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.
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