BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) – Toward the end of the last Alabama legislative session, Rep. Jeremy Gray introduced a bill that would have allowed public schools across the state to offer yoga classes if they wanted.
Since at least 1993, the Alabama State Department of Education has banned the practice of yoga and other meditative practices in schools, as outlined in the department’s administrative code. In the code, several different practices were outlined and banned, especially ones that involve the “the use of hypnosis and dissociative mental states,” including the practice of meditation.
The bill, HB449, never made it to the House floor.
Gray, D-Opelika, is a former cornerback for North Carolina State University, said there were several reasons why the bill did not gain much traction among his colleagues. For one, it was introduced close to the end of the session, a time when other matters dominated conversation, such as abortion and prisons. However, Gray believes there is still a stigma attached to yoga that is keeping it from being embraced.
“I don’t know if it is the school system or if it is a polarized subject, like abortion or common core,” Gray said. “It’s one of those things that people think is bad.”
Dating back thousands of years, yoga has its roots in Hinduism as an exercise centering on the physical and mental aspects of the body. Some have pointed to the health benefits associated with the exercise while others claim there is not enough evidence to find a direct correlation between it and its potential health benefits. A study by a researcher at Johns Hopkins University found that during an eight-week yoga program, participants who were legally blind became better balanced, had reduced levels of stress and slept better.
The issue was first brought up in the state in a story by AL.com on a list the state department had compiled a list called the “Alabama State Department of Education Inappropriate Activities” and included activities that were banned from physical education classes. In addition to yoga, the now-deleted list included musical chairs, “Duck, Duck, Goose,” dodgeball and other activities.
At the time the story was published, Hindu religious statesman Rajan Zed issued a statement saying that Alabama was doing a disservice to its students by not allowing yoga to be taught in the schools. On Monday, Zed released another statement regarding how the state continued to ban the practice of yoga and how despite the issue being listed on a work session for the Alabama State Board of Education back in February, little had been done.
“Various public universities of Alabama had been offering yoga in some form to their students and some Alabama churches had also reportedly offered/announced yoga programs,” Zed said in the statement. “If yoga was rewarding for the students of Alabama public universities, why Alabama was keeping it away from its K-12 public school students.”
In other places across the country, yoga in school has been a divisive issues for some. In 2016, administrators at Bullard Elementary School in Kennesaw, Georgia changed different policies regarding its yoga program following concerns expressed by parents who felt endorsed a “non-Christian belief system.” As a result, teachers banned the use of saying “namaste” during the program, putting their hands on their hearts, or coloring Indian mandalas.
In 2013, parents at the Encintas Union School District sued the system to stop teaching yoga, claiming they were teaching religion in schools. A judge ruled in the school system’s favor, although the program continues to be a contentious issue between the school system and it’s parents.
For Gray, yoga can be more than just a religious exercise. Gray, who taught yoga at a gym in Opelika for several years, said that although its name may cause some to think about its roots to Hinduism, its focus on concentration and mindfulness can be applied to many different parts of life. In fact, Gray’s bill removed the spiritual components of yoga to just be an exercise.
“It’s something that, as athletes, have adopted as a culture,” he said. “It also helps me with my discipline and being able to focus and to accomplish my goals.”
While some parts of the country have been opposed to yoga or other meditative practices being taught in school, others have accepted them. In examining the place of mindfulness and meditation in public schools, the Atlantic did a profile on the Arturo A. Schomburg Satellite Academy in New York City in 2015, where one teacher has a portion of his class is dedicated toward meditation.
Nevertheless, Gray said he plans to bring up his yoga bill again during the next session in 2020. Attempts to reach the Alabama State Department of Education were not successful.