Some of my favorite exercise is a yoga class at my local recreation center. I love the calming music, the soothing voice of the instructor and the chance to release my mind and body from the stresses of being a full-time, working mom. I don’t get to a class very often, but when I do, I always leave relaxed.
As a devoted follower of Jesus, I’ve wondered over the years if I should continue my occasional yoga habit. I take to heart the arguments about it being a religious practice. However, I’ve come to the conclusion that the average yoga class is as stripped of religious practice as possible. As an adult, fully grounded in my faith, I have the knowledge and experience to ignore the religious aspects, or adapt them to my own relationship with Jesus, and avoid classes that are too overt.
The children of Encinitas Union School District do not have those luxuries.
At the nine-school district in California, twice-weekly yoga classes are now mandatory. Obviously, as a participant in yoga myself, I understand that there are some health benefits to the practice. Yet teaching yoga in schools isn’t about well-informed adults making decisions about whether or not the practice conflicts with their personal beliefs. It’s about introducing what is universally acknowledged as a spiritual practice to children.
Superintendent of Encinitas Union School District Tim Baird said that the program “can impact student learning, health, positive relationships and overall wellness through the implementation of a holistic approach to student wellness.” While it sounds like a noble goal, we must ask if this is the role of a public school. Surely, a student’s spiritual life - a necessary part of the “holistic approach to student wellness” - is off-limits under the First Amendment.
Proponents insist that the practice taught in schools does not have religious meaning. However, the children learn yoga in a room with a poster of the eight limbs of Ashtanga, including the names of each limb. The last limb is Samadhi, which represents the goal of absorption into the universe.
After a quick reading of the ashtanga.com About page, it does seem relatively harmless. The main focus appears to be on the physical benefits of yoga. Yet the last paragraph claims that once the mind is under control (from the continued practice of yoga), the six poisons surrounding the heart - desire, anger, delusion, greed, sloth and envy - will eventually be expelled. The goal of Ashtanga yoga, ultimately, is to be one with the universe and the gods: Samadhi.
In addition to yoga, students in the Encinitas district are also being taught Eastern meditation, focusing on emptying the mind. With this emphasis on expelling the bad (through our own power, not by the power of the Holy Spirit), Christians should remember Jesus’ story about a man who was emptied of a demon but failed to fill his heart with good in response. He was soon overtaken and bound by seven more demons, becoming worse off in the end than he was in the beginning.
In many ways, this program in Encinitas can be likened to the Catholic Church funding a weekly recitation of the rosary in a room with pictures of the Stations of the Cross and calling it a history lesson. It’s not incorrect that such a practice has historical foundations, but it is so much more than history.
It’s the same with yoga in the schools. It does have physical benefits, but it also touches on so many other aspects of a student’s life that public schools must be restricted in practicing it.
Many, myself included, argue that yoga can be useful for any kind of spirituality, even Christian. Yoga-practicing Christians find the physical effort of yoga to be just enough to keep the mind focused on meditation. Rather than emptying the mind, Christian yogis take that time to meditate on Christ, His Spirit and the body He gave for His glory.
Yoga may be physical, but few can argue that the physicality does not also affect the spiritual – a fact of which all practitioners should be aware.