Yoga has been banned in Alabama public schools since 1993. How is this real?

The health benefits of yoga are understood so far and wide in modern society that the exercise is utilized by everyone from suburban soccer moms to professional football players. We also have a wealth of research about the emotional and mental benefits of meditation—so much, in fact, that some schools have successfully implemented meditation as a way to improve student behavior.

But apparently, in Alabama, some folks are afraid that letting kids do yoga or meditation in school might lead them to do something terrifying...like becoming a Hindu, or being attracted to Hinduism, or looking into Hinduism, or something.

Since 1993, Alabama has banned yoga and guided meditation from public schools, as it got wrapped up in a blanket ban on "the use of hypnosis and dissociative mental states."

"School personnel shall be prohibited from using any techniques that involve the induction of hypnotic states, guided imagery, meditation or yoga," the State Board of Education's regulations state.

A new bill has been introduced—and passed in the Alabama House of Representatives in a 73-25 vote—that would allow schools to authorize yoga. However, for the bill to become law it has to pass through the Senate, where it is has stalled due to pushback from conservative groups who are concerned about the Hindu origins of the exercise.

Becky Gerritson, director of the conservative group Eagle Forum of Alabama, spoke out against the bill during the public hearing.


"Yoga is a very big part of the Hindu religion," she said, according to the AP. "If this bill passes, then instructors will be able to come into classrooms as young as kindergarten and bring these children through guided imagery, which is a spiritual exercise, and it's outside their parents' view. And we just believe that this is not appropriate."

The Eagle Forum website also states their official position:

"Many people see Yoga as harmless. Even many Christians churches offer Yoga. However, Yoga is a group of physical, mental, and spiritual practices or disciplines which originated in ancient India. Yoga is one of the six Āstika (orthodox) schools of Hindu philosophical traditions. In the Education Committee the sponsor made it very clear that Yoga was needed in schools to help with mental clarity which confirms that it is not intended to be just a physical exercise. We hold the position that if parents want their children to engage in the practice of yoga that they do it on their own time and not in public schools with tax payer money."

Ah yes. Mental clarity = a problematic religious influence of some sort. Makes perfect sense.

Considering the fact that the Eagle Forum has complained about school prayer being banned and the Ten Commandments statue being removed from a government building, that they and really, really wanted "under God" to remain in the Pledge of Allegiance kids say each day, their stance seems a smidge hypocritical. And banning an exercise that isn't overtly religious just because it originated from an Eastern spiritual tradition and not Christianity seems silly.

The fact of the matter is yoga has gone mainstream. In the U.S. especially, it's far removed from any religious connotations. That's not necessarily a good thing—there are ongoing discussions about cultural appropriation in Western yoga practices—but the idea that yoga turns you Hindu is illogical on its face.

The resistance seems particularly overreactive when you see that the bill includes strict rules for schools to teach yoga, such as limiting it "exclusively to poses, exercises and stretching techniques," using "exclusively English descriptive names" for the poses, and expressly prohibiting "chanting, mantras, mudras, use of mandalas, and 11 namaste greetings."

Stripping any and all Indian or Hindu elements from school yoga practices, what do they fear happening? Do they think kids putting their bodies into a specific position will somehow summon Hindu spirits that will somehow convince the children to be Hindu?

"This whole notion that if you do yoga, you'll become Hindu — I've been doing yoga for 10 years and I go to church and I'm very much a Christian," said Democratic Rep. Jeremy Gray, who introduced the bill, according to the AP. Gray was introduced to yoga when he played college football at North Carolina State University and enjoyed it so much he became a yoga instructor himself.

Rajan Zed, who is president of Universal Society of Hinduism, pointed out that the overwhelming majority of yoga teachers and practitioners aren't Hindu and that anyone of any faith can utilize yoga.

"Traditionally Hinduism was not into proselytism. So, Alabamans should not to be scared of yoga at all," Zed wrote in a statement after the committee meeting.

The same goes for meditation, guided or otherwise. Yoga and meditation are ancient practices that people around the world from various cultures and traditions have benefited from without some big conversion to the faith of their origins. Every guided meditation I've ever done just walks you through peaceful mental imagery. We're not talking about holding seances or ritual sacrifices here, for the love.

When we have bullying and mental health crises and mass shootings happening in schools, kids doing a tree pose or imagining they're floating on a beautiful lake are the last things adults should be worrying about. Seriously.

Courtesy of Elaine Ahn

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Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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