In certain parts of the United States, it’s getting more and more likely that rather than a game of dodgeball in gym class or a round of Heads-up, Seven-up as a break between lessons, students will instead find themselves doing downward-facing dog. The internet is saturated with yoga-based lesson plans, teacher-training courses, and “mindful” music playlists designed for schools, while programs for certified yoga instructors who want to bring their practice onto campus have also gained popularity.
While up-to-date data on the prevalence of school-based yoga is hard to come by, a 2015 survey led by the New York University psychologist Bethany Butzer identified three dozen programs in the United States that reach 940 schools and more than 5,400 instructors. School-based yoga programs, Butzer and her co-authors concluded, are “acceptable and feasible to implement.” The researchers also predicted that such programs would grow in popularity.
The trend, however, seems to have been accompanied by an uptick in vocal pushback against the idea. In 2016, an elementary school in Cobb County, Georgia, became the subject of heated controversy after introducing a yoga program. Parents’ objections to the yoga classes—on the grounds that they promoted a non-Christian belief system—were vociferous enough to compel the district to significantly curtail the program, removing the “namaste” greeting and the coloring-book exercises involving mandalas. A few years before that, a group of parents sued a San Diego County school district on the grounds that its yoga program promoted Eastern religions and disadvantaged children who opted out. While a judge ruled in favor of the district, the controversy resurfaced two years ago amid concerns that the program was a poor use of public funds in already strapped schools. Meanwhile, just last month the Alabama Board of Education’s long-standing ban on yoga caused some ballyhoo after a document listing it as one of the activities prohibited in “gym class” was recirculated, grabbing the attention of a Hindu activist.