Yoga Stretches into Classroom Controversy

More public schools throughout the United States are experimenting with yoga programs in the classroom. Step into an elementary class and you will see students in an exercise practice that includes Bunny Breath, Volcano, and Raggedy Ann and Andy—all metaphors for the body movements required. At the high school level, yoga poses may be more advanced like the strengthening warrior poses. Some research suggests practicing yoga in school may improve habits related to both health and academics. Not all school stakeholders are onboard, however, citing physical and religious factors as infringements. When it comes to yoga in our schools, people get bent out of shape for preconceived assumptions about the discipline of yoga.

Originating in India, yoga is a practice that teaches one how to achieve physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. There is no one set type of yoga practice; countless secular and non-secular disciplines exist. Religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism are often associated with yoga. Within each yoga practice is its own system of beliefs. Public schools currently using yoga do so for its ability to teach about attaining goals, controlling one's body and mind, and rising and expanding consciousness. Opponents citing religious concerns fear its teachings related to one finding a path to omniscience or yoga being used as a way for one to enter another body or generate multiple bodies of oneself. Still, schools and courts know laws prohibit religious teachings in the classroom.

Parents of students at California's Encinitas Union School District filed a suit against the district, feeling yoga would undermine their children's Christian beliefs. Students at the school were being taught yoga instead of traditional physical activities that would take place during gym class. Disappointed at the court's ruling, the family appealed, but the California 4th District Court of Appeal would not hear the case. As reported in the unanimous decision, the judges found that yoga was being taught to students in a way that presented no religious context whatsoever. Shaking like a Raggedy Ann doll is uncontestably secular. Yoga programs are customized by schools so that they do not infringe upon students' religious freedom. Programs, such as "Power Moves Kids Program for Public Schools," focus on creating benefits for entire classes, not just those with unrestrictive beliefs. They choose their nomenclature carefully.

As a growing interest in yoga continues, research is beginning to indicate the benefits of practicing yoga. Studies show that yoga may help people with chronic low-back pain by reducing pain and improving ambulation. When practiced with other regular exercise, yoga may improve one's heart-rate and blood pressure. Anxiety and depression levels may decrease with the practice too ("Yoga". According to a litany of anecdotes from teachers, it has classroom benefits as well. Some schools have reported that when yoga is used in their buildings, fewer altercations occur. Their reports show students making better decisions and improving their concentration. Students, say teachers, use class time more efficiently. Self-awareness and self-esteem are also more evident in the students (Williamson). Too little research has been conducted at this point in time to make any sound judgements on the claims in the classrooms, but districts are often willing to try yoga because of its inexpensive cost for implementation.

Cost raises another concern for stakeholders. All reputable programs and health organizations agree that yoga must be practiced under the guidance of a trained instructor. If school districts lack funding for proper staff training, then the physical health of students is at risk. The National Institutes of Health urge people to first consult with a physician before beginning yoga. Although there are many safe poses for everyone, people with certain medical conditions need to avoid certain poses. Allowing children to practice yoga before seeking a doctor's advice may put a child's well-being in jeopardy. Before implementing a practice in the school, administrators must inform their stakeholders of the risks and benefits yoga may bring to the student body.

Passionate yoga instructors know the importance of proper training for school teachers. Organizations like Yoga in Schools host training programs to certify individuals to teach yoga. Not only do they train classroom teachers and physical education teachers, but many organizations aid districts in a yoga program's implementation. In the 2007 National Health Interview Survey, 1.5 million children in the United States were practicing yoga in 2006. It is not a one-size-fits-all practice, but it just might improve students' quality of life.

Watching a class performing yoga, a viewer may notice an instructor coaching students with words or cue cards depicting a pose. One may notice how activity is balanced with rest, how balancing poses teach concentration, and how an active mind becomes concentrated and ready to learn.