Would you allow your kids to be a part of a fitness class that focused on stretching? What if this class taught them how to breathe better? What about a class that helped them to explore ideas like “mindfulness” or instructed them on how to practice patience, empathy and understanding of themselves and others? Now what if I told you that class was taught by an Indian family whose members began studying Hindu rituals at a young age, who claim to “have chosen to take on the responsibility of its continued transmission of Ashtanga Yoga”?
This issue, the teaching of yoga in schools has a bunch of parents in California all up in arms–and they are planning to take legal action over what they claim is the alleged “indoctrination” of their kids in eastern religion.
At a time when childhood obesity is on the rise (according to the CDC, obesity now affects 17% of all children and adolescents in the U.S. – triple the rate from just one generation ago) and physical fitness/education classes are on the decline, kids are in desperate need of ways to stretch, sweat and release the stress of school and adolescence.
And in case you haven’t noticed, yoga has gained popularity at an incredible rate. According to Boston. com, 15.8 million people in the U.S. practice yoga. The benefits of practicing yoga are even more impressive. From a physical standpoint, yoga aids in stress and blood pressure reduction, weight loss, increased fitness, and it can have positive effects on chronic diseases. The psychological rewards are endless.
Once parents know all of this information, why wouldn’t they want to run out and buy their kids a yoga mat?
Understandably, many people don’t know much about the religious roots or spiritual history of yoga. And as a yoga teacher, I can see how that can be scary–especially for parents of young children. But, (and this depends greatly on the yoga teacher leading the class) many times, the Westernized version of yoga does not extend further than the physical practice. In my classes, for instance, I do not extoll the spiritual or religious undertones of the practice. I feel that it is my job–as the teacher–to help my students practice yoga in a safe way and with clear instructions. But I do not feel that it is my job to instruct anyone on their spiritual path. I am simply there to help them learn how to get out of their minds and into their bodies–and if a student wishes to pursue the religious aspects of yoga, then that is their choice. I am happy to help them on that path if they wish to start walking down it, but I am not their spiritual guide–nor do I have the skills or qualifications to do so.
The practice of yoga was designed to prepare the body for meditation. But by many accounts (several books account the history of the Westernization of yoga, which in turn has all but stripped the practice form it spiritual roots and transformed it into a strictly physical practice), yoga in America has become a mostly physical practice that just happens to have innumerable emotional and psychological benefits. People come to their mats for different reasons–to stay fit, to just take a break from life, to sweat out toxins, to lose weight, to stretch and even just to breathe better while moving. But just because you practice yoga, it doesn’t mean that you are praying to Hindu gods or embarking on a spiritual journey from which you can’t turn back. You know how to old saying goes: You can lead a horse to water…
Well, the same goes for yoga. You can lead a man to his yoga mat, but what he decides to do with his practice is up to him.
Sure, when you start to bring young, impressionable kids into the equation, things become more complicated. Which is why, just as you would get to know your son’s or daughter’s math or science teacher, parents should get to know the yoga teacher who is leading the classroom yoga class.
If we let our kids take a break from their studies and unroll a yoga mat just to take time for themselves and have some fun while moving their bodies (most kids yoga classes involve games and stories about the animals that the yoga poses are based on), you have to ask yourself: is breathing in Warrior I pose going to turn your child into a practitioner of eastern religion/philosophies? I guess you could argue that if your child eats enough carrots, his/her skin could develop an orange hue. But that would take a LOT of carrots.
A yoga class is just one small way we can help our kids be better people–on and off the yoga mat. Don’t they deserve the opportunity to decide what’s best for themselves? Isn’t that what “education” is all about? If we strip them of that chance to choose, are we robbing them of an opportunity to walk down a path that could lead them to being the best version of themselves that they can be? I know that’s what I’d want for my kids. Besides, what kid wants to be hit in the stomach and get the wind knocked out of them during a game of dodgeball when they could be pretending to be a Mountain (Mountain Pose), Pigeon (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose), Frog (Frog Pose) or a Lion (Lion’s Breath)?
You can read DDR’s friend Hilary Friedman discuss this issue on NECN by clicking here.
Parents, yogis and DDR fans: please comment and share your thoughts in the DDR comments section. We want to hear form you!