Yoga in Schools: The Religion Question

April 28, 2011

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.


25 Responses to “Yoga in Schools: The Religion Question”

  1. Thanks so much for the post. Here at Little Flower Yoga in NY we have found that question floating around lately as well, and I agree that pushing it aside will not help make people more comfortable with yoga in schools. We need to address these questions in a straightforward way that honors and respects parents in every community.

    This past winter, after the NY Times published the article “Hindu Group Stirs a Debate Over Yoga’s Soul” I was asked to participate in a radio show called Where Is My Guru, exploring the topic of spirituality in yoga, from my perspective as the director of a children’s yoga program that works in public schools. It was a very interesting conversation, and the other guest was Sheetal Shah of the Hindu American Foundation.

    If anyone would like to listen to the show, or read a transcript of the interview, you can do so via this link:

    Happy teaching and learning 🙂


  2. Having been told that yoga is the “devil’s exercises” just last week this is a timely post. I find your voice reasonable & open. Unfortunately others simply turn off. I always invite parents to attend classes so they can see exactly what is being taught in the school system. Last year I tackled this topic – here is the article

    • I agree, Donna, inviting folks to class can be helpful. I find getting that level of engagement requires even more openness than a dialogue, though. I think as long as we don’t “simply turn off” to those who seem to turn off to yoga, we can potentially make a small impact by modeling the acceptance and compassion we cultivate in our practice. The more I reflect on this topic, the more I come to see that it’s not what we say but how we are being in our response that can move obstacles. I keep looking for a rational way to explain away the misconceptions, but when the fear is so irrational to include “the devil,” I suppose it’s too deeply engrained to be extricated by mere words. I feel deep empathy for people whose minds have been captured by systems that take away their freedom of choice, all the while leading them to believe they are superior. I think being grounded in our responses, not taking the attacks personally and patience are key. If we respond with love and understanding, that energy may seep in over time, even if the door looks closed in the moment. Thanks for your comment and post. It is good to process this question with peers, although I crave the opportunity to do so in each others real presence, beyond the written word.

  3. Bravo! I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Birnberg and Christopher Key Chapple on this very subject – – please don’t hesitate to pass along.

  4. jodi Says:

    Brilliant post &thank you so much for speaking the truth about Yoga!

    • Thanks for your reply, Jody. It’s cool that you read our little blog;) Feels like I’ve been wanting to meet you for a million years…. Well, about 10, I suppose! How do you deal with the religion question?

      • jodi Says:

        hey sweet abby ~ to me it feels like we have been ONE all along. thanks for receiving me & i know soon our paths will cross in “real” time! 😉

        Re: religion, it hardly phases me cause I just don’t buy in to it. Its a non-issue, so I don’t attract it. The schools we bring NGY to are so open & receptive, they hardly ever ask about the religion component.

        of course, in my 14 years in this field, I have been confronted with this question…and I am willing to adapt however, i never sacrifice what is true for me – and that is Yoga…Union with thy self and Spirit. This to me is not “religion.”

        I coach kids yoga teachers to be clear on their relationship with yoga & religion. If they are unsure, it will reak from them and others will feel uncomfortable and insecure too.

        In support of my belief, with kids…I avoid bringing any of the Hindu deities into class. However, my home is full of em 8)

        Thank you again for the beautiful sharing of what is real!

        love love love!

      • I appreciate your thoughtful comment, Jodi. It’s true, whatever hang ups we have show up in our teaching. Like you, religion has been mostly a non-issue in my personal and professional practice. I’ve been somewhat dismissive of the topic until now. Not dismissive in the sense of importance, but more from a place of “you can’t change peoples’ beliefs, so let it go.”

        Now I feel called to this conversation as I see how very helpful and positive movements can be derailed by just a few people with a strong political agenda. I am not afraid that will happen to our yoga movement, it is strong and steady. Yet, I do want to be poised to respond with clarity if necessary.

        Throughout my teaching years, I’ve gone where I’ve been invited, so receptivity has been high. Now, my attention turns to children living in oppressive situations and/or attending schools in communities that may need some extra support to accept something unfamiliar.

        I love your approach to this topic. Your comment feels grounded and clear. Looking forward to meeting and sharing more.

  5. Lisa Flynn Says:

    Right on Abby. With Yoga 4 Classrooms, we are occasionally faced with this dilemma. Without attachment and with compassion and understanding of the ‘fear’, we invite parents and community leaders to come and experience or observe the program. We have a handout that goes home to parents before we come into the school with some facts about the program promoting the whole child health benefits and other benefits you mention. We steer clear of sanskrit and ritualistic activities that could be construed as having religious connotations. I appreciate your simple and clear breakdown of most school yoga programs including: 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.

    That’s it in a nutshell. If we can stay open-minded to understand the potential fears of others, like you say, they often soften and open as well. Not always, of course. But being yogic and simply educational in our approach (as opposed to preachy or intolerant) with an attitude of non-attachment to results, will often breed openness to new perspectives. Wonderful discussion!

    • Sending home literature is really smart and skillful, Lisa. Thanks for sharing your approach. I have a question for you: Is your program mostly implemented in schools that “invite” you in, or do you and your teachers actively go out and offer the program to schools? I ask because in my experience, there is less push back from the former situation, not surprisingly. There are more programs now being offered through non-profits, etc., that seem to come from “outside” a school community. Here is where I see more issues arising. In this case, seems like sending home lit and offering orientations are crucial.

      • Lisa Flynn Says:

        Good question. It’s really a combination. We do some volunteering and of course often end up in classrooms who have requested us. From there, the program typically grows with other teachers and administrators wanting more. Visit and go to Become a Y4C School to see the components of the program, involving both a workshop for the teachers (key to gaining buy in) and a residency. You’ll notice the website and are other materials do a decent job (I hope) of explaining what the program is. We specifically focus on the whole child health and wellness benefits and how healthy kids are more learning ready – these of course are some benefits of yoga, but it’s not always viewed that way. We steer clear of sanskrit and any sort of esoteric, overly-‘spiritual’ terminology. The goal is to be approachable. Having said all of that, you might ask, why not just change the name of your program? Take out the word ‘yoga’? For all the reasons given in this discussion and more, we made a conscious choice to keep it in. It is what it is, after all! We choose to continue to highlight yoga as a holistic methodology for health and wellness, and we’ll continue to educate about what yoga is and isn’t through our actions and the program itself. No preachiness necessary. A local school board put it this way when introducing us into the district:

        The mission of Yoga 4 Classrooms is to promote self-awareness, self-acceptance, and self-confidence in school age children. In addition, teachers hope that practicing yoga will help students focus on learning. For many people, yoga helps encourage a lifetime of health and wellness.

        Yoga strategies can be used anywhere and at anytime to help increase focus, relieve stress, and maintain self-control. Our hope is that by integrating these strategies within the school day, student attention and achievement will increase, which will help students experience greater success in school.

        Many teachers and administrators in the district are familiar with this program, and agree that yoga activities support our Responsive Classroom approach and SAD 35’s objective of promoting health and wellness. Yoga 4 Classrooms does not emphasize any religious perspective. The focus is on stretching, relaxing, and developing focus…all essential elements for success in school.

        Student participation is optional.

  6. abby heijnen Says:

    Great to be addressing this issue. I am a certified Kripalu yoga teacher living in the Southern Catskill Mountains of New York. I have been trying to bring “Yoga” to my local public schools for 6 months without success up until now. But here’s an interesting point: Yoga in the west is seen,for the most part, as only being “Hatha Yoga”. It is really only Hatha Yoga that we want to bring to our children in schools. Perhaps if we defined it as Hatha Yoga, when parents look it up online, they would see that it is the physical aspect of Yoga that we are teaching to kids in school. Anything we can do to facilitate yoga for kids is so important! The Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living has great info available on studies they have been conducting on Hatha Yoga with kids (as well as veterans, etc.!)

    • This is an interesting point, Abby. In your understanding of Hathaway Yoga, are the meditative practices included? Is this one of the ways you found success? Can you send a link to your program? Thanks!

  7. Thanks for examining this important topic.

    For me, yoga is the practice of being true to one self and ultimately feeling free express that truth. I try not to change people’s minds or feel sorry for how they think. My teacher told me if you give others the freedom to choose without being judged, you give yourself that freedom too.

    If we find our niche as a teacher, one teacher can be known for talking about God and another can be the one who doesn’t, then we also reach a variety of students.

    If someone judges you it is just their opinion.

    I wrote about using the “GOD” word in kids yoga on my blog and would love to hear you input.

    I loved reading your article and all the comments to see what everyone thought. Thanks.

    • Thanks for sharing your ideas, Aruna. I read your GOD post and I agree with you. I don’t use the word God in classes either simply because the word means so very many different things to different people, as you say.

      And your comment about not “feeling sorry for how [others] think” really resonates with me. I don’t think it’s sad that people are afraid of yoga. Yet, having grown up in a social environment where racial and religious discrimination was the norm, I empathize with people who have been guided to a place of excluding others to the point that difference means evil. In my experience, I feel as though the limits some religious tenets place on people’s ability to accept difference actually shuts down an aspect of humanity associated with compassion. For example, several religions teach that people who do not believe or act a certain way will end up in “hell” or endure some other awful fate. This automatically sets up a system of inequality. The people who practice such religions live with an identity that hinges on the demise of others. That, to me, is true hell.

      I’d like to explore your idea more about using the word God. In your comment, you express that it’s okay for different teachers to make different choices around using God. Do you think it’s ever okay to use God in public school yoga classes?

      • Q: “Is yoga a religion?”
        A: “What is religion?”
        Here is what the Holy Bible, Matthew 13:30 says about diversity:

        “Let both grow together until the harvest…”

        Through the Power of Parable, this text instructs us to live well with others, to live and grow together by living faithfully in a mixed world, by leaving judgment to God.

        If something reduces suffering in times of crisis, and helps people to live a more noble life, how helpful is it to ask whether it should be helpful?

        The mark of maturity is tolerance for ambiguity.

      • Lovely and amazing comment, Karma. Your thoughts on whether something that IS helpful should be questioned are profound to me. I am wondering how your idea (or rather the Bibles’) that God is the judge would reconcile with Aruna’s thoughts on God. ? I love that you answered the question with a question.

  8. Sydney Solis Says:

    Greetings and Namaste on this Beautiful Day.
    Over the years I have written frequently about this topic, which comes up from time to time. In my second book Storytime Yoga: The Treasure in Your Heart: Yoga and Stories for Peaceful Children, I have an appendix on Using Interfaith Stories and Teaching Yoga in the Public Schools. We keep ideas about reality in the mythology department. I also wrote a blog post in March 2010 about parents who objected during my artist in residency at a public school. The complete link is here,
    Here is what I had teachers write to parents who objected:

    Dear Parent,
    I understand your concern about unfamiliar concepts being taught in your child’s school.

    Storytime Yoga is a firm supporter of the first amendment and separation of church and state.

    The dictionary definition of religion is:

    • the belief and worship of a super human controlling power, especially a personal God or Gods
    • details of belief as taught or discussed
    • a particular system of faith or worship

    None of these definitions apply to Storytime Yoga and what your child will be doing in school.

    Storytime Yoga is an educational program based on scientific and factual methods of exercise combined with the art of storytelling intended to improve children’s health and literacy.
    Any meaning that an individual creates about the stories and postures and projects onto these factual methods is up to him or her.

    We invite you to come and observe or participate for yourself to better understand these facts and the benefits your child will receive from experiencing Storytime Yoga.

    Namaste and Have a Magical Day,

    • Many thanks for giving your time to such a thorough response to this question in the work you do. The link and sample letter are incredibly helpful, Sydney. Way to be super clear and up front. Cheers to transparency!

    • Lisa Flynn Says:

      Sydney, Excellent letter – much better than ours and very clear in answering the question! I am going to add the definition of religion as it truly does help delineate the difference in what we offer. Thank you.

  9. Abby, what a wonderful article and lively discussion you have brought up for all of kids yoga companies here.

    YogaBuddies has been offering yoga to kids in schools for seven years in Los Angeles and on a rare occasion does the religious aspect come up. We call upon schools and parents sign their children up. We have been extremely popular in Catholic schools and we have been turned down by other Christian-based schools. When they tell me no, I say I understand and respect their beliefs. Sometimes a school assistant will say, if you can call it stretching the principal might go for it.

    I find it interesting to walk into a new classroom of children and inevitably there will be one or two kids who will be sitting cross-legged, hands on their knees or above in a mudra with eye closed. Often, the ones I ask don’t know what they are doing they just say they’ve seen it on T.V. I think the media plays a big role in how yoga is perceived.

    However you look at it, we feel blessed we have the opportunity to give the gift of yoga to kids now.

  10. What a terrific post! You’ve empowered me with information I can employ when engaging in dialogue about yoga with those who see it as a religious agenda.I’ve also enjoyed reading everyone’s very helpful posts! Thanks.

  11. Fantastic discussion. Great to see so many kids yoga experts combining our experiences & knowledge. It seems we’ve all approached the yoga/religion/classroom topic in similar ways with a basis of understanding, respect and openness. Thank you to all for your energy, enthusiasm and expertise.

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