Are Yoga and Mindfulness in Schools Religious? |

TBC Staff

The number of U.S. children age four to 17 practicing yoga rose from 2.3 percent to 8.4 percent — or from 1.3 million to 4.9 million — between 2007 and 2017, federal data show. The number of children meditating rose to 3.1 million during the same period.

The rise is due in part to more yoga and mindfulness programs being established in America’s schools. A 2015 study found three dozen different yoga organizations offering yoga programs in 940 K-12 schools.

Yoga and mindfulness could become the fourth “R” of public education. But up for debate is whether the “R” in this case stands for relaxation or religion.

As a professor of religious studies, I have served as an expert witness in four public-school yoga and meditation legal challenges. I testified that school yoga and meditation programs fit legal criteria of religion.

The Yoga Alliance, an organization that purports to be the the “largest nonprofit association representing the yoga community,” argued in 2014 that DC yoga studios should be exempt from sales tax because the purpose of yoga is “spiritual rather than fitness.” However, when parents sued a California school district in 2013 alleging that its yoga program violates the prohibition against the state establishment of religion, the Yoga Alliance rebutted that yoga is exercise and “not religious.” Thus, the Yoga Alliance seems to take the position that yoga is spiritual but not religious. Courts have not, however, made this distinction.

In some legal cases the courts have concluded that yoga and meditation are religious practices. A 1988 Arkansas case known as Powell v. Perry, for instance, concluded that “yoga is a method of practicing Hinduism.” The 1995 Self-Realization Fellowship Church vs. Ananda Church of Self Realization case classified the “Hindu-Yoga spiritual tradition” as a “religious tradition.”

The 1979 Malnak v. Yogi case defined Transcendental Meditation as a “religion” and therefore ruled that an elective high school Transcendental Meditation class was unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that public schools may not endorse religious practices such as prayer and Bible reading, even if kids are allowed to “opt out.” The Court ruled that practicing religion in the classroom is coercive because of mandatory attendance, teacher authority and peer pressure.

“Mindfulness” likewise does “double duty.” It sounds like merely “paying attention.” However, promoters of mindfulness, such as Jon Kabat-Zinn, say they use it as an “umbrella term” as a “skillful” way to introduce Buddhist meditation into the mainstream.

In a Buddhist Geeks podcast, Trudy Goodman, founder of Insight LA and a mindfulness teacher, speaks of mindfulness as “stealth Buddhism,” noting that secularly framed classes “aren’t that different from our Buddhist classes. They just use a different vocabulary.”

Founder of Yoga Ed. Tara Guber has admitted to making semantic changes to get her program into a school district where some parents and school board members objected to it, arguing that it was teaching religion. Guber spoke of how yoga can “shift consciousness and alter beliefs.”

Some research shows that yoga and mindfulness have spiritual effects even when they are presented secularly.