School Kids’ Yoga Class Is Not Religion, Judge Rules

Here’s a deep legal query: if school kids are instructed to do “criss-cross applesauce” — the seated, cross-legged position known to pretty much every six-year-old in America — can that possibly be construed as religious teaching?

Apparently not, said a California judge Monday, ruling that yoga instruction for children in an Encinitas public school does not constitute religious instruction. Plaintiffs, who objected to the school-based practice for their two children on religious grounds, had opted out of the program, a kid-friendly class in which some of the most pervasive yoga lingo, like Namaste, had already been excised.



Reuters reports:

[Judge John Meyer] also said the Encinitas Unified School District had developed its own version of yoga that was not religious but distinct and separate from Ashtanga yoga.

“A reasonable student would not objectively perceive that Encinitas School District yoga does advance or promote religion,” he said…

The plaintiffs objected to eight-limbed tree posters with Sanskrit characters that they said were derived from Hindu beliefs, as well as to the use of the Namaste greeting in class and several yoga poses said to represent worship of Hindu deities.

But by the start of the 2012-2013 school year, the Sanskrit and Namaste had been eliminated from the program, and poses had been renamed with “kid-friendly” descriptions, poses now called gorilla, turtle, peacock, big toe, telephone and other terms, according to testimony. The lotus pose, for example, is called criss cross apple sauce in Encinitas schools.

With childhood obesity a nation-wide emergency and with kids bouncing out of their seats due to cuts in recess programs and lack of physical activity during the school day, it seems pretty reasonable — even wise — to get kids excited about yoga in school. Indeed, First Lady Michelle Obama’s latest health focus is on getting school children moving.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that kids’ yoga is taking off, its popularity driven by studies that show the practice offers both physical and mental health benefits:

A growing number of schools, hospitals and studios say it can also be a boon to kids, helping them relax and focus, and improve their flexibility.

A 2003 study by California State University, Los Angeles found that yoga improved students’ behavior, physical health and academic performance, as well as attitudes toward themselves. That same year, Leipzig University reported that yoga reduces feelings of helplessness and aggression, and in the long term helps emotional balance. The benefits of yoga are particularly strong among children with special needs, research shows.

Anyone out there with kids practicing yoga? Please let us know if you’ve noticed any changes or improvements in their behavior linked to yoga class.

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  • Shava Nerad

    This is hugely disrespectful to the Christian parents who have been told that a moment of silent prayer, without mention of diety or any religion, to similarly center a group in contemplation, is forbidden.

    As a cognitive science type, I have news for you: contemplative traditions from Christianity are just as valid at producing behavior modification in kids. They could spend the morning chanting, or walking a labyrinth, or studying a Course in Miracles and it would be equally non-denominational.

    It would make more sense to give some sort of equal time to contemplative techs than this sort of bureaucratic silliness. Yoga is empirically proven to have a sound basis in psychology. But in practice, it emerges in symbology from a religious tradition.

    There are many religiously neutralized traditions (Benson’s “Relaxation Response” work with guided meditation where he removed the trappings from TM as a seminal example) that the schools could choose from. Why choose one?

    Unfortunately, the behavior modification they produce in many former Christian atheists and radical secularists — who sadly often do not respect eastern traditions enough to consider them to be religion in schools, which is another whole essay — these atheists and secularists would rather see un-labeled Hinduism or un-labeled Buddhism than unlabeled Christianity, because they couldn’t recognize a mudra if it slapped them in the face!

    For those who are not familiar, the mudra (hand position) the child is assuming in the asana (yoga posture) is as significant in Hindi or Buddhist iconography as the gestures of blessing in cathedral paintings in the great edifaces of medieval Europe.

    The California judge was no Desi (south Asia immigrant) to have this level of cultural sensitivity. But that doesn’t mean that there are not Christians who are in the margins feeling stung. A quiet contemplation taught in class by the public schools is fine. As long as it isn’t from a culture that’s familiar to the judge.

    The establishment clause says no one religion. Let’s make sure if we are bringing religious contemplative tech back into the schools (not a bad idea, to my mind) that we mix it up and discuss the ideas honestly and openly.