State legislators are considering lifting part of a 1993 law forbidding yoga from public schools. Critics say it is an inherently religious, and “non-Christian,” practice.
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ATLANTA — Across Alabama, yoga is freely taught at dozens of studios, in Christian churches and inside prisons.
But for nearly three decades, it has been illegal to teach yoga — a combination of breathing exercises and stretches with connections to Hinduism and Buddhism — inside the state’s public school classrooms, with detractors warning it would amount to a tacit endorsement of a “non-Christian” belief.
That could soon change if lawmakers have their way. One proposal, scheduled for debate in the State House on Tuesday, would allow teachers to guide students during school hours through various stretches.
The legislation would permit students to stretch themselves into Child’s Pose or Downward Facing Dog, among other moves. Still off-limits, though: chants, mantras and “Namaste,” which essentially means “I bow to you.”
“I think a lot of minds have shifted,” said Representative Jeremy Gray, the state lawmaker who introduced the proposal, referring to his colleagues’ willingness to reconsider their opinions on yoga. (He practices it routinely and has taught it.)
“They didn’t really understand it,” he added, “and now they understand it more. Their mothers do it. Their wives do it. It really resonated with them — ‘It can’t be bad if my wife does it.’”
As an embrace of self-care has flourished, so, too, has yoga, with practitioners gushing about its physical and psychological benefits. The rise of yoga has also been intertwined with a larger cultural shift, as many have moved away from institutional religion to a less defined sense of spirituality.
But as much as the conversation has evolved, experts said that Alabama’s proposal touches on a debate that stands to intensify as more schools introduce yoga — and wrestle with the resistance it has inspired and how to incorporate the ancient philosophies that are at the heart of the practice.
“It’s relatively unusual to have a law against yoga or meditation in school,” said Candy Gunther Brown, a professor of religious studies at Indiana University and author of “Debating Yoga and Mindfulness in Public Schools.”
“But,” she continued, “if you ask the question differently: Are you going to see more controversies over yoga and meditation? I think we’re going to see an increase rather than a decrease, and it’s precisely because they’re becoming more popular.”
Under the proposed law, the introduction of yoga would be at the discretion of local school systems. It would be stripped of its spiritual aspects and non-English terminology. So while various stretching poses would be allowed, “namaste” would remain verboten, as would using chants or mantras.
“Sometimes you have to have a steppingstone,” Mr. Gray said of the compromises that led to the limitations.
But critics argue that altering terminology means little because yoga is inherently a religious practice.
“We think we can take anything and remake it to fit our lifestyle,” said the Rev. Clete Hux, the director of the Apologetics Resource Center in Birmingham, Ala., and a teacher at the Birmingham Theological Seminary.
“They’re trying to separate yoga from Hinduism, or separate it from its religious roots,” Mr. Hux said. “But according to Hinduism, you can’t do that. Basically, there is no Hinduism without yoga and no yoga without Hinduism.”
Yoga, which involves breathing techniques, exercises and meditation, is based on thousands of years of ancient Indian texts and traditions, with connections to Hinduism and Buddhism.
Many who regularly practice yoga — including Christians, Jews, Muslims and others — have had to grapple with its Hindu and Buddhist influences and whether it interferes at all with their own codes of belief. Some simply overlook it. Others have devised strategies to work around it, like the Christian participants who recast sun salutations as “son” salutations, in a nod to Jesus Christ.
“It’s a contested issue,” Professor Brown said. “How much of it is secular, how much of it’s religious, and what do we mean by those things.”
As Alabama considers yoga programs that cut out spiritual references, other schools across the country have pursued the same. Yet some have faced pushback and legal battles, such as in Encinitas, Calif., outside of San Diego, where the parents of two children sued, arguing that a twice-weekly yoga lesson promoted Hinduism in a way that a Christian equivalent would not be tolerated.
In that case, a judge found that yoga does have religious overtones, but that the program in the school was ultimately “devoid of any religious, mystical, or spiritual trappings.”
In Alabama, Mr. Gray, a Democrat, said the debate among lawmakers has evolved considerably. He introduced similar legislation last year, and it quickly failed. But this time around, he has found bipartisan support.
When it went before the House Education Policy Committee last week, one Democratic lawmaker said, according to AL.com, “If you’re in this statehouse — mentally, it really helps you.”
And a Republican added, “I think you can pray to God and do yoga.”
Mr. Gray was elected to the Legislature in 2018 after playing football for North Carolina State University and in the Canadian Football League. He said that yoga had helped improve his flexibility and his stability as an athlete, and he came to rely on it even more after he retired, as he navigated the emotional turbulence he faced in adapting to life without football.
He believed that it could benefit students as well. Even if they could not say namaste or use mantras, they would still have an opportunity to find a sense of balance.
“It works,” he said. “It’s not just one thing that it does. It can work in many aspects. I just like it. I’ve seen where it has worked on children. I’ve seen how it has worked on myself.”
In a Plan to Bring Yoga to Alabama Schools, Stretching Is Allowed. ‘Namaste’ Isn’t. – The New York Times
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