In certain parts of the United States, it’s getting more and more likely that rather than a game of dodgeball in gym class or a round of Heads-up, Seven-up as a break between lessons, students will instead find themselves doing downward-facing dog. The internet is saturated with yoga-based lesson plans, teacher-training courses, and “mindful” music playlists designed for schools, while programs for certified yoga instructors who want to bring their practice onto campus have also gained popularity.
While up-to-date data on the prevalence of school-based yoga is hard to come by, a 2015 survey led by the New York University psychologist Bethany Butzer identified three dozen programs in the United States that reach 940 schools and more than 5,400 instructors. School-based yoga programs, Butzer and her co-authors concluded, are “acceptable and feasible to implement.” The researchers also predicted that such programs would grow in popularity.
The trend, however, seems to have been accompanied by an uptick in vocal pushback against the idea. In 2016, an elementary school in Cobb County, Georgia, became the subject of heated controversy after introducing a yoga program. Parents’ objections to the yoga classes—on the grounds that they promoted a non-Christian belief system—were vociferous enough to compel the district to significantly curtail the program, removing the “namaste” greeting and the coloring-book exercises involving mandalas. A few years before that, a group of parents sued a San Diego County school district on the grounds that its yoga program promoted Eastern religions and disadvantaged children who opted out. While a judge ruled in favor of the district, the controversy resurfaced two years ago amid concerns that the program was a poor use of public funds in already strapped schools. Meanwhile, just last month the Alabama Board of Education’s long-standing ban on yoga caused some ballyhoo after a document listing it as one of the activities prohibited in “gym class” was recirculated, grabbing the attention of a Hindu activist.
Proponents tend to cite studies underscoring the benefits of mindfulness-based therapies such as yoga for kids’ development. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies, for example, found that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, which teaches children how to divorce themselves from harmful thoughts or emotions, was linked to reduced anxiety and increased attention levels. Other studies suggest that “mindful movement” such as yoga helps to enhance kids’ executive functions—skills such as working memory, attentional control, and cognitive flexibility. Some studies have gone as far as concluding that yoga has a positive effect on students’ academic performance or engagement, particularly among students who’ve struggled with traumatic experiences such as poverty and struggle with self-regulation as a result. After all, decades of research have shown that it’s hard for a child who hasn’t learned how to respond to stress to do well in school.
But some observers question the research on yoga’s benefits. Amy Wax, a University of Pennsylvania law professor who specializes in social-welfare policy, in a 2016 Atlantic story criticized some existing studies on yoga and mindfulness as being of “low quality and dubious rigor.” Julia Belluz, a senior health correspondent for Vox, has noted that despite a drastic increase in recent decades in the number of studies on yoga, the research tends to rely on small numbers of participants and imperfect comparisons, among other limitations. And some parents argue that yoga’s potential benefits aren’t enough to justify the spending at a time when public schools already struggle with limited funding.
The most vocal opponents tend to cite yoga’s Hindu and Buddhist roots, arguing that the line between those origins and secular practices is often blurry. Yoga encompasses all kinds of approaches and techniques, some more spiritual than others, but those roots often filter into even the most innocuous of mindful-movement routines. Religious influences are, arguably, even baked into elements as simple as “om” chants, poses with Sanskrit names, and, as the controversy in Georgia attests, collective “namaste” greetings.
In the Cobb County case, some parents felt that the school was using a double standard in allowing yoga classes yet banning other forms of religious practice in schools. “No prayer in schools. Some don’t even say the Pledge [of Allegiance], yet they’re pushing ideology on our students,” one mother, Susan Jaramillo, told a journalist for the area’s NBC affiliate. “Some of those things are religious practices that we don’t want our children doing in our schools.” Yet the school’s principal, who did end up apologizing for and revising the yoga curriculum, argued that much of the parents’ criticism rested on false assumptions about the program—a parent cited by The Washington Post worried, for instance, that the school was promoting a “Far East mystical religion with crystals and chants to be practiced under the guise of stress release meditation.”
In reality, school-based yoga typically focuses on physical exercise or on relaxation and mindfulness. Some schools integrate it via in-classroom lessons that have kids engage in a few exercises at their desk during short breaks throughout the day. Other schools adopt yoga as an in- or after-school elective, while some incorporate it into regular PE classes.
“Many original forms of yoga are practiced in a religious or spiritual manner,” acknowledges Marlynn Wei, a psychiatrist, therapist, and certified yoga teacher who’s written about yoga’s educational uses. Still, religion-infused yoga often pursues the same ends as its secular counterpart: For example, they both emphasize being in the present. By removing yoga’s more superficial aspects (such as Sanskrit words and symbols), yoga can still have mindfulness and be appreciated for its benefits beyond physical exercise, Wei says.
“The minute you put Sanskrit into a curriculum … some parents are going to freak out,” agrees Jai Sugrim, a yoga instructor who’s taught in schools.
Adoption of these programs has been uneven across the United States—yoga in schools is far more common in some regions than in others. Programs are, according to Butzer’s 2015 survey, based primarily in big cities on the coasts, such as Los Angeles and New York City. Areas known for their New Age–y enclaves—such as Colorado and the Northwest U.S.—account for many of the programs, too. Where they’re all but unheard of, Butzer’s data suggests, is in America’s heartland.
Big cities and liberal strongholds generally tend to be vanguards when it comes to implementing “progressive education” policies, such as the movement to replace zero-tolerance discipline with conflict resolution or the movement to eliminate homework. What’s more, much of the research on school-based yoga focuses on its benefits for “urban youth,” a high percentage of whom contend with trauma such as poverty, community violence, and exposure to drug abuse that takes a toll on their ability to manage stress. It’s easy to take this stuff for granted in areas such as parts of the West Coast and the mid-Atlantic, where, according to a 2016 survey, one in five people practices yoga. But in a state like Alabama, where school-based yoga has long been banned and where according to that same survey just 10 percent of the population has taken a class, it’s conceivable that many might see yoga as bizarre and inappropriate in a school setting. Notably, the same survey found that many people who hadn’t tried yoga before perceived it to be exclusive to young women or those who are already flexible, athletic, or spiritual.
Ironically, proponents argue that the value of yoga in schools is its inclusiveness —its promise to help boys who don’t know how to contain their outbursts, students with physical disabilities, children who struggle with obesity, and teens who lack direction. Perhaps the biggest obstacle faced by school-based yoga comes down to the fact that everyone has his or her own way of thinking about it. Religious versus secular, meditation versus exercise, exclusive versus inclusive—it’s little wonder that two people might see the same kid doing a warrior pose through completely different lenses.