The Debate Over Yoga and Meditiation in AL Public Schools

Like in all other states, the Alabama public school system has some official restrictions and guidelines on what can and can’t be taught in physical education. An activity notoriously included on many ‘banned’ lists is dodgeball. Many parents and educators nationwide think it is too violent and competitive for young kids. An unexpected addition to the AL list of unsanctioned activities? Yoga. And that simple addition is causing a lot of controversy this fall.

For school-age kids across the country, physical and emotional development are their greatest priorities. Beyond teaching children the traditional “3 R’s”, schools have spent the past decades forming a plan for cultivating their student body and helping them grow to be well-rounded citizens. Less than 5% of modern American adults take 30 minutes out of their day to do some physical activity, and only a third of American adults fulfill the doctor-recommended amount of weekly physical activity. The result? Epidemics of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and negative mental health effects. In a time when adult lifestyles are considered to be over-booked and often full of stress, Americans aren’t exercising or healthily releasing that stress.

Enter yoga. Yoga is a practice that reaches back thousands of years in India and other eastern cultures. It’s only caught on as a popular form of relaxation and exercise in western cultures in the past couple of decades, and especially the past five or so years. Americans especially have become obsessed with yoga’s research-backed benefits in flexibility, core strength, mindfulness, pain management, and stress management.

That didn’t stop Alabama from officially banning it in public schools back in 1993. The reason for the ban? The possible association of yoga with ideals from Hindu religious practices and religious indoctrination of children.

Hindu leaders such as Rajan Zed, the President of the Universal Society of Hinduism, have urged Alabama to reconsider the ban for the sake of their students. The official documents from the Alabama State Department of Education describe yoga in part as a “method of religious training”, a definition which experts dispute. Zed, like other Hindu practitioners, argues that yoga is not seen by Hindus as a religious practice unique to their belief system.

“Yoga, although introduced and nourished by Hinduism, was a world heritage and liberation powerhouse to be utilized by all,” says Zed.

This holds true for American yoga practitioners, the vast majority of whom don’t in any way consider themselves followers of Hinduism. The top three reported reasons people do yoga are for enjoyment, health support, and stress relief.

That being said, a loophole in the legislation allows the practice of yoga-like poses in schools as long as it is not referred to specifically as ‘yoga’, and all signs of religion or spirituality are absent. At East Elementary School in Cullman, Alabama, students have participated in “AllFit”, a parks department-sponsored program. Part of “AllFit” lessons incorporate yoga poses such as ‘triangle’ and ‘warrior’.

As with any school-based dispute, there are cries that go something like this: “If you don’t like how public schools are run, why don’t you put your kids in private schools?”

In Alabama, the vast majority of students are in public schooling. Of the approximately 33,600 private schools in the U.S., only 470 are in Alabama serving just a little over 85,000 students. Of those 470 Alabama private schools, many have specific religious affiliations like Baptist and Christian, as many as 77%. If practices like yoga are believed to be strongly associated with religions not affiliated with the school in question, it’s quite likely they’ll be overlooked in the curriculum.

So why are people fighting so hard to get yoga and meditation un-banned from AL public schools? Two reasons. First, religious and cultural sensitivity. Zed points out that banning yoga solely on the premise it is associated with Hinduism can be seen as culturally insensitive. Second, health and physical education professionals are stressing the idea that schools need to use alternative means to educate and teach students healthy, shame-free, life-long habits. Tag and duck, duck, goose just don’t cut it.

Administrators and the education board say that the legislation is old, and there is no plan to discuss or revise the 25-year-old ban.