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.

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People often ask me for a list of the potential benefits of yoga practice for children and teens. Here I’ve provided a starting place for creating a comprehensive list. Please fill in with any additional benefits. I will compile them all into one list and repost for communal use. Please invite friends to participate!

Physical

  • Overall muscular strength and tone are increased
  • Increased muscular strength contributes to joint health
  • Aids in digestion and elimination
  • Boosts metabolism and weight loss
  • Improves flexibility
  • Strengthens immune system
  • Builds balance and coordination
  • Improves overall body awareness

Mental

  • Develops concentration and focus
  • Teaches students how to work with their minds
  • Releases tension
  • Improves quality of attention
  • Develops mind/body connection

Emotional

  • Promotes emotional awareness and ability to manage emotions
  • Encourages calmness
  • Teaches students to respond, rather than react
  • Promotes self control

Social

  • Boosts confidence
  • Teaches self respect and respect of others
  • Encourages altruism
  • Develops empathy

Spiritual

  • Encourages connection to inner self and innate wisdom
  • Enhances understanding and experience of interconnectedness

Academic

  • Enhances learning readiness
  • Encourages self-discipline

Teach kids about the health benefits of practicing yoga. Kids are more likely to be dedicated to their practice when they understand the immediate and lasting positive effects of yoga.

Many years ago, I heard the call to create more opportunities for schools to engage in yoga programming.  The benefits to students and teachers alike were so clear in the schools I visited and worked with.  Knowing that school budgets are usually very tight and hiring yoga teachers is not always an option, I teamed up with a WSR Creative production company to make a youth yoga DVD fit for classrooms. It’s been a year since our DVD hit the market place and we are thrilled to have found a channel to offer this program to school teachers FREE!

National Yoga Month supports an initiative called Yoga Recess which raises funds to provide free yoga DVD programs to schools across America. To date, over 4,000 teachers have requested free DVD’s for their classrooms. That’s 4,000 teachers waiting, ready to bring yoga to their students!

The next step is to fill these orders through the generosity of folks who know yoga can make a difference in the lives of students.

To join this movement, visit:

http://www.firstgiving.com/shantigeneration

If you can, please make a donation. Every $15.00 brings yoga to 25 students!

If funds are tight, please share this opportunity with others in your community who may be supportive.

We’ll take care of mailing the DVD’s to teachers, all you have to do is donate. How easy is that! Just a few minutes to make a difference in the lives of youth.

Our goal is to fill all orders by the start of the 2010-2011 school year!

This past weekend I had the great pleasure of facilitating our Yoga Skills for Youth Facilitator’s Training at Project Butterfly in Los Angeles. We had a full circle of powerful teachers willing to spend yet another 20 hours learning new techniques, gaining perspectives and deepening understanding of how to integrate yoga into schools and other venues for youth. As always, I am impacted by the level of dedication teachers give to their craft.

All too often, teachers bear the burden for what’s wrong with our education system. Now more than ever with the No Child Left Behind Act, teachers are held accountable to the success or failure of students, at a seemingly higher level than anyone else involved in the great big mess that our education system has become. Should teachers be held responsible for what occurs in their classrooms? Oh yes, without a doubt. However, public schooling has gotten to a point where teachers are told exactly what they must do and then they are punished when those plans don’t work.

In other words, we no longer ask teachers to bring their brilliance and creativity to the classroom. We don’t ask teachers to light the sparks within their students. All that we ask is that teachers prepare their students to pass a standardized test. It’s simply not enough. Today, a teacher’s time is filled with paperwork and technical, logistical tasks, rather than creating curricula alive with possibility and learning. This weekend, I was reminded of how fortunate we are as yoga teachers because we are considered “enrichment specialists” and are able to function in a slightly less controlled area of education. As yoga educators, we enjoy the privilege of caring for the well being of our students on all levels, not just academic. Educators know that learning is never just academic. Real learning happens when a child’s needs are met on social, emotional and physical levels.

How did we reach this place where teachers are expected to be technicians of information rather than inspiring guides to greater depths of understanding? How is it acceptable to society that we, by and large, compensate teachers so poorly when they carry such a critical load for us? What is necessary to uplifting the field of teaching and empowering teachers to take back their classrooms?

I do not know the answers to these questions, but feel a strong need for public dialogue and debate surrounding these issues. With all of the wars, oil spills, and political mayhem, it is easy to sweep this issue under the rug and allow a select few to determine to trajectory of education. However, perhaps our global problems are actually intricately linked with the quality of education we provide our citizens. Are we developing critical thinkers and problem solvers or do we simply ask students to report back to us what we have given them?

To all of the teachers who manage to keep the fire alive and educate with fervor and passion, thank you, you are the lights of our world. There are many schools and teachers who refuse to give in to the low standards being set by many policy makers. There are certainly schools and teachers that make it work. And how many more could make it really work if we lifted the heavy, oppressive iron of one-size-fits-all cookie-cutter curricula and asked teachers to enact democracy in the classroom, to give everyone a voice and to allow students, parents and communities to participate more fully in the education process? That would require a great deal of trust. Perhaps we can shift some of the  trust we’ve placed in wall street, oil companies and government officials toward our dedicated teachers who stick with the job no matter what and give selflessly to our children everyday.

What do you think?