Should Kids Learn Yoga at School?

A California school district, which implemented a yoga program for students, is facing some serious pushback for parents. What's so bad about it?

I’ve been a yoga student (on and off; currently on) for the past 10 years. It’s taught me relaxation, patience and discipline, and has given me some semblance of upper body strength. When I first discovered it in high school, it was a welcome change from the craziness and stress of life, especially for a kid who was happy to find an outlet that didn’t involve partying or team sports.

Too bad I didn’t have the opportunity to start my yoga practice earlier in life. As a chubby fifth grader with the coordination of a newborn horse, I would have been overjoyed to practice yoga at school. It’s not to say I wasn’t active; I had been a synchronized swimmer for a few years by that point, but that particular sport wasn’t something routinely covered in Catholic school P.E. Instead of humiliating myself on the soccer field, I could have been rocking downward dog silently while still getting a good workout.

So imagine my shock when I came across a recent article in the Los Angeles Times about parents in a southern California town who are up in arms that their kids’ school district had accepted a grant worth over $500,000 from a yoga studio, which wanted to bring the practice of yoga to local students. At a time when stories of bullying are practically de rigueur in the media, you’d think parents would be thrilled to know that their children were learning how to chill out. Not to mention the fact that the state of California is more than $600 billion in debt and is cutting educational programs left and right. How can a school grant be a bad thing?

According to the article, the Encinitas school district accepted the grant to teach the students to become “less reactive and more responsive, both academically and socially.” Five elementary schools there have implemented twice-weekly, 40-minute yoga sessions for students as part of a program that also teaches healthy eating. Instructors have subbed common yogic Sanskrit terms for child-friendly lingo. Sounds pretty darn harmless.

I’m not a parent myself, but I don’t understand why parents wouldn’t want their children to experience new things in a safe environment like a school, with qualified instructors who have tailored the classes to fit a child’s development. The parents’ argument is that yoga is based in religion and is better left out of the public-school system. That is a point I would agree with if I thought the yoga most Westerners practice remotely resembled a religious practice. While it’s true that yoga is rooted in a spiritual practice, it has since evolved into a $6 billion industry with some 15 million practitioners. I mean, there’s a reason you don’t see “.org” attached to the end of most yoga studios’ websites; yoga here is a business, in which money exchanges hands and services are rendered.

And I think it’s safe to assume that not all 15 million yogis are followers of Hinduism, and most aren’t shaken to their religious core after a session. Some people head to class to center themselves, but others go to get a killer workout. Either way, everyone I see leaving class seems a little less pissed off at the world than they did when they walked in the door.

Kaitlyn Hochart, a friend from high school and a yoga instructor from neighboring Coronado, California, was shocked to hear of the community reaction to the program. “Yoga is everywhere in Encinitas. It’s not some foreign, strange object to that town,” she told me. “And the great thing about yoga is you can make it as spiritual or non-spiritual as you want. This all stems from parents who are just uncomfortable with the thought of their children possibly trying something new.”

I wanted some local perspective on the situation from someone who was a yogi before yoga became the “it” workout, so I spoke with Steve Gold, the owner of my yoga studio, Philly Power Yoga. As a yoga instructor and a parent, I knew he’d have a unique opinion on the situation. “Parents should have the ability to say what their children can and can’t do,” Steve said. “But I have taught yoga to at-risk youth in the Philadelphia area. Teachers have said they noticed a change in the behavior of those kids for the better.”

As of now, the California school district has given parents have the option to keep their kids out of the yoga program. But an attorney for the parents said they might bring a lawsuit against the district to remove the program completely. Instead of the kids learning the lessons of yoga, they’ll learn that the best way to deal with something new is to not deal with it at all. Or, you know, to sue.