Yoga can improve student health, some Alabama lawmakers doubtful
Since 1993 the state of Alabama has upheld a ban on yoga in public K-12 schools. For the last three years, Alabama state Representative Jeremy Gray, D-Opelika, has introduced legislation in an attempt to reverse the ban. Each time, Gray's efforts have been opposed by conservative interests in the state who fear that yoga teachings could lead to religious indoctrination.
Yoga's ancient Indian origins and its status as a pillar of the Hindu spiritual practice has led to skepticism and resistance from Alabama's political conservatives. Gray, a former college football player at North Carolina State and Democrat, has been practicing yoga for a decade and personally attests to the health benefits that the discipline can offer.
“It’s a mental component and then a physical component of it. Concentration. Breathing. A lot of young people deal with their temperament. Anger. And so, yoga helps with that," Gray told reporters last month after the bill passed the Alabama House of Representatives.
“On a physical note, if you’re an athlete or you just want to be flexible and mobile, it helps in that aspect. So, studies show that yoga has been proven to work,” he added.
Gray's bill would authorize school systems across the state to offer yoga as an elective course for students, while also giving school authorities the discretion to choose the frequency and duration of yoga classes.
The legislation, however, places specific limits on how the practice can be taught. Yoga instruction, according to the bill's text, will be restricted "exclusively to poses, exercises, and stretching techniques," and will only include poses that involve "sitting, standing, reclining, twisting, and balancing." Additionally, "all poses, exercises, and stretching techniques shall have exclusively English descriptive names. Chanting, mantras, mudras, use of mandalas, and namaste greetings shall be expressly prohibited."
Gray's most recent attempt to offer yoga to students in the Yellowhammer State met another setback after his legislation failed to advance during an April 7 meeting of the Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee. Although the committee vote was tied 4-4, HB246 will remain in committee until Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, the committee's chairman, decides bring it up for reconsideration. Whatley had previously voted in support of the bill and indicated that he would bring the legislation up for a second vote when more committee members are present. Two Democrats who support the legislation were absent from the meeting.
Just before the committee voted on the measure, a public hearing was held where two conservative groups spoke against the legislation. Much of the pushback from conservative lawmakers and groups revolves around the idea that yoga's Hindu origins and its meditative aspects make it an unfit practice for Alabama's public school students.
“The question before you is: Is this really just about stretching? It is a spiritual activity,” said Becky Gerritson, conservative activist and director of Eagle Forum of Alabama.
“If this bill passes, then instructors will be able to come into classrooms as young as kindergarten and bring these children through guided imagery, which is a spiritual exercise, and it’s outside their parents’ view. And we just believe that this is not appropriate,” Gerritson concluded.
The Foundation for Moral Law, an organization founded by embattled former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, also spoke in opposition to HB246. John Eidsmoe, the organization's senior counsel, advocated for schools to offer yoga clubs rather than yoga classes, telling the committee that yoga participation permission slips should be given to parents to ensure that "they understand the Hindu origins of this.”
Although Rep. Gray way unable to attend the committee meeting and hearing, he still offered up his take on the opposition to his bill.
“To the common person who does yoga, they do it because of the physical benefits and the mental benefits,” Gray said. “It’s so embedded into what we do as Americans here in the United States. I’m not sure why the affiliation with Hinduism really rubs people the wrong way, especially in the 21st century.”
Yoga practitioners and professionals from across the globe have been closely watching Alabama's continuing ban on the practice. Kerrie Trahan, a certified yoga instructor and founder of Yoganic Flow—a community-centric yoga organization—works globally teaching yoga and meditation to youth and adults and says the practice can be transformative, with special benefits for learning, growing students.
"On a physical, mental, and ego level, yoga is good for our health. It gives kids focus, it builds self esteem, it makes kids more kind. If a young person loves themselves and feels good about themselves, they are less likely to engage in harming themselves or others, so there's even an anti-bullying aspect here," explained Trahan.
"Students also tend to be better at conflict resolution after practicing yoga. And it is especially helpful for those kids who may suffer from poor diets; factors like too much sugar can impact a child's ability to concentrate or focus."
When asked about objections to yoga as a spiritual practice, Trahan gave a thoughtful, measured response.
"I’ve been teaching for 10 years and I’ve trained in several countries, and I’m still figuring it out. Yoga may be separate from religion, but I don’t know if it can be separated from spirituality. It's a system and practice that’s been going on for centuries so there are many perspectives, and I continue to learn. But you can’t deny that movement is lacking in our schools and it is needed. So maybe Alabama should consider taking yoga language out of the bill altogether, since what is being proposed is not technically yoga. Instead, call it mindfulness practice. That way you give students similar benefits, minus the public controversy."
As Alabama's 2021 legislative session comes to a close, the passage of HB246 seems increasingly unlikely since legislators tend to fill the legislative calendar with their most important bills at the end of the session. This week the Senate Rules Committee failed to send HB246 to the full Senate for consideration, which may have been the last opportunity to pass the bill..
When HB246 narrowly passed the House in early March, bill sponsor Grey told reporters, “I think that a lot of people are just mis-educated. A lot of my colleagues just got a lot of emails about it being a part of Hinduism. If you can do it at the local YMCA, you can do it at churches, why is it a problem when it comes to K through 12 public schools? Some people, you can never change their minds. If you have to vote your district, I understand that.”