Yoga in Schools: The Religion Question


Yoga in Schools

Lately, the “religion question” seems to be arising via blogs and social networks in a monthly wave. During the last fifteen or so years I’ve been involved in school yoga, the religion question  bobbed up to the surface only occasionally and typically came from a new teacher wondering what to say if the question ever arose.

Now that images of yoga are swimming throughout mainstream commercial media and yoga in schools is practically normal in some regions of the country, the religion question has surfaced in a whole new way and I don’t think it’s going to recede until its been thoroughly vetted.

It is a serious question: Is yoga a religion?

To answer this question, it is essential to define what we mean by “yoga.” There are dozens of yogic disciplines floating around the planet, commonly referred to as simply “yoga,” that entail all sorts of practices that have nothing to do with the type of yoga being taught in schools here in America.

Most  yoga programs in schools include:

*Movements and postures geared at integrating mind and body.

*Breathing techniques to relieve stress and sharpen focus.

*Mindfulness exercises aimed at improving attention.

Yes, these yogic practices come from systems that originated in India, but the practices are effective for all types of humans, not just Indians. And, you don’t have to be any particular religion, or even particularly religious for that matter, to enjoy the benefits.

It’s understandable that parents who perceive yoga as a religion would revolt against yoga programming in their child’s classroom. I would be furious if my child was required to take part in anything religious at school. It is easy to see why parents are concerned.  “Googling”  the word “yoga” results in multitudes of images of deities, foreign symbols and people in seemingly religious worship.

So why even call it “yoga?” Why not just scrap that moniker, skip the debate and rename the system?

Some teachers have done just that. Shed the name, rename and move on. But others say, “not so fast.” One of the aims of yoga is to reach a state of equal vision wherein all people are seen as equally valuable. We can look to modern India to see that  yogic systems as they have been practiced there for centuries have not worked to bring social justice, but the aim still exists in the practice. That said, the reasons against calling the practices “yoga” are shrouded in fear of the other. By addressing that fear and clearing up misunderstandings, we are working toward freeing our minds of deeply engrained confusion.

To practice non-violence, tell the truth, cultivate a sound body and mind; these are some of the contents of yoga. These practices are simply inherent to healthy lifestyles for humans. It’s dangerous to let religious leaders hijack kids rights to be healthy because they are afraid the exercises will open their minds too wide and cultivate too much critical thinking. If we give in to those who refuse to see intricacy and nuance, the potential is there that the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater. No more yoga in schools? Does that mean no more movement, mindfulness and focused breathing, too?

Honoring the origin of yoga does not require one to take on the cultural, traditional and/or religious ways of India. We can appreciate the origin of mathematics without having to worship Zeus in much the same way that we can benefit from yoga without praising Krishna. Yoga has universal applications that exceed any cultural or religious containers.

Saying “yoga” is like saying “skating.” It is a broad, general term that encompasses many variations. Does skating belong in schools? Good question. “What type of skating?” Answer could include skateboarding, ice skating, roller skating, and skating for Jesus. In the case of skateboarding, I’d say the risk of physical injury may be too high to condone in schools. Ice and roller skating require vast amounts of space and equipment that schools cannot afford. Of course, if the program involves worship of prophets its’ a no go.

Unlike skating, yoga carries a very low risk of injury (if practiced with a well qualified, experienced teacher), it requires little to no equipment and does not involve the worship of prophets, necessarily. There are sects of yoga practitioners all over the world conjoining Hindu rituals with yoga practice. For some people, yoga is intertwined with Buddhism and Jainism, but that is not necessary. There are also a growing number of people living a yogic lifestyle which include a variety of other religious practices, including explicit connections with Christianity. Meanwhile, there are many folks who utilize the yogic practices with no religious dedications whatsoever.

So, how do we answer our critics who say we are breaking important rules by advocating for yoga in schools? Well, there is no one way and to be certain, we’ll need to apply a little yoga! By listening and engaging in compassionate dialogue with folks who think differently, we can make  progress. Researchers and scientists are doing their part by proving the health and wellness benefits. But, I think it’s the one on one, human to human interaction that makes real headway. I do not think we’ll move forward if  we discount or ridicule the beliefs and understandings of others. It’s tempting to write off beliefs that stand in contrast to our own, but isn’t that exactly what the “no-yoga-schoolers” are doing?

It’s a long conversation that I don’t see effectively being had in sound bites and elevator speeches. Yoga has been resilient enough to survive many epochs and continues to move it’s way around the globe, seeping into our human condition and hopefully dissolving some of our confusion in the process. The brewing national debate over yoga in schools in America is just another way that yoga helps to reveal reality.

Yoga is not a static situation. It is incredibly broad, almost like eating. We are all food eaters. And within that commonality, there is vast diversity.


Thanks so much for the post. Here at Lttle Flower Yoga n NY we have found that queston floatng around lately as well, and I agree that pushng t asde wll not help make people more comfortable wth yoga n schools. We need to address these questons n a straghtforward way that honors and respects parents n every communty.

Ths past wnter, after the NY Tmes publshed the artcle “Hndu Group Strs a Debate Over Yoga’s Soul” I was asked to partcpate n a rado show called Where Is My Guru, explorng the topc of sprtualty n yoga, from my perspectve as the drector of a chldren’s yoga program that works n publc schools. It was a very nterestng conversaton, and the other guest was Sheetal Shah of the Hndu Amercan Foundaton.

If anyone would lke to lsten to the show, or read a transcrpt of the ntervew, you can do so va ths lnk:

Happy teachng and learnng :)


Havng been told that yoga s the “devl’s exercses” just last week ths s a tmely post. I fnd your voce reasonable & open. Unfortunately others smply turn off. I always nvte parents to attend classes so they can see exactly what s beng taught n the school system. Last year I tackled ths topc – here s the artcle

    I agree, Donna, nvtng folks to class can be helpful. I fnd gettng that level of engagement requres even more openness than a dalogue, though. I thnk as long as we don’t “smply turn off” to those who seem to turn off to yoga, we can potentally make a small mpact by modelng the acceptance and compasson we cultvate n our practce. The more I reflect on ths topc, the more I come to see that t’s not what we say but how we are beng n our response that can move obstacles. I keep lookng for a ratonal way to explan away the msconceptons, but when the fear s so rratonal to nclude “the devl,” I suppose t’s too deeply engraned to be extrcated by mere words. I feel deep empathy for people whose mnds have been captured by systems that take away ther freedom of choce, all the whle leadng them to beleve they are superor. I thnk beng grounded n our responses, not takng the attacks personally and patence are key. If we respond wth love and understandng, that energy may seep n over tme, even f the door looks closed n the moment. Thanks for your comment and post. It s good to process ths queston wth peers, although I crave the opportunty to do so n each others real presence, beyond the wrtten word.

Brllant post &thank you so much for speakng the truth about Yoga!

    Thanks for your reply, Jody. It’s cool that you read our lttle blog;) Feels lke I’ve been wantng to meet you for a mllon years…. Well, about 10, I suppose! How do you deal wth the relgon queston?

      hey sweet abby ~ to me t feels lke we have been ONE all along. thanks for recevng me & know soon our paths wll cross n “real” tme! 😉

      Re: relgon, t hardly phases me cause I just don’t buy n to t. Its a non-ssue, so I don’t attract t. The schools we brng NGY to are so open & receptve, they hardly ever ask about the relgon component.

      of course, n my 14 years n ths feld, I have been confronted wth ths queston…and I am wllng to adapt however, never sacrfce what s true for me – and that s Yoga…Unon wth thy self and Sprt. Ths to me s not “relgon.”

      I coach kds yoga teachers to be clear on ther relatonshp wth yoga & relgon. If they are unsure, t wll reak from them and others wll feel uncomfortable and nsecure too.

      In support of my belef, wth kds…I avod brngng any of the Hndu detes nto class. However, my home s full of em 8)

      Thank you agan for the beautful sharng of what s real!

      love love love!

        I apprecate your thoughtful comment, Jod. It’s true, whatever hang ups we have show up n our teachng. Lke you, relgon has been mostly a non-ssue n my personal and professonal practce. I’ve been somewhat dsmssve of the topc untl now. Not dsmssve n the sense of mportance, but more from a place of “you can’t change peoples’ belefs, so let t go.”

        Now I feel called to ths conversaton as I see how very helpful and postve movements can be deraled by just a few people wth a strong poltcal agenda. I am not afrad that wll happen to our yoga movement, t s strong and steady. Yet, I do want to be posed to respond wth clarty f necessary.

        Throughout my teachng years, I’ve gone where I’ve been nvted, so receptvty has been hgh. Now, my attenton turns to chldren lvng n oppressve stuatons and/or attendng schools n communtes that may need some extra support to accept somethng unfamlar.

        I love your approach to ths topc. Your comment feels grounded and clear. Lookng forward to meetng and sharng more.

Rght on Abby. Wth Yoga 4 Classrooms, we are occasonally faced wth ths dlemma. Wthout attachment and wth compasson and understandng of the ‘fear’, we nvte parents and communty leaders to come and experence or observe the program. We have a handout that goes home to parents before we come nto the school wth some facts about the program promotng the whole chld health benefts and other benefts you menton. We steer clear of sanskrt and rtualstc actvtes that could be construed as havng relgous connotatons. I apprecate your smple and clear breakdown of most school yoga programs ncludng: Most yoga programs n schools nclude:

*Movements and postures geared at ntegratng mnd and body.

*Breathng technques to releve stress and sharpen focus.

*Mndfulness exercses amed at mprovng attenton.

That’s t n a nutshell. If we can stay open-mnded to understand the potental fears of others, lke you say, they often soften and open as well. Not always, of course. But beng yogc and smply educatonal n our approach (as opposed to preachy or ntolerant) wth an atttude of non-attachment to results, wll often breed openness to new perspectves. Wonderful dscusson!

    Sendng home lterature s really smart and skllful, Lsa. Thanks for sharng your approach. I have a queston for you: Is your program mostly mplemented n schools that “nvte” you n, or do you and your teachers actvely go out and offer the program to schools? I ask because n my experence, there s less push back from the former stuaton, not surprsngly. There are more programs now beng offered through non-profts, etc., that seem to come from “outsde” a school communty. Here s where I see more ssues arsng. In ths case, seems lke sendng home lt and offerng orentatons are crucal.

      Good queston. It’s really a combnaton. We do some volunteerng and of course often end up n classrooms who have requested us. From there, the program typcally grows wth other teachers and admnstrators wantng more. Vst and go to Become a Y4C School to see the components of the program, nvolvng both a workshop for the teachers (key to ganng buy n) and a resdency. You’ll notce the webste and are other materals do a decent job (I hope) of explanng what the program s. We specfcally focus on the whole chld health and wellness benefts and how healthy kds are more learnng ready – these of course are some benefts of yoga, but t’s not always vewed that way. We steer clear of sanskrt and any sort of esoterc, overly-‘sprtual’ termnology. The goal s to be approachable. Havng sad all of that, you mght ask, why not just change the name of your program? Take out the word ‘yoga’? For all the reasons gven n ths dscusson and more, we made a conscous choce to keep t n. It s what t s, after all! We choose to contnue to hghlght yoga as a holstc methodology for health and wellness, and we’ll contnue to educate about what yoga s and sn’t through our actons and the program tself. No preachness necessary. A local school board put t ths way when ntroducng us nto the dstrct:

      The msson of Yoga 4 Classrooms s to promote self-awareness, self-acceptance, and self-confdence n school age chldren. In addton, teachers hope that practcng yoga wll help students focus on learnng. For many people, yoga helps encourage a lfetme of health and wellness.

      Yoga strateges can be used anywhere and at anytme to help ncrease focus, releve stress, and mantan self-control. Our hope s that by ntegratng these strateges wthn the school day, student attenton and achevement wll ncrease, whch wll help students experence greater success n school.

      Many teachers and admnstrators n the dstrct are famlar wth ths program, and agree that yoga actvtes support our Responsve Classroom approach and SAD 35’s objectve of promotng health and wellness. Yoga 4 Classrooms does not emphasze any relgous perspectve. The focus s on stretchng, relaxng, and developng focus…all essental elements for success n school.

      Student partcpaton s optonal.

Great to be addressng ths ssue. I am a certfed Krpalu yoga teacher lvng n the Southern Catskll Mountans of New York. I have been tryng to brng “Yoga” to my local publc schools for 6 months wthout success up untl now. But here’s an nterestng pont: Yoga n the west s seen,for the most part, as only beng “Hatha Yoga”. It s really only Hatha Yoga that we want to brng to our chldren n schools. Perhaps f we defned t as Hatha Yoga, when parents look t up onlne, they would see that t s the physcal aspect of Yoga that we are teachng to kds n school. Anythng we can do to facltate yoga for kds s so mportant! The Krpalu Insttute for Extraordnary Lvng has great nfo avalable on studes they have been conductng on Hatha Yoga wth kds (as well as veterans, etc.!)

    Ths s an nterestng pont, Abby. In your understandng of Hathaway Yoga, are the medtatve practces ncluded? Is ths one of the ways you found success? Can you send a lnk to your program? Thanks!

Thanks for examnng ths mportant topc.

For me, yoga s the practce of beng true to one self and ultmately feelng free express that truth. I try not to change people’s mnds or feel sorry for how they thnk. My teacher told me f you gve others the freedom to choose wthout beng judged, you gve yourself that freedom too.

If we fnd our nche as a teacher, one teacher can be known for talkng about God and another can be the one who doesn’t, then we also reach a varety of students.

If someone judges you t s just ther opnon.

I wrote about usng the “GOD” word n kds yoga on my blog and would love to hear you nput.–dont-say-n-kds-yoga-do-you/

I loved readng your artcle and all the comments to see what everyone thought. Thanks.

    Thanks for sharng your deas, Aruna. I read your GOD post and I agree wth you. I don’t use the word God n classes ether smply because the word means so very many dfferent thngs to dfferent people, as you say.

    And your comment about not “feelng sorry for how [others] thnk” really resonates wth me. I don’t thnk t’s sad that people are afrad of yoga. Yet, havng grown up n a socal envronment where racal and relgous dscrmnaton was the norm, I empathze wth people who have been guded to a place of excludng others to the pont that dfference means evl. In my experence, I feel as though the lmts some relgous tenets place on people’s ablty to accept dfference actually shuts down an aspect of humanty assocated wth compasson. For example, several relgons teach that people who do not beleve or act a certan way wll end up n “hell” or endure some other awful fate. Ths automatcally sets up a system of nequalty. The people who practce such relgons lve wth an dentty that hnges on the demse of others. That, to me, s true hell.

    I’d lke to explore your dea more about usng the word God. In your comment, you express that t’s okay for dfferent teachers to make dfferent choces around usng God. Do you thnk t’s ever okay to use God n publc school yoga classes?

      Q: “Is yoga a relgon?”
      A: “What s relgon?”
      Here s what the Holy Bble, Matthew 13:30 says about dversty:

      “Let both grow together untl the harvest…”

      Through the Power of Parable, ths text nstructs us to lve well wth others, to lve and grow together by lvng fathfully n a mxed world, by leavng judgment to God.

      If somethng reduces sufferng n tmes of crss, and helps people to lve a more noble lfe, how helpful s t to ask whether t should be helpful?

      The mark of maturty s tolerance for ambguty.

        Lovely and amazng comment, Karma. Your thoughts on whether somethng that IS helpful should be questoned are profound to me. I am wonderng how your dea (or rather the Bbles’) that God s the judge would reconcle wth Aruna’s thoughts on God. ? I love that you answered the queston wth a queston.

Greetngs and Namaste on ths Beautful Day.
Over the years I have wrtten frequently about ths topc, whch comes up from tme to tme. In my second book Storytme Yoga: The Treasure n Your Heart: Yoga and Stores for Peaceful Chldren, I have an appendx on Usng Interfath Stores and Teachng Yoga n the Publc Schools. We keep deas about realty n the mythology department. I also wrote a blog post n March 2010 about parents who objected durng my artst n resdency at a publc school. The complete lnk s here,
Here s what I had teachers wrte to parents who objected:

Dear Parent,
I understand your concern about unfamlar concepts beng taught n your chld’s school.

Storytme Yoga s a frm supporter of the frst amendment and separaton of church and state.

The dctonary defnton of relgon s:

• the belef and worshp of a super human controllng power, especally a personal God or Gods
• detals of belef as taught or dscussed
• a partcular system of fath or worshp

None of these defntons apply to Storytme Yoga and what your chld wll be dong n school.

Storytme Yoga s an educatonal program based on scentfc and factual methods of exercse combned wth the art of storytellng ntended to mprove chldren’s health and lteracy.
Any meanng that an ndvdual creates about the stores and postures and projects onto these factual methods s up to hm or her.

We nvte you to come and observe or partcpate for yourself to better understand these facts and the benefts your chld wll receve from experencng Storytme Yoga.

Namaste and Have a Magcal Day,

    Many thanks for gvng your tme to such a thorough response to ths queston n the work you do. The lnk and sample letter are ncredbly helpful, Sydney. Way to be super clear and up front. Cheers to transparency!

    Sydney, Excellent letter – much better than ours and very clear n answerng the queston! I am gong to add the defnton of relgon as t truly does help delneate the dfference n what we offer. Thank you.

Abby, what a wonderful artcle and lvely dscusson you have brought up for all of kds yoga companes here.

YogaBuddes has been offerng yoga to kds n schools for seven years n Los Angeles and on a rare occason does the relgous aspect come up. We call upon schools and parents sgn ther chldren up. We have been extremely popular n Catholc schools and we have been turned down by other Chrstan-based schools. When they tell me no, I say I understand and respect ther belefs. Sometmes a school assstant wll say, f you can call t stretchng the prncpal mght go for t.

I fnd t nterestng to walk nto a new classroom of chldren and nevtably there wll be one or two kds who wll be sttng cross-legged, hands on ther knees or above n a mudra wth eye closed. Often, the ones I ask don’t know what they are dong they just say they’ve seen t on T.V. I thnk the meda plays a bg role n how yoga s perceved.

However you look at t, we feel blessed we have the opportunty to gve the gft of yoga to kds now.

What a terrfc post! You’ve empowered me wth nformaton I can employ when engagng n dalogue about yoga wth those who see t as a relgous agenda.I’ve also enjoyed readng everyone’s very helpful posts! Thanks.

    Thanks for your comment, Jasmn. I wonder f relgon mpacts the great work you do gudng nternatonal students.

Fantastc dscusson. Great to see so many kds yoga experts combnng our experences & knowledge. It seems we’ve all approached the yoga/relgon/classroom topc n smlar ways wth a bass of understandng, respect and openness. Thank you to all for your energy, enthusasm and expertse.

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