Is Yoga Religious?

Will yoga in P.E. class lead children away from Christianity and into Eastern religions? Parents in Encinitas, CA, think so. So they’ve appealed a court ruling in the hopes of removing stretching and mat exercises from public school curriculum. How do you think this will turn out?

Analysis from AHA Communications Associate Christian Hagen.

Parents in the Encinitas Union School District in Encinitas, California, along with the far-right National Center for Law and Policy (NCLP), recently filed an appeal in a case where it was ruled that teaching yoga in physical education class did not constitute an endorsement of religion. The parents allege that teaching their kids to stretch their limbs might expose them to—gasp!—Eastern religion.

Let’s set aside for a second the religion-in-the-schools debate (how convenient that a staunch Christian organization like the NCLP would suddenly be so concerned with schools endorsing religion when it’s a religion other than their own).

The fact is, we’re talking about stretches. Yoga, by whatever name it’s taught (and it really doesn’t have to be called yoga to come under fire from conservative groups; a lawmaker in New Mexico raised a fuss when students were taught “stretching and mat work”) has been shown to be beneficial to flexibility, relaxation, and physical fitness.

If your concern is that your children won’t be as gangly and overweight as you would prefer, well, at least that argument makes some sense (though maybe you should re-examine your priorities). But if you’re worried that by contorting their bodies to exercise their muscles your kids might convert to Hinduism, your fears are probably misguided. Even if used as a form of meditation, yoga is no more religious than kickball or running the mile. Obviously, it involves the exercise of the body when you pose yourself in difficult positions. But it also exercises the brain, often in surprising ways. Secular forms of meditation, such as mindfulness, have become increasingly accepted in Western medicine because of the demonstrable benefits to productivity and mental health. And, as secular blogger and activist Greta Christina argues, it’s a much more humanistic practice than many people might realize. Since yoga is often associated with meditation and can easily be taught without any of the religious influences that might lie in yoga’s long history as a discipline, it can be viewed as both a benefit to the muscles and the mind. The arguments for teaching yoga are so clear it’s nearly impossible to refute them. But I don’t want to make it seem like I’m not taking this debate seriously. After all, I personally had a crisis of faith when we learned to play dodgeball and I got an overwhelming urge to stone infidels for blasphemy. Or there are the innumerable cases of kids joining Native American tribes after playing lacrosse. Surely if our P.E. classes aren’t dictating the religious beliefs of our students, nothing is. The courts in California have spoken. Teachers have spoken. Common sense has spoken. Any parents that are afraid that yoga will lead their darling offspring away from Christianity had best pull them from Biology, for teaching evolution, or from History, for teaching them about the Crusades, or from English, for teaching them how to read any book but the Bible. Or maybe they should just take a deep breath, do some stretches, and let go of their stress for a while. They might find it’s exactly what they needed.