Yoga in Aspen Public Schools Draws Opposition

New York Times, Feb. 8, 2003

ASPEN, Colo. — Yoga has become as trendy as this glamorous ski hamlet, so it would not seem surprising that some local schools have added it to the students’ day. But some parents and religious leaders here are objecting, saying that teaching yoga in school violates the separation of church and state.

“At its base element, yoga is a spiritual practice,” said Steven Woodrow, pastor of the First Baptist Church here. “You can’t separate the religious from the spiritual. Why not teach Pilates or aerobics if it’s just stretching?”

Last fall, officials with Aspen Elementary School, a public school with about 500 students in kindergarten through fourth grade, and the Aspen Country Day School, a private school with about 180 students in kindergarten through ninth grade, invited yoga instructors to conduct classes as part of a pilot program.

“We anticipate that the yoga classes will provide them with some skills to learn how to better focus and be more attentive,” said the Aspen Elementary School principal, Barb Pitchford. “More and more kids seem to have trouble with their attention spans — which is about as long as TV commercials.”

Ms. Pitchford said 10 to 12 families, including the Woodrows, would not allow their children to participate in yoga classes because of concern over religious implications. Only about half of the school attends yoga classes because of varying teacher participation and schedules. School officials will review the program this spring to decide how — and if — the classes will continue.

Opposition was initially directed at the curriculum — prepared by two yoga practitioners from Los Angeles, where the curriculum is also used in some schools — which has since been altered to eliminate any language that might be construed as religious. A lawyer for the public school advised that the revised curriculum did not violate the Constitution.

Leah Kalish, an author of the curriculum being used in Aspen, said opponents took issue with any Sanskrit words. One was “namaste,” a word that she said was used in yoga classes to say, “The light in you is the light in me,” or more generally, “to acknowledge our common humanity.” The students end class here by saying “peace” rather than “namaste.”

At the private school, there was little resistance from parents over yoga classes. But yoga classes for sixth through ninth grade were canceled because of lack of interest.

Yoga is taught in schools from California to Florida to Ohio and has raised eyebrows and ire before. In a lawsuit that was settled by an appeals court in 2001, parents sued the Bedford Central School District in Westchester County, N.Y., in part because a Sikh minister taught yoga at a high school. The case began in 1996, and the school district prevailed once the federal appeals court vacated many of the charges.

Here at Aspen Elementary School, with children being children, their yoga instructor spends a great deal of the 25-minute class time simply reminding them to stop talking and be quiet, please.

“If you are a beanbag, beanbags don’t talk,” an instructor, Staci Stokes, said to the group of about 30 third graders as they tried to lie flat on their backs with their eyes closed. As the children squirmed, the same was said as they posed as the fish and the silent rock.

The language of yoga has also been adapted to their young imaginations and the students are told to fly like Superman or pretend to be a banana with their arms stretched out overhead and legs lifted off their floor mats.

“Is that even yoga?” asked Stephen Grant, vice president for the American Yoga Association in Sarasota, Fla. The small group, founded in 1968, provides yoga instruction and publishes educational material for yoga practitioners.

According to the curriculum used by Aspen Elementary School, Hatha Yoga is a system of physical exercise that studies and integrates the mind, body and breath. Hatha is one type of yoga — others include Ashtanga, Bhakti, Karma and many others, all of which incorporate different poses and goals.

The American Yoga Association says yoga is built on three main structures: exercise, breathing and meditation. It says that the practice of yoga predates Hinduism, but that Hindus, along with other religions, adopted the practice.

Mr. Grant said yoga had become so commercialized that it no longer was truly yoga. “Yoga has become an enormous fad and is completely adrift from its mooring as an ancient and classical tradition that has always been taught face to face with a master,” he said.

The core difference between the two sides in the disagreement could be one of semantics. Mr. Grant believes there is a yoga philosophy, but critics say that philosophy is derived from known religions, like Hinduism and Buddhism.

A Roman Catholic priest in Aspen also objected to yoga in the schools.

“The ultimate goal of the yoga is to balance the body, the mind, the soul and the spirit,” said the priest, the Rev. Michael O’Brien of St. Mary’s Catholic Church. “When you are talking about the soul and the spirit, then aren’t you in the realm of religion? And if so, which religion?”

Mr. Woodrow, a father of four, said that even watered-down yoga incorporated aspects of Eastern religions that believe in reincarnation and pluralism, which conflict with his beliefs.

“It’s not fine, it’s Hinduism, and it’s a completely different value system,” he said.

Officials with the American Yoga Association said they were less concerned with philosophy and religion than physiology and cautioned against allowing children under 16 to practice yoga because they believe that their growth may be affected. But other practitioners say they have no objections except for advanced techniques.

Trisha Lamb Feuerstein of the Yoga Research and Education Center in Santa Rosa, Calif., said, “From our viewpoint, yoga is not a religion. Really, it’s a spiritual practice, and we don’t equate spirituality with religion.”


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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday February 8, 2003.
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