A Response to the Controversy of Yoga in the Schools
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 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.
Finding their OM: The Transformative Power of Yoga for Teens
Six years ago, I began teaching teens in the public schools of New York City through Integral Yoga’s Yoga at School program. My own yoga journey began at age fourteen, and my personal transformation as an adolescent inspired me to share the practice with youth. Initially, I was intimidated to work with teens, but the moment I began teaching, something magical was born.
Most of the students came into the yoga class like any other teenager: angry, anxious, depressed, reactive, and insecure. Slowly, though, I began to see changes over the course of the semester. They weren’t as reactive. They weren’t as fidgety. The tension in their bodies started to soften. They smiled more. They sat up a little straighter, and their voices became stronger. Kind words replace expletives. Windows opened where there were once walls. And by the end of the semester, the 20 students I sent off into the world were not the 20 students who sulked into the door the first day. What an incredible gift to share with young people—a gift they can carry with them the rest of their lives. After witnessing the transformative power of yoga in my students, my life’s work has been devoted to making this ancient practice accessible to modern teens.
At the end of the semester when I ask students how they benefited from the program, they say things like “It has helped me grow into a stronger and more peaceful version of myself.” “Yoga has helped me to heal myself and forgive others.” “I learned how to breathe to control my anger.” “I am finally able to just be myself around others.” “My relationship with my mother is better.” “I am more kind.”
Yoga not only has an immediate effect on teens, but also makes an indelible imprint in their lives, long after the semester long course is over. One student, after having taken a semester of yoga her senior year in high school, decided to go to a holistic health college instead of culinary school. She is now about to complete her yoga teaching certification. Other students stay connected to the Integral Yoga Institute after their yoga course is completed and take classes and do karma yoga there. Others bring yoga to their own communities, teaching their friends and siblings, and even inviting their parents to start taking yoga classes. Teens living their yoga in their daily lives and sharing it with their communities is one of the greatest fruits of their practice. After all, the world ultimately needs them to be ambassadors of peace in the chaotic world we live in today.
I teach yoga to teens because I believe that if we can open the hearts and minds of our youth, we can open the heart of the world. It is my hope that more and more yoga teachers will be inspired to bring this practice to a population that so desperately needs it. Investing in the hearts and minds of teens is also an investment in the future of our planet. Yoga is one of the greatest gifts we can give to the next generation.