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Yoga Can be Taught in Alabama Schools Sans ‘Namaste’ and ‘Om’ After a 30-year-old Ban is Lifted

Yoga Can be Taught in Alabama Schools Sans ‘Namaste’ and ‘Om’ After a 30-year-old Ban is Lifted

  • The measure takes effect on Aug. 1, after Republican Gov. Kay Ivey signed the bill (HB246) on March 20, overriding a 1993 ban on teaching yoga in public schools by the state’s Board of Education.

Alabama has lifted its 30-year-old ban on teaching yoga in public schools. However, there are some restrictions, The New York Times reports. “Teachers will be barred from saying the traditional salutation “namaste” and using Sanskrit names for poses.”  Chanting is forbidden and so is the sound of Om. According to verywellfit.com, “the chanting of om at the beginning of class ushers practitioners into the time and space that is about to be spent on the mat or in meditation. Likewise, an om at the end of class signifies that your physical practice has ended and it is time to reenter society.”

The state’s Republican Gov. Kay Ivey signed the bill (HB246) on March 20, overriding a 1993 ban on teaching yoga in public schools by the state’s Board of Education. 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.

“The measure, which takes effect on Aug. 1, gives local school boards the final say over whether to offer yoga to students from kindergarten through 12th grade,” reported The New York Times. Participation in classes will be optional under the legislation, which was introduced by State Representative Jeremy Gray, a former football player, who has been practicing yoga for years, initially as a workout after college football matches and later as a means of instilling in himself. He has been trying since 2019 to get the ban revoked. “With the evangelicals and this being a Bible state, they felt it was like a threat to Christianity,” Gray said of the ban’s supporters in an interview on May 20. “Even 30 years later, you still have those same sentiments.” He has been trying since 2019 to get the ban revoked.

“Practicing yoga, which many non-Hindus use for health benefits, is cultural appreciation, not cultural appropriation.”

“The bill gained final approval by a vote of 75 to 14 in the House on May 17,” The Times reported, “after previously passing in the State Senate. It included a number of amendments in the final language that Gray said reflected efforts by Republicans to play to their religious conservative base.” As per the amendments, parents are required to sign a permission slip for students to practice yoga. They also bar school personnel from using “hypnosis, the induction of a dissociative mental state, guided imagery, meditation or any aspect of Eastern philosophy.”

Several Hindu American groups lauded the bill, but lamented on the amendments. In a Facebook post, Hindus for Human Rights applauded Alabama “for lifting a decades-old ban on yoga in K-12 schools. This long-overdue change will give Alabama students the chance to access the many mental and physical health benefits that come from yoga.” However, the group said it was disappointed that Alabama “has chosen to maintain a ban on meditation, the salutation “namaste,” and the use of Sanskrit words for asanas (poses). These elements of yoga do not constitute religious practice and seem to have been prohibited out of misguided bias and fear. We hope that as more students and teachers become exposed to yoga and its many benefits, Alabama will remove these restrictions.” 

The Hindu American Foundation shared a link to The New York Times article on lifting of the ban. HAF also shared a link to a March 18 blog by Mat McDermott, Senior Director of Communications, in Religious New Network. The long-time yoga practitioner and former teacher, wrote that he found himself deeply conflicted.“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.” 

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Nikunj Trivedi, president of the Coalition of Hindus of North America told The Washington Post that “amid reports of racism and violence against Asian Americans and other minorities, the measure is a positive step. He told the paper that “practicing yoga, which many non-Hindus use for health benefits, is cultural appreciation, not cultural appropriation.” However, he said the bill “does not go far enough. Chanting and teaching Sanskrit phrases such as the greeting ‘namaste,’ which means I bow to you,’ remains prohibited,” he said. “You can’t just selectively take something,” he said. “That’s a very colonial way of thinking, where you just strip away the indigenous culture and pick and choose.”

Anup Kaphle, executive editor at Rest of World tweeted: “Do the erudite lawmakers of Alabama know that ‘yoga’ itself is a Sanskrit word? Or are they gonna go with ‘yoking’ to preserve Christianity?”

The measure takes effect on Aug. 1, after Republican Gov. Kay Ivey signed the bill (HB246) on March 20, overriding a 1993 ban on teaching yoga in public schools by the state’s Board of Education.
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