SAN FRANCISCO – When Tara Guber created a yoga program five years ago for a public elementary school in Aspen, Colo., she envisioned students meditating in the lotus position and chanting “om” to relax before standardized tests.
She never fathomed her proposal would provoke a crusade by Christian fundamentalists and parents who argued to the school board that yoga’s Hindu roots conflicted with Jesus’ teachings – and possibly violated the separation of church and state. Her critics painted Guber as a new-age nut out to brainwash young minds.
But the feisty teacher-turned-philanthropist never gave up on yoga, a sequence of breathing exercises, stretching and meditation first described in Hindu literature 4,000 years ago. To make it more palatable, she eliminated the chanting and translated Sanskrit words into kid-friendly English – yogic panting became “bunny breathing,” and “meditation” became “time in.”
“I stripped every piece of anything that anyone could vaguely construe as spiritual or religious out of the program,” says Guber, a Brooklyn native who embraced yoga after moving to California in the 1970s. Guber, who is married to former Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Peter Guber, changed her name from Lynda to Tara in 1991, when a yogi anointed her with the name of a wise Hindu deity.
Now, five years after Aspen rejected her proposal, more than 100 schools in 26 states have adopted Guber’s “Yoga Ed.” curriculum – despite continued protests from critics alarmed by yoga’s religious undertones. Guber herself has trained more than 300 physical education instructors to teach yoga in public schools and some 10,000 have used Yoga Ed. literature and videos.
Countless other public and private schools from California to Massachusetts have adapted their own yoga regimens, believing it may help calm students with attention-deficit disorder and reduce childhood obesity. And the federal government now gives grants to phys ed teachers who complete a yoga training course.
“I see a lot fewer discipline problems,” says Ruth Reynolds, principal of Coleman Elementary School in San Rafael. Her school in suburban Marin County has not compiled objective data since adopting a yoga program six years ago for students in grades K-2, but her observation is that it helps easily distracted children to focus. The Parent Teacher Association provides funding for mats and teacher training.
“If you have children with ADD and focusing issues, often it’s easy to go from that into a behavior problem,” Reynolds said. “Anything you can do to help children focus will improve their behavior. It’s the same principle in adults. If you have trouble concentrating, you go out for a walk and you come back refreshed and able to focus.”
In 2003, Researchers at California State University, Los Angeles studied test scores at the Accelerated School, a south-central LA charter school that was one of the first to adopt Guber’s curriculum. It found a correlation between yoga and better behavior and grades. And the researchers said yoga students were more fit than the district average from the California Physical Fitness Test.
In 2004, Americans spent almost $3 billion on yoga classes and retreats, books, DVDs, mats, clothing and related items. About 3 million American adults practiced yoga at least twice a week in 2006, more than doubling from 1.3 million in 2001, according to Mediamark Research.
But despite mainstream acceptance, yoga in public schools remains controversial. Critics, particularly Christian fundamentalists, say even stripped-down “yoga lite” goads young people into exploring eastern mysticism.
Dave Hunt, who has traveled to India to study yoga’s roots and interview gurus, called the practice “the largest missionary program in the world” for Hinduism. The Bend, Ore., author and public speaker says the practice has no place in public schools.
“It’s pretty simple: Yoga is a religious practice in Hinduism. It’s the way to reach enlightenment. To bring it to the west and bill it as a scientific practice for fitness is dishonest,” says Hunt, author of “Yoga and the Body of Christ: What Position Should Christians Hold?”
“If you want to use exercises and get physically fit, why don’t you follow a regimen of exercises that was specifically designed for physical fitness?” asks Hunt, 80. “Yoga is being misrepresented and mispackaged. I’ve talked to too many people who got hooked on the spiritual deception of yoga. They come to believe in this and become enamored with Hinduism or eastern mysticism.”
Concerns about yoga’s spiritual implications have also fueled a cottage industry of books and videos that offer the purported benefits of yoga – flexibility, strength and weight loss – without mentioning the y-word.
Laurette Willis, 49, wrote an exercise regimen called “PowerMoves Kids Program for Public Schools.” The stretching routine includes pauses for children to contemplate character-building quotes from Martin Luther King Jr., Emily Dickinson, Harriet Tubman and William Shakespeare.
“In Webster’s dictionary, yoga means ‘union with God’ – it’s a mystic and acetic Hindu discipline. I realize kids aren’t necessarily going to know that, but they may eventually research those things later,” said Willis, who lives near Tahlequah, Okla., and also created “PraiseMoves: The Christian Alternative to Yoga.”
“I’m not here to say that yoga is necessarily bad, but it is counter to what I think the public education system is for: It should have programs without any form of religious overtones whatsoever,” Willis said.
The rise of Christian breathing and stretching exercise astounds some modern yogis, particularly westerners who say they don’t see yoga as religious indoctrination.
Rusty Wells, who runs Bhakti Flow, a donation-based yoga center in San Francisco, was raised Roman Catholic and entered the seminary after high school.
“Yoga is a nonsectarian spiritual practice that is there to enhance whatever anyone believes in,” Wells said. “Yoga’s not here to replace church. … It’s a great way to make calisthenics more interesting.”
Baron Baptiste has taught yoga to the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles and is one of the most recognized names in the growing yoga industry. His parents founded one of the country’s first yoga studios in San Francisco in 1955.
Baptiste, who now owns three studios of his own in the Boston area and produces books and videos, practices with his 7-year-old son. Baptiste, who endorsed the Yoga Ed. program last week at a conference in San Francisco, said his son takes yoga far less seriously than he does.
“We adults need to be reminded to lighten up, breathe in the joy and have some fun,” he said.