Every so often a news story re-ignites the debate about whether yoga is appropriate in the school setting. In 2013, parents with evangelical Christian roots sued the Encinitas Union School District in California for providing school yoga classes. Most recently, parents of Bullard Elementary School in Kennesaw, Ga. were concerned about certain aspects of yoga being taught to their kids. The problem in these situations is often the absence of adequate communication between well-meaning parents, school staff and the yoga facilitators. In order to effectively teach yoga in school settings, it is important to clarify certain misconceptions.

Firstly, yoga is not a religion and is not based in religious practices. However, the confusion is legitimate given the cross-over between eastern religions and ancient yogic philosophy and practice. Despite the blurred boundaries, it is important to note that yogic practices appear to precede formalized religion by thousands of years. In effect, it can be said that later religions adopted and adapted yogic practices like breathing and meditation to give followers a practical methodology for balancing the body and mind. A very similar evolution is visible in the west today, as different groups including christians, atheists and healthcare professionals are all able to adapt and use yoga as a holistic wellness technology. That expansive quality is one of the reasons this ancient technology has survived through the ages, it does not require believing, but simply doing.

Yoga is therefore a practical set of breathing and movement exercises used to focus and calm the mind. Adults throughout the U.S. and internationally have flocked to the practice as a means to relax and there is now a growing body of evidence to show that kids display many of the same benefits attributed to adult yoga practitioners. Initial studies are showing a host of positive outcomes in key measures such as attention, emotion regulation and physical fitness. These improvements result in students that are more ready to learn, a calmer classroom environment and more self-aware kids. This is achieved because yoga facilitates training in mind-body awareness which helps children offset the effects of stress on their well-being. If we want to see a reversal in the alarming rates of depression, anxiety and substance abuse in youth, then we need to empower our kids through the schools with the practical tools to create a resilient mind and body. Yoga is well-positioned for this task and is increasingly being recognized as a very effective form of both preventive and alternative therapy.

With the growing recognition of the therapeutic value of yoga and increasing stress-levels in students, more and more schools are starting to weave yoga into the school day. Several evidence-based instruction programs like Yoga 4 Classrooms® are now offering school yoga with completely secular classes that teach universal values or life skills, which makes them very suitable for the public school setting. The separation of religion from schools is a cornerstone of democracy but we need to revisit the possibility of offering our kids an opportunity for non-sectarian spiritual connection at schools. The provision of a space in our students’ lives for moments of deep connectedness to their inner, authentic selves should be free of any fanatical taint or imposition of belief systems. Yoga is not a religion, nor does it promote any religion. It is a non-sectarian practice and yet it provides the opportunity for the practitioner to go deeper into any faith-based beliefs if those happen to exist. This is why Christian yoga groups such as Kids Holy Yoga are able to incorporate Christian teachings into a movement and breath practice.

The science of breath and movement is universal and clearly unbiased but there are some other aspects of yoga where confusion abounds and it is not surprising that well-meaning but uninformed parents are concerned about yoga being taught in pubic schools. An example of such confusion surrounds the use of Mantra which is merely sound technology that helps to focus the mind. In fact, to study and practice mantra is akin to learning a foreign language. However, given the opacity surrounding the public understanding of this aspect of yogic technology, most school yoga programs avoid its use. Mudras, or hand-gestures are likewise a simple way to quiet the mind and pre-date the major world religions. Also, Mandalas or visual patterns with harmonious ratios and proportions can be found in the art of ancient civilizations throughout the world. The problem therefore is not the ancient origins of yoga but rather the modern challenge of integrating a breath and movement technology into our schools.

Careful planning along with diligent parent education and outreach is key when introducing yoga to schools. Yoga supports the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the whole child and in our search for holistic education, we cannot discount such a low-cost and highly-effective wellness strategy. Since yoga technology predates many of the world’s ancient cultures, it is separate from any religious or cultural aspects subsequently attached to it. As long as that distinction is maintained in the school setting, the yoga becomes universally acceptable and provides valuable ground-work for a child’s own unique spiritual journey.

By Nikhil Ramburn

Additional reading:
Lisa Flynn, director of Yoga 4 Classrooms® is the author of several posts on this subject:
http://www.elephantjournal.com/2012/10/lets-get-it-straight-yoga-in-schools-is-not-a-religious-practice-lisa-flynn/
http://www.elephantjournal.com/2013/06/yoga-in-schools-not-religion/

Lisa is also a co-author of Best Practices for Yoga in Schools, a yoga service guide for yoga teachers, school teachers, school administrators, social workers, and anyone else interested in bringing yoga to kids safely and in a just and inclusive. Book content was a collaborative effort of many leaders in the field and is produced by the Yoga Service Council.