- Hindu and Indian Christian groups, as well as avid proponents of yoga, weigh in on a ban in Alabama on teaching yoga in schools, as conservatives cite fears of the practice spreading Hinduism.
For nearly three decades, teaching yoga in Alabama’s public schools has been forbidden by the state’s school board. The ban is expected to stay a little longer, as conservative groups raised objections to a bill that would have reversed the current restrictions, despite the efforts of Democratic representative Jeremy Gray of Opelika sponsored the bill (HB246). Gray has been trying since 2019 to get the ban revoked. “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,” he told The Guardian.
Gray, a former football player, has been practicing yoga for years, initially as a workout after college football matches and later as a means of instilling in himself the virtues of focus and patience. The gentle stretches helped him cool down after practices, he said, while the breathing exercises strengthened his lungs, which he added, may have helped him recover quickly from a bout of COVID-19 last year.
Gray’s legislation, if passed, would override a 1993 school board regulation that says that “school personnel shall be prohibited from using any techniques that involve the induction of hypnotic states, guided imagery, meditation or yoga.” It also says that public school teachers cannot say “namaste,” a greeting often used in yoga, or any kind of chant. And because it hits at the intersection of some combustible issues — religion, culture and children’s education — the yoga bill has captured the attention of the news media.
Gray came across the issue largely by chance. In a speech at a public high school in Auburn, Alabama in 2019, he mentioned that yoga had helped him stay grounded while juggling responsibilities. After his remarks, teachers told him that they had been unable to arrange exercises for their students. “That’s how I learned it was banned,” Gray said.
Around the time of the ban in 1993, parents in the state were raising concerns not only about yoga but also about hypnotism and “psychotherapeutic techniques.” According to an April 1993 article in The Anniston Star, one mother in Birmingham said her child had brought a relaxation tape home from school that made a boy “visibly high,” The Montgomery Advertiser reported.
Gray made progress, when the state’s House of Representatives passed a bill, which was approved by a vote of 73 to 25 that would override the ban. Gray told The New York Times that while some conservative legislators in the state might have opposed yoga because of its associations with Hinduism, officials on both sides of the aisle had been slowly warming tothe idea. “Most of the senators that I’ve talked to are OK with it,” Gray said. “A lot of people in their districts have reached out to them, and a lot of their wives actually do yoga. So, I think it has a good chance of passing.”
If passed, Gray pointed out that his bill would allow schools and students to make their own decisions about whether to offer or participate in yoga classes. Also, if passed, yoga instruction would be an elective activity in public schools and students can opt out in favor of other activities.
While yoga would be permitted, schools will still have to follow some rules “all poses shall be limited exclusively to sitting, standing, reclining, twisting, and balancing” and “all poses, exercises, and stretching techniques shall have exclusively English descriptive names,” the bill states. “Chanting, mantras, mudras, use of mandalas, and namaste greetings shall be expressly prohibited,” according to the legislation.
However, the 28-year-old ban, believed to be the only statewide prohibition of its sort in America, is proving to be tougher to scrub from the statute books than might be expected. At a public hearing on March 31, representatives from two conservative groups said they were worried it could lead to the promotion of Hinduism or guided meditation practices. The bill did not advance in the Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee.
Gray’s vision has drawn much enemy fire. The main hurdle to reform seems to lie with conservative Christian groups who argue that just the mere act of allowing yoga in the classroom will expose kids to the risk of converting to Hinduism. “Yoga is a very big part of the Hindu religion, and 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,” Becky Gerritson, director of the conservative Alabama Eagle told state senators recently, as reported by The Guardian.
So, is the idea of yoga in schools a gateway drug to Hinduism? American Kahani spoke with both Hindu groups and Indian Christians, as well as avid proponents of yoga, to weigh in.
Ban Runs Counter to Health Interests of Children
“We are disappointed that Alabama’s legislators have failed to overturn a decades-old ban on teaching yoga asana in Alabama public schools,” says Sheetal Shah, Managing Director of the Hindu American Foundation (HAF). “While broadly speaking yoga is solidly rooted in Hinduism, the parameters of the bill as written would have permitted the physical components of yoga to be taught. Physical postures alone do not constitute yoga,” she says.
“Had the bill passed, students would have been able to avail themselves of the myriad physical and mental health benefits that regularly practicing yoga asana provides, while still not running afoul of prohibitions against teaching religion in U.S. schools. Alabama’s fear of ‘Eastern spirituality’ runs counter to providing students with a healthy and proven method of coping with stress and anxiety.”
Mat McDermott, Senior Director of Communications at HAF, a long-time yoga practitioner and former teacher, finds himself deeply conflicted. As he writes in Religion News Service, “On one hand, I’m happy that students in Alabama will be able to be exposed to asana and hopefully reap the physical and mental benefits that steady practice can bring. But I need a couple other hands to hold all the reservations I have: the continued disassociation of yoga from its Hindu roots, disconnection of the postures themselves from the larger place of yoga as a philosophy and spiritual practice, as well as a seeming genuine ignorance about and bias toward Sanskrit as a language.”
He adds, “Allowing yoga practice in U.S. schools is walking a slackline, constitutionally and ethically. On one side: promoting religion in public schools, which is prohibited under the First Amendment. On the other side: the gaping maw of cultural appropriation, eager to de-spiritualize and displace yoga from its traditional origins.”
He notes that HAF’s position on yoga in public schools, developed in 2013 “after a highly publicized lawsuit in Encinitas, California,” holds that yoga is “a spiritual discipline rooted in Hindu philosophy,” but is available to anyone without “coercion, pressure, or requirement to change one’s religion.”
Finally, McDermott states, “Teaching school kids about Hinduism and yoga does not threaten anyone’s faith and may even increase the benefits of yoga by teaching them to appreciate another culture, rather than appropriating it without acknowledgement.”
Joining the discussion is Hindu for Human Rights, USA, who, along with other Hindu groups have written to the Alabama State Senators urging them to join the State House in removing the ban on yoga in the state’s public schools.
Physical, Mental, Spiritual Benefits of Yoga
Nikhil Madalaparthy, Advocacy Director of Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR) told American Kahani that the group got involved because they saw this to “a civil rights, human rights issue and we are a civil and human rights organization.” Citing comments from Christian conservative groups saying “yoga is not just stretching but related to Hinduism,” and “yoga can make you psychotic, injure you and turn you Hindu,” Madalaparthy notes, “comments such as these, made it imperative for us to intervene.” He says “the backlash is from groups that believe that because yoga has ties to Hindu spiritual practice and religion, it doesn’t belong in public schools because of the risk that we are exposing young Christian minds to another religion. This is not acceptable in America where the implication is that Hindus and Hinduism do not belong in the same way Christianity is seen to belong.”
In their statement HfHR says, “Yoga is an Indian tradition, and no doubt it has its origin in Hinduism. While its core philosophy of Sankhya is not that prevalent in India, its practices have informed many schools of Hinduism, as well as Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Islam, Taoism, Shinto, and Christianity around the world.” The statement further adds, “The practice has been proven to be extremely effective in helping people — almost 25 years of National Institute of Health- funded research shows that Yoga helps people with physical, emotional and mental health in every community that one can imagine. And there is no finding whatsoever that it hurts any tradition that engages with it or that it leads to religious conversions.”
And to the conservative Christian groups out there, HfHR says, “As Hindus, we encourage all Christians to be true to their traditions, to celebrate freely and well — and to enjoy the bounty that the world offers. In our view, Christians secure in their faith should have no problems engaging with the other traditions of the world in a spirit of mutual grace and sharing. Yoga and the way it is taught is not a proselytizing activity, with intents to convert.” They add, “Healthy bodies and minds that start young will be invaluable to Alabama’s health and well being in the future — and will lead to better and happier Christians if that is the path they choose.”
New Jersey-based entrepreneur Jiby M. Thomas, a practicing Christian and former General Secretary of the Federation of Malayali Association of America, calls the notion of yoga causing conversion to Hinduism as “totally foolish and absurd.” His message to the conservatives that have proposed this idea being simply that, “Yoga is a practice. There is no one forcing you to convert through yoga. People do yoga all over the world and I’ve never heard that by doing yoga people start believing in Hinduism.”
Thomas, who himself does not practice yoga, but whose wife and daughter regularly do, points out that over the last few years yoga has gained in popularity in the U.S., with it having helped people. “Over the last year, with the pandemic, social isolation and children having to do virtual school, it has caused anxiety, stress and mental problems for many kids. Mental health is a major question for many now. If yoga helps children (and adults) focus and keep calm, disciplined and healthy, it is an advantage. And as a conservative, I would not say no to the benefits from yoga.”Thomas further adds, “People who can practice, should. It’s healthy.”
Not only groups, but avid yoga proponents have joined in support of lifting the ban. Falguni Pandya of Livingston, New Jersey, an entrepreneur and a certified yoga teacher says: “Mainstream America understands only the physical aspect of yoga — the asanas and the meditation. Yoga is so much more than that. It is a philosophy. It is about a complete lifestyle. It has a mental, spiritual and emotional component.”
As to the ban and the outcry from the conservative right, Pandya, who teaches pranayam daily, “pro bono” to the community, says: “I feel bad for the people of Alabama. They are being deprived of something profound and uplifting, due to ignorance. And although the origin of yoga is in Hinduism, it’s the gift of Hinduism to the world. Doing yoga does not make you Hindu anymore that putting up a Christmas tree and exchanging gifts makes you Christian.”
Adding that “yoga has a deep psychological benefit,” she says in the current times of anxiety and stress, “yoga can help bring them a sense of inner calm and help them with any mental health struggle they have. One in three Americans suffer from depression, yoga, as has been documented, can help alleviate stress, anxiety and depression.”
A Clash of Cultures
Maryland resident Anju Bhargava, a certified yoga teacher from the Maryland School of Medicine, and founder of the Hindu American Seva Community, sees this issue as a double-edge sword. “As a Hindu, I do want people to understand and recognize the connection yoga has with the overall Sanatan Dharma and Vedic Hinduism. And looking at it from an identity perspective, me, being a Hindu, am happy that there’s a group of people that recognize where the roots of yoga are, not just the ‘religious aspect’ but the whole gamut of it. The other part of me is sad that the benefits of it are not being realized because the way Christianity defines religion is not how Hinduism defines it. In that context, the Christian viewpoint is narrowly focused.”
Clarifying her stance further, Bhargava adds, “Practicing yoga doesn’t make you Hindu like the Abrahamic religions describe someone who is religious. The difference lies in how the Eastern and Abrahamic religions approach spirituality, where in Vedic Hinduism you look at it from a holistic, all-inclusive perspective, not just doing the religious act but as a whole wellness act — body, mind and soul. In Christianity, religion is looked at from a faith perspective. How the western Christian groups are looking at this issue is that yoga is somehow increasing the faith in a particular doctrine. They are looking at it through a conversion lens, because that is how they view the world. It’s a clash of cultures.”
Incredulous practitioners have also taken to social media to call out the conservatives for their ludicrous accusation. As Canadian actress Paige Sandhu points out on Twitter: “We’re the 5th largest religion in the world but U.S. education only highlights the 1st largest out of fear.”
Devon Fisher, an avid yogi tweeted: “I read an article today that said that yoga can lead to injury, psychosis and Hinduism. Which is why conservative Christian groups are fighting the push to lift a statewide ban on yoga in schools in Alabama. I just have no words for how narrow minded this belief is.”
Whatever side of the argument you may fall on, according to a 2016 study, around 36.7 million people practice yoga in the U.S., making it one of the most popular wellness regimes.
Anu Ghosh immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1999. Back in India she was a journalist for the Times of India in Pune for 8years and a graduate from the Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication. In the U.S., she obtained her Masters andPhD. in Communications from The Ohio State University. Go Buckeyes! She has been involved in education for the last 15years, as a professor at Oglethorpe University and then Georgia State University. She currently teaches Special Education at OakGrove Elementary. She is also a mom to two precocious girls ages 11 and 6.