Defining "Yoga" in Schools is not as easy as you might think.

Controversy over yoga

My grandmother showing off her flexibility before yoga was a thing.

My grandmother showing off her flexibility before yoga was a thing.

When my grandmother started teaching yoga back in the '60s, her church was concerned. They didn't understand how one of their own, a devout Methodist, could turn to the devil's work. My grandmother was undaunted. "It's just breathing and stretching," she would tell them, "there's nothing heretical about breathing and stretching."

The controversy around yoga is not new, but continues to resurface as the practice spreads to secular settings. Recently it came under fire at a school in Georgia, where fear of crystals, the word namaste, and bringing hands together at heart center left parents in an uproar. A March 24 headline in the Washington Post read, "Ga. parents, offended by the 'Far East Religion' of yoga, get 'namaste' banned from school." The school apologized for the misunderstanding, and agreed to stop using the word namaste and "prayer position" with the hands, though denied claims crystals were being used. It is notable that they are not backing away from the program. Calming and relaxation techniques are benefiting students and schools, and schools don't want to give these up because of misguided fears from parents.

This was not the first time, nor will it be the last, that yoga and mindfulness programs in schools are challenged. Last year in Encinitas, California, a group of parents brought a case to court arguing yoga in school violated separation of church of state rules. The outcome?  "California Appeals Court Rules Yoga Doesn't Violate Religious Freedom."

It is clear that while yoga may be practiced for religious reasons, it cannot be said to be inherently religious or overtly sectarian,’ the court said in a ruling on Friday.
— The Wall Street Journal

Yoga's Shifting Definition

Part of the confusion may lie with the fact that the word yoga has gone through its own identity crisis over the years, and the way it is often understood in the West is a far cry from what Pantanjali meant when he wrote it down the Yoga Sutras in the 2nd century BCE. As explored in an Elephant Journal article, yoga was an eight point plan meant to overcome physical manifestation and the cycle of rebirth, and is said to mean "yoke" or "union."  Only one of those points, or limbs as it was called, was about the physical posture, known as asana. That is the same Sanksrit word we see tacked on at the end of all our various postures today: Virabhadrasana, Adho Muhka Svanasana, Savasana. But originally, it meant seated posture, or the posture one took when meditating. Only a little later on— 1600-1900 years later— did yoga even start to talk about specific postures one could take, and none of them included the kind of sun salutation, warrior, nor down dog that are foundational to the yoga we practice today.

In sum, the religious roots of the word yoga have very little to do with the crazy modern sweat-inducing movement based "yoga" we practice in the West.

QUESTION: So then where does our modern "yoga" come from?

ANSWER: Scandinavian Gymnastics.

Say what?

According to Mark Singleton, who explored this question in his article, The Roots of Yoga: Ancient + Modern, in the early 20th century there was a rise in concern over strength and agility connected to greater social-political movements, and suddenly they were blending wrestling, gymnastics, and strength training into yoga. A physically rigorous practice was used by some of the more hip-to-it yoga gurus at the time to try and capture the hearts, minds, and bodies of the younger generation. Thus, many of the yoga postures of today are actually part of an exercise routine developed in the 1900s.

Where does that leave us?

We need to be very clear about what we mean when we say we are offering "yoga" in schools. 

When Little Flower Yoga, one of the top yoga-for-kids training programs in the country, talks about their program, they break it down into, "Connect, Breathe, Move, Focus, and Relax." They talk about the physical, mental, emotional, and attentional benefits. These are all words we can presumably get behind, and want, for our kids. There is nothing that talks about spiritual ascendence or resembles religious indoctrination. And that's because this "yoga" is a different "yoga" than that which Pantanjali originally wrote about.

When I started teaching yoga to high school students at Baxter Academy, a STEM school in Portland Maine, I did teach my students a little bit about the history of yoga. I wanted them to understand the greater context of the physical practice we were engaging in to open our bodies and calm our minds. As part of my "yoga" teaching, we put our phones away and invite our attention into the present moment, rather than getting caught up in the worries of yesterday or what is yet to come. We start with the sound of a chime, listening for the end of the sound to focus the mind. We move, and breathe, and stabilize. We notice sensations as they arise in the body and see if we can stay with discomfort. At the end, we relax our whole bodies before we again rise to re-begin our days, hopefully with more awareness. This is the yoga I bring to schools. 

After this first week, the students had this to say:

As a performer, I’ve always needed a way to relax before going on stage...before a show I did some of the moves you taught us and it was great.
— 10th grader
I often get stressed very easily so I have learned to stop and take a minute for myself. I have found myself over the last few days doing the motions we often do after or between a pose.
— 11th grader
I feel that this class and this exercise makes for a less stressful day.
— 10th grader

This is after just one week of practice from students who are new to yoga. Their anecdotal experiences about stress relief are just starting to be backed by research into this new field, and it will take some time for us to know the extent of yoga's usefulness to students.

In the meantime, it's on us to be clear about what we mean when we say yoga, since we have dramatically shifted away from the origins of the word. We also need to continue to look at what is actually happening in the classroom, as opposed to relying on the historical connotations and new age symbolism with which the word has been loaded down. In this way, we can best come to a common definition, and hopefully avoid some of the fears of parents who understandably do not know what is actually happening with their children when they are practicing "yoga."