourage thoughtfulness and transparency.

  14. Rose in Atlanta says:

    Geesh, and the opposition isn't even coming from the source I would have expected….the good ol' south, where I am. Actually, it never would have gotten across the threshold of a public school down here.
    Yoga can be a part of the spectrum that children should be encouraged to explore. My own mother read the Tibetan Book of the Dead (you know that conjures voodoo to people who don't read), Mere Christianity,early philosophers, Einstein, Shakespeare, etc. etc. She didn't shoot me when at 15 years of age I declared I did not believe in god…she understood it to be a great indication that I was thinking about whether there was a god or not. She was probably relieved I would be thinking about such lofty considerations.

  15. Rose in Atlanta says:

    Now we have parents that are motivated by fear, neighbors opinions, lack of CONTROL over their NORMAL children.
    And let's be honest, this IS about CONTROL and FEAR.
    I got to see a psychologist for years, starting at the age of 10 when my parents divorced. I went because it healed me and I would never trade the introspection I learned from an early age for anything. Caution, the really, really good psychologists are sometimes few and far between.
    But for these parents to stop their children from being able to learn yoga for FREE!!!!!????? What are they, crazy?

  16. Mark Ledbetter says:

    Excellent article and comments.

    My own perspective…

    Yoga would be great in schools.

    But not in public schools. Those should always be secular.

    To make yoga secular enough for public schools, i.e. state schools, you have to be either dishonest about what you are teaching (as Amy points out) or you have to denude yoga of its essence.

    Btw, one big original motivation for creating public schools was to have the state "Christianize Catholics" since the parents obviously weren't going to do it. Parents, who didn't actually think that Catholics were not Christian, naturally responded by sending their kids to religious schools.

    You just can't have the state dictating beliefs. If you don't like that reality, find a non-state school that fits your beliefs or do home schooling.

    You may get the impression that I'm not a fan of state education. You would be right! But so long as that's what we have, we can't use them to promote our own heartfelt beliefs at the expense of someone else's heartfelt beliefs.

  17. Crystal says:

    Hi, I think you have a point that yoga is inherently spiritual, and can be taught in a more or less spiritual manner. I also think that lots of things that we do as humans, learning and exercising for example, can be spiritual and enlightening experiences. For example, worrying about teaching yoga because it can lead to spiritual understanding; I think is the same as worrying that children exercising will release dopamine and other chemicals in their brains that create happiness. Maybe spiritual connections for some? For me personally, learning more about science and the Earth feels spiritual for me. I don't think that worrying about kids have a spiritual moment at school is our worry in terms of separation of church and state. The worry is about a religion being explicitly taught or favored. I just don't think that yoga is that religious when used as an exercise program.

  18. Khay says:

    I wonder if we can't get around some of these issues by making the yoga voluntary. We are affiliated with a group that started a yoga class for medical school students at Boston University, as an elective.

    The parents of children who oppose yoga's inherent, inextricable spirituality can opt their children out.

    I recall growing up that there were students who went to CCD, which I believe was designed to teach Catholicism to students in secular schools. It was often held at the school, once the school day was over.

  19. Amy says:

    Thanks for your comment. I think many feel as you do. It's entirely possible I am overthinking this. It helps me to articulate the conflicts I feel and questions that persist and puzzle me. Still, as I said, yoga for kids remains a great source of joy and service for me!

  20. Amy says:

    Yes. I think before or after school could be good options, too. That's probably where I will look to expand.

    There was an opt-out in Encinitas but one parental concern was that it was used towards a mandatory number of minutes of physical activity. The complaining parents claimed their children were not getting that, although the school disagreed. Either way, i'm not sure the p.e. curriculum is the best place for yoga.

  21. Lisa Flynn says:

    Thank you for this insightful article, Amy!

    I'd like to point out that any practice that focuses on improving self-awareness is going to provide spiritual benefits. But what does 'Spiritual' mean? It's a term that is often linked with religion but really isn't necessarily religious, and I think that is a common area of confusion.

    "Spirituality means something different to everyone. For some, it's about participating in organized religion: going to church, synagogue, a mosque, etc. For others, it's more personal: Some people get in touch with their spiritual side through private prayer, yoga, meditation, quiet reflection, or even long walks." (Psychology Today)

    At Yoga 4 Classrooms, we consider the following to be the 'spiritual' benefits of yoga for children, none of which have any religious connotation:
    Builds confidence and self-esteem
    Supports character development and emotional intelligence
    Enhances team skills and social interaction
    Develops discipline and self-control
    Supports individuality and self-expression
    Encourages social and environmental awareness and responsibility
    Supports a sense of universal connectedness
    Inspires respect for self and others

    Our intention is not to strip yoga of it's innate spiritual context, but instead to inspire spiritual growth in a way that respects all individual belief systems. Yoga CAN be practiced in schools and have spiritual benefits with no violation of individual beliefts. I don't believe it's an either or type of choice as I wrote about in this article: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2012/10/lets-get-i

    Thank you for opening up this important conversation!

    Lisa Flynn
    ChildLight Yoga & Yoga 4 Classrooms
    Author of Yoga 4 Classrooms Card Deck and forthcoming, Yoga for Children (Adams Media, May 2013)

  22. Amy says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Lisa. I believe what you say but I also believe what I say and they are not quite the same. We may just be looking through a different lens or splitting hairs. Bottom line, yoga has much to offer children and I appreciate when it's presented with transparency and respect for different beliefs. Like you, I believe parents have a right to know the intentions of a kids' yoga program and have the chance to ask questions.

  23. Erin Hart says:

    Do we ask coaches/teachers to state (or parents to understand) the intentions of a basketball program? An art program? A drama program? Maybe we should–because there would be a lot more accountability. What are the learning objectives for each class, and does the teacher meet them? Lisa Flynn stated them in terms of spiritual benefits, but stated slightly differently, they could be learning objectives. What other classes in the school curriculum can boast so many and such powerful outcomes?

  24. Brian says:

    Alot of good posts here, this is a good topic for discussion and the entire issue is secular in nature. This has nothing to do with physical practice, but the ignorance of individuals who view any religion other their own as evil. Funny how that works, when religious people want to squash another. Oh wait, Christianity has always preached that. Yoga is only what you get out of it. These are kids! They are not adults looking for more out of their life. Yoga has many physical and mental benefits, as anyone who practices will know. None of the spiritual side of yoga should be part of these kids classes, no om chants, no harmonium playing, it should all be about the physical practice only. You dont suddenly start to wear mala beads, drink kambucha, and shop at whole foods because you start to do yoga at 10 years old.
    It is sad that "adults" are so narrowed minded and only goes to show how our society really does need to lighten up and open their mind, a whole bunch.
    Kids should be exposed to as much of the world as we can give them, but at the roots, its the parents who screw them up!
    yes I have a child, before anyone gets wound up. I did not force any religion on him, exposed him to ideas and belief systems and let him decide as he got older.
    when does it end. Art classes to be cancelled because it will make my boy less manly? No weight training because it will cause my daughter to look more manly?
    once again, as the principal made it sound, "lighten up"

  25. Amy says:

    Thank you for making me laugh with the kombucha reference! I suspect you are right and wish schools could be free to take a broader view of education than my church (they stopped asking me to do the children's story after I shared a folk tale from India). Still, I think we are not being completely truthful if we say yoga is simply exercise. I like the way Lisa acknowledges the ancient (and I would add 'sacred') roots of yoga and yet focuses on the relevant benefits for kids in schools today.

  26. Amy says:

    Excellent point and it's great that the research base is expanding! Thank you for your comment.

  27. Lisa Flynn says:

    Absolutely, Erin! A yoga curriculum for schools must clearly align with educational objectives (which include 'spiritual' learning (not 'religious') – it's imperative that school yoga programs do their homework and make those connections obvious for the school community, including the parents.

    This is a great article that references research on the importance of spiritual development in an education setting as it relates to whole child wellness and readiness to learn: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_