The number of American children aged 4 to 17 practicing yoga rose from 2.3% to 8.4% – or from 1.3 million to 4.9 million – between 2007 and 2017, show the federal data. The number of children meditating rose to 3.1 million during the same period.
This increase is due in part to the increase in the number of yoga and mindfulness programs being implemented in American schools. A 2015 study found three dozen different yoga organizations offering yoga programs at 940 K-12 schools.
Yoga and mindfulness could become the fourth “R” of public education. But the debate is whether the “R” in this case stands for relaxation or religion.
As a professor of religious studies, I was an expert witness in four legal challenges to yoga and meditation in public schools. I testified that the school’s yoga and meditation programs meet the legal criteria of the religion.
In one case, the court agreed that yoga “may be religious in certain contexts,” but ultimately found that the school district’s yoga classes were “devoid of any religious, mystical, or spiritual appeal.” In two other cases where I testified, yoga and meditation based charter schools were found to violate a State Law prohibiting public schools from providing “any religious instruction”.
My research and experience leads me to believe that there are issues with how yoga is implemented in schools. My goal is not to banish yoga or mindfulness from the school environment. But I believe there are legal and ethical reasons to work towards greater transparency and voluntary participation in yoga.
A matter of religion
Although many Americans believe that yoga and mindfulness are not religious, not everyone accepts that the practices are totally secular.
My new book, “Debating Yoga and Mindfulness in Public Schools: Reforming Secular Education or Restoring Religion?” examines these questions. The book argues that integrating yoga and mindfulness into public schools could violate laws against government establishment of religion.
The Yoga Alliance, an organization that claims to be the “largest nonprofit representing the yoga community,” argued in 2014 that DC yoga studios should be exempt from sales tax because the purpose of yoga is “spiritual rather than fitness”. However, when parents sued a California school district in 2013 alleging that its yoga program violates the state’s ban on the establishment of religion, the Yoga Alliance refuted that yoga is exercise and “not religious”. Thus, the Yoga Alliance seems to take the position that yoga is spiritual but not religious. The courts, however, have not made this distinction.
In some court cases, the courts have concluded that yoga and meditation are religious practices. A 1988 Arkansas case known as Powell v. Perry, for example, concluded that “yoga is a method of practice in hinduism.” The 1995 Church of Self-Realization Fellowship vs. Ananda Church of Self Realization
the case classified the “Hindu-Yoga spiritual tradition” as a “religious tradition”.
The 1979 Malnak vs. Yogi defined Transcendental Meditation as a “religion” and therefore ruled that an elective course in Transcendental Meditation in high school was unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that public schools cannot endorse religious practices such as pray and Bible reading, although children are allowed to “opt out”. The Court ruled that practicing religion in the classroom is coercive due to compulsory attendance, teacher authority and peer pressure.
Mindfulness = Buddhism?
“Mindfulness” does the same”double duty.” It sounds like just “be careful”. However, mindfulness proponents, such as Jon Kabat-Zinn, say they use it as a “generic term” as a “clever” way to bring Buddhist meditation into the mainstream.
In a Buddhist Geeks podcast, Trudy Goodman, founder of Insight LA and mindfulness teacher, talks about mindfulness as “stealth buddhismnoting that the secular mentored classes “are not that different from our Buddhist classes. They just use different vocabulary.
Founder of Yoga Ed. Tara Guber admitted to make semantic changes to push his curriculum through a school district where some parents and school board members objected, arguing that he was teaching religion. Guber explained how yoga can “shift consciousness and alter beliefs.”
A study found that over 62% of “secular” yoga students changed their main reason to practice. “Most initiate yoga practice for exercise and stress relief, but for many, spirituality becomes their primary reason for maintaining the practice,” the study states.
I propose that respect for cultural and religious diversity can best be achieved through a opt-in informed consent template. That is to say, it may be constitutional for yoga and mindfulness to be available on school grounds, but students should be able to choose to participate in the programs, not – as I point out in various case in my book – being forced to take extra steps just to get out.
Students and their parents should be provided with enough information about the proposed programs – including the risks, benefits, alternatives and potential effects – to make an informed choice about their participation.