Recently, the parents of two children in San Diego gained media attention when they decided to take the Encinitas Union School District to court. The parents were reportedly in an uproar over their children's curriculum.
When religion compromises health
This time it wasn’t about sex education. It was about yoga.
The parents claimed that practicing yoga in school, regardless of the countless physical and emotional benefits, was a violation of separation of church and state and shouldn't be tolerated. Thankfully, Judge John S. Meyer, who just ruled against the parents, didn’t see it that way. As a parent and a yoga teacher, I am breathing a huge sigh of relief (and gratitude) for his decision. And here’s why.
The benefits of yoga
For starters, the known benefits of yoga are immeasurable. While dedicated practitioners have long enjoyed better health and mental clarity as a result of their practice (typically involving a series of postures or asanas, breathing exercises, known as pranayama and simple meditation), the greater public in the U.S. is just beginning to understand yoga and its impact. Benefits of yoga can include decreases in the stress hormone, cortisol, healthier BMIs, lower blood pressure, strength and flexibility gains and increased immunity.
"Yoga makes them feel more connected to their own religion or spirituality, whatever that may be."
Expectant mothers frequently turn to prenatal yoga to aid in healthy pregnancies and safer births, while dedicated elderly participants have also experienced health benefits. From having life-altering pains totally alleviated, to going from being wheelchair-bound to walking once again, it seems there is almost no limit to what this practice can do.
As a result, outside of the yoga studio, personal trainers and group fitness instructors, commonly implement aspects of the practice, such as deep stretching and relaxation into training programs without pause. I’d venture to guess that few, if any, have ever asked to skip the stretching portion of their routine for any religious reasons. In fact, I’ve had my own clients tell me just the opposite, that yoga makes them feel more connected to their own religion or spirituality, whatever that may be.
Likewise, yoga is becoming more greatly relied upon by psychotherapists and other mental health workers, given that it has been proven to help patients on an emotional level. Since it has also been shown to aid in sleep, boost feel-good chemicals in the brain and generally help participants feel a greater sense of calm, helping treat anxiety and depression with this tool is becoming more and more relevant in today’s world. Those battling addiction or mental illness are often prescribed yoga as part of a healthy treatment plan, as well, and according to a 2012 WebMD publication, yoga is being studied as an “adjunct therapy” to help combat symptoms of OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). So regardless of religion, body workers and mental health professionals alike don’t hesitate to call upon yoga given it proves so crucial for the betterment of so many individuals with varying needs.
Yoga and ADHD
In other words, it’s become clear in recent years that yoga is not only for your 70-year-old, vegan neighbor with questionable bathing habits (by the way, he sounds very enlightened). But it can truly hold benefits for everyone, of any background, and that, of course, includes children. Recent studies have shown that yoga helps children with ADHD gain not only better levels of concentration, but emotional balance which also helps decrease aggression and behavioral problems. And because the number of children battling stress-related illnesses is at an all-time high, it seems we should be embracing this practice from all angles.
A sense of calm
The simple practice of taking full, deep inhales and exhales, as is practiced in yoga, can help kids find a sense of calm in a sometimes overwhelming world. When we become stressed, our breathing often becomes shallow as a reaction. If we could teach children breathing tools when they are young, as yoga does, there would clearly be powerful outcomes. If kids grew up knowing ways to calm and center themselves on their own without turning to other means, like drugs, alcohol or violence, imagine what self-assured young people we’d see. I only learned the power of these things a few years ago and the impacts they’ve had on my life have been immense. I only wish I’d been able to grow up with that kind of knowledge as a teenager, or better yet, an elementary-schooler. It probably would’ve saved me nearly fifteen years of trouble. And it’s probably part of the reason the school in question has received thousands upon thousands of emails from parents asking them to continue the yoga program.
Our digital society
With more technological advances than we can possibly keep up with and with children being introduced to them earlier and earlier, there is a tremendous need for something to balance all of the distractions in today’s world — something like yoga. If you’ve seen a family out to dinner, all staring at their smartphones, or had a 45-minute conversation via text in the past 24 hours, you don’t have to be a scientist to realize we are becoming a more distant society. It often seems we have difficulty connecting with one another (at least without the presence of a screen). As adults, many of us don’t even know our own neighbors, yet we want our kids to be able to make friends easily. These days, toddlers are often introduced to iPads before they can even carry a conversation, and the computer, TV and phone are our main sources for entertainment. Kids are playing outside with friends less than ever, while our technology use is through the roof. How can we blame them for their infatuation, when we as adults are the most technologically dependent (maybe even addicted) society ever?
Reconnecting with ourselves
As we continue to rely so heavily on our devices for connection, it looks as if we are in dire need of reconnecting with ourselves and each other. Yoga, which in Sanskrit means “to yoke” or to bring together the mind, body and spirit, calls for this connection, both within ourselves, and outwardly. It teaches being present with oneself, being connected with oneself, but also being connected to those around us because we are really all the same, our differences merely superficial. I can’t think of a better gift to give to children, or a better way to create a more unified and peaceful society than to instill this message in them from an early age.
"I can’t think of a better gift to give to children, or a better way to create a more unified and peaceful society... "
While there is no doubt a strong spiritual aspect to the practice of yoga, I believe that religion and spirituality are two very different things. Thankfully, Judge Meyer agreed. Yoga has taught me gratitude, to be present and to feel compassion for others. It has also helped me to be a better parent, sleep better at night and relax when need be. One can certainly delve further into the practice and gain a more intense understanding of yogic philosophy, as there is so much to learn about the tradition in terms of the postures, breathing exercises, and yes, some religious implications in regard to its roots. But those ideas are not being taught or practiced in school and so I can’t see how it would pose a problem.
One can certainly gain tremendous benefits from yoga, without being remotely invested in it in a religious way and it was never the intention of the school in question to give children a course in religion whatsoever.
The beauty of yoga is that it is what you make it. But perhaps making it something that’s available to our kids will be more of a fight than many had hoped. The San Diego educators, as well as the entire yoga community just won a big battle with so much to be gained in terms of helping young kids physically and emotionally. Hopefully, those who stand in protest will recognize the court’s decision can do no harm to anyone and stands only to do the opposite. If more people began to realize the true benefits that yoga holds, all of our children would undoubtedly reap the rewards.
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