June 21, 2013

Will Yoga Remain in Schools? The Court Case Is Back. ~ Renee Prymus

Yoga as a Tool for School.

Recently, the Internet has been a’buzz with the yoga-in-schools court case in California.

At first I ignored the controversy, hoping it would just disappear. Maybe they would settle outside of court. But the case only got louder, so I began paying attention.

Sedlock v. Baird is about parents in the Encinitas Union School District protesting a school yoga program. The court case began discussing the origins and aims of yoga rather than just the particular program under scrutiny. Bloggers traced the parents to the extreme Christian right and speculated about what their strength means for politics and yoga. Could this case end funding for other yoga-in-schools programs?

Over the three-day case, the court could not come to a conclusion, and is now on hiatus until June 24, when more witnesses will be called.

I am now watching because I’m a yoga teacher, certified in Yoga Ed, a curriculum that brings yoga into schools. I’m also a Christian, although sometimes I’m uncomfortable admitting it. I’m also a former high school teacher turned university writing instructor. To tie those three things together: I’m writing a book about Christians who practice yoga.

I think Christians actually have something to say about how to teach yoga in schools—not the Christians who are calling for the court case, but the Christians who are already in schools teaching all kinds of subjects.

Really, any person of any faith tradition who teaches in a diverse public setting has something to say about this case.

For instance, a third grade teacher who teaches about the origins of Christmas, but doesn’t give equal time to Hanukkah and Kwanza, would be taken to task on playing religious holiday favorites. Schools value diversity, and to teach one religion is to teach all of them and without preference—no matter what one’s personal beliefs are.

By and large, our culture trusts our public schoolteachers to do this.

With yoga, this could get tricky if the teacher isn’t careful about language. Yoga instructors are trained in a variety of yogic traditions: Yoga Fit, Anusara, Kundalini, Ashtanga, etc. Now there’s even Christian-style yoga and Jewish-style yoga. If the philosophical language of the tradition filters into the teaching in schools, the class will sound religious.

Which is what apparently happened in California. The material from the case says that the parents observed the students being asked to honor and give thanks to the sun before starting the sun salutation series. The yoga teacher, I imagine, may have thought it was harmless. But I can also see how from a parent’s Christian perspective this gesture would be teaching a student to give thanks to the sun instead of for the sun. This would interfere with my religious worldview.

This is just one anecdote from the case. I honestly don’t know much about the program in the Encinitas Union School District. I do know this court case isn’t asking about the teacher’s worldview, it is asking about whether yoga is a religious, Hindu practice.

That’s really the crux of it: is yoga itself religious?

Lots of yoga defenders have taken up this question, explaining why and how yoga is not tied to any one religion. Mark Singleton, for example, found evidence in yoga’s early texts that it was originally intended for anyone, regardless of their religion (see his statement to the court, paragraph five). He also determined that the postures we use in yoga today are at most 150 years old and come from three Western influences: Scandinavian gymnastics, body-building culture, and the YMCA emphasis on body, mind, and spirit (see his book Yoga Body, 22).

Yoga defenders argue compellingly that yoga as it is practiced in North America is not tied to one religion. It is a practice that was developed in the context of the Hindu tradition, but it can be used by anyone with any ideology—like fasting.

And many ideologies do use yoga. In addition to Hindus and Buddhists doing yoga, Christians do yoga; Jews do yoga; Muslims do yoga. Psychologists and doctors recommend yoga as a great de-stressing exercise that reduces anxiety.

The fact that so many people of different faiths incorporate yoga into their lives as a devotional practice indicates that yoga is, indeed, spiritual. One need only look at the websites of networks like Christians Practicing Yoga or the Jewish Yoga Network or the yoga studios of Holy Yoga, New Day Yoga, Yahweh Yoga, Torah Yoga and Kabalah Yoga to see that Western religions have incorporated yoga as a spiritual practice.

Yoga is spiritual—or it at least has a spiritual aspect, component or element. But so does everything, really. Plenty of people find the spiritual in everyday occurrences; the world is not split between the sacred and the secular. Singing can be spiritual; it can also be romantic, patriotic, or just plain silly. Potentially, it could be all of those things at once. The study of history can also be spiritual. My own faith was rocked when I studied Latin American history and discovered the abuses of colonialism justified by Christianity. My faith radically changed after that study.

So too, the body is spiritual. The Christians Practicing Yoga website, of which I am a part, says that we use yoga to “go to God in the same way God came and continues to come to us—in and through the body.” In my own yoga practice, my body often tells me a lot about my relationship to God—whether I’m ignoring God, or I’m impatient, sad, angry, content, etc. I often credit a simple seated forward fold with saving my relationship with God.

Yoga is spiritual because the body is spiritual. Every body houses a heart—the seat of the spirit, the emotions, the self. Everybody has a different relationship between the heart and the body and the mind, and yoga cultivates awareness of these relationships. This is why it’s super important for students to learn this valuable tool during the awkward adolescent years when the body experiences so many hormonal and physical changes.

People of faith, who are already teaching diverse populations, can be a guide for yoga instructors bringing yoga into schools.

An example: In my writing classroom, my students rarely know about my Christian identity. I don’t intentionally hide it from them—they can Google me, and probably already did—but I don’t mention it unless my faith tradition is important to the class discussion for some reason. I definitely don’t mention that I sometimes write poetry as a spiritual practice. It’s not relevant information to the classroom.

I do, however, believe that writing is a sacred act and a spiritual practice.

My students come into my classroom with fractured relationships to their own writing. Some of them don’t like writing, others dread it, others find it boring, or worse—at one point they liked writing and then someone told them they weren’t good at it. Because writing is an act of creating, it is an intensely personal act. It creates vulnerability of the self and as such, I see it as a spiritual act.

As the instructor of the freshman composition class my students dread, my goal is to get students engaged with their own writing —to heal or encourage their relationship with writing; to write one essay they like; to learn to use writing to figure out what they think. That way they’ll be able to write the longer research papers academia will ask them to do, and I’ve also given them a survival tool for the inevitable existential crises college will bring.

To me, it’s both an academic and a spiritual practice to teach students how to write.

I also teach my college students yoga. During a long night class, when we take a break, half of the students will pull out their phones instead of heading for the bathroom. For them, it’s a mental break only. But I know that if they sit for two and a half hours straight, that last hour is going to be terrible on their bodies and they will leave feeling crappy and lethargic and “so glad to be out of there.”

So at the end of the break, I invite them all to stand. To stretch. I lead them through a breath—maybe Alternate Nostril Breathing, maybe Three-Part Breath. Then we move the spine; twisting and turning, stretching and folding. Their faces let me know that this is silly, that I’m crossing over into Crazy English Teacher Territory.

That’s fine. Secretly, they love it.

A few weeks later, one of the students will inevitably tell me that they’ve been using a breathing technique to de-stress before studying for finals.

Because the practices of writing and yoga are so spiritual, I am careful about how I teach them. I honor my students and their traditions and I use the neutral language of the body and writing and psychology. Yoga is a tool, just like writing. There are parallels here.

Regardless of how they practice it at home, yoga instructors can teach yoga as a tool at school.

There are plenty of organizations around the country who are doing it really well. As a practice that helps students with body and breath awareness, yoga is a necessary tool for students in a world filled with eating disorders and abuse.

When the court case resumes in June, I’ll be watching.


Renee Aukeman Prymus is a registered yoga teacher and teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction and a Master of Ministries. Her current book project is entitled Jesus in Down Dog: Profiles of Christians Practicing Yoga. Renee blogs regularly and curates at christianspracticingyoga.com. She’s also an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church. When she’s not writing or teaching or theologizing, Renee is probably playing board games with her husband or watching Dr. Who and cuddling with Coconut the cat.



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