The recent news about a potential lawsuit in Encinitas, California that would prevent yoga being taught in public schools on the grounds that it is a religious practice both shocks and disheartens me. In today’s culture where yoga is about as mainstream as Big Bird and Nike, it seems that by now America would have evolved beyond the misconception that yoga is a religion or imposes religious beliefs in any way. While yoga originated from India and is often practiced by Hindus, it is a universal practice that is applicable to any person of any or no religious background. The oldest text describing yoga practice and philosophy, the Yoga Sutras, actually defines yoga as a science designed to calm the mind.
The movement to bring yoga to schools is gaining momentum nationwide. The main goal of making yoga accessible to students is not to convert them to an Eastern religion, but to give them simple, practical tools to alleviate the incredible stress they are under and give them a sense of peace, power, and well-being.
Far from imposing belief systems upon students, yoga teaches acceptance of oneself and of the many different ways of experiencing and understanding the world. The word “yoga” itself means union, and the practice teaches us to not just understand intellectually but to actually experience our common humanity with all, regardless of age, ethnicity, race, or religion. I find it quite ironic that some parents are accusing yoga of being a religion itself when in reality it is a practice that dissolves the barriers that divide us – barriers that religions can sometimes create.
As a yoga jameshallison casino teacher having taught in the public schools for the past seven years and director of a yoga in schools program in San Francisco, I can only say I have witnessed profound positive transformation and personal growth in students as a result of practicing yoga. Students report feeling happier, less stressed, less angry, more compassionate and more empowered as a result of doing yoga.
Western science is also starting to catch on to the benefits of this practice for young people. Dozens of studies have shown that yoga reduces stress and anxiety, and improves school performance, empathy levels, and overall happiness and well-being among youth.
Yoga is filling an enormous gap in our education system, which overemphasizes “left brain” skills like logic and math, and standardized testing, while neglecting holistic development for children. Our hearts need to be educated as well as our minds.
The ultimate goal of yoga is to calm our minds and to open our hearts, so we can be happier, kinder, more compassionate, more loving human beings. And I hope that cultivating those qualities within us isn’t against anyone’s religion.