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After almost 30 years on the books, an Alabama law prohibiting yoga in schools has been overturned. Public-school students will be allowed to practice yoga in schools on a voluntary basis with parents’ written permission.
This is the culmination of a three-year effort by state Representative Jeremy Gray, who has been pushing to lift the ban.
Gray, a former athlete and yoga instructor, had been making the case that this practice would promote students’ mental and physical health, as well as their academic success. “This is a great way to help with mental health, being able to concentrate,” he told Alabama news site AL.com.
But to get the bill passed, he and other supporters agreed to a number of concessions that weakened the impact of the practice or that “didn’t really make sense,” he said. As we’ve previously reported, some in the yoga community expressed concerns that putting restrictions on how yoga is practiced in schools negates yoga’s Indian cultural origins—and amounts to appropriation.
The Alabama law limits yoga to a physical practice
The new law defines yoga as “poses, exercises, and stretching techniques.” It limits poses “exclusively to sitting, standing, reclining, twisting, and balancing.” The physical practice can’t include mudras. Students will be able to breathe as long as they don’t call it pranayama or use any specific breathwork techniques.
The bill, passed in a 75-to-14 vote on the last day of the legislative session, continues to prohibit meditation and guided imagery—elements of yoga practice that are also commonly used in mental health counseling and have been proven as effective mental health techniques for children.
Students won’t be able to use the word “namaste” or other Sanskrit terms. Chanting or “any aspect of Eastern philosophy and religious training” is prohibited. Before students can practice, their parents will have to sign a permission slip that says, “I understand that yoga is part of the Hinduism religion.”
According Anjali Rao, a yoga educator and social-justice activist, this mindset represents a misunderstanding of what Hinduism—and yoga—is. “First, there is no such thing as Hindu-ism. It’s not an ism. It’s a big range of thought, and it’s a way of life,” she said in a previous interview with Yoga Journal, adding that Hinduism is not evangelical, and as such, has no conversion process.
Local school boards will make the final decision
Governor Kay Ivey signed the bill into law on May 20; it will go into effect August 1—just in time for the start of the school year.
In lifting the state-wide yoga ban, the legislature leaves it to local school boards to decide whether or not yoga belongs in their district. That means the practice could still be banned in some areas.
And there is no word on when and how yoga will be taught or who will teach it. (A Delaware teacher’s use of Paripurna Navasana (Boat Pose) and Plow Pose (Halasana) in a Black History Month discussion of slavery speaks to the need to educate educators about appropriate use of yoga in the classroom.)
Gray says that he’ll continue to press for amendments that will clarify the definition of yoga, and remove parts of the bill that are unnecessary, like the clause that says “school personnel may not use any techniques that involve hypnosis … or any aspect of Eastern philosophy and religious training in which meditation and contemplation are joined with physical exercises to facilitate the development of body-mind-spirit.”
“You don’t hypnotize people,” Gray says. “Really, it just seemed very offensive.”
Yoga educators maintain that to truly understand and benefit from yoga, you can’t separate the physical practice from its roots. Anusha Wijeyakumar, meditation and wellness advocate and advisory board member for Yoga Ed, an organization that offers yoga training, told YJ in a previous interview that she believes that teachers at least need to educate students about yoga’s roots.
“That can be done in a one- or two-sentence way,” she says. “We’re not having to give a history on colonization and the history of India. We’re just saying, ‘This is where these practices come from.’ It can be as simple as that.”
Many members of the yoga community maintain that without a connection to yoga’s roots and philosophy, the practice ceases to be yoga. Instead, it’s just movement. And that’s too bad, as it deprives students of learning about the many other beneficial aspects of this ancient healing practice.