To Om Or Not To Om: Yoga, Public Schools, Spirituality
More and more schools are offering yoga as part of their physical education program. But if you’re teaching yoga in a public school, is it ok to say the Sankrit words such as “om” and “namaste,” to hold your hands in the prayer position and to chant? The spiritual aspects of yoga could potentially cause concerns in public school settings, where battles have arisen about the Pledge of Allegiance and its mention of the US being “one nation under God.”
In multi-religious, multi-ethnic New York City, yoga instructors are cautious. The yoga instructors interviewed in a New York Times article are not public school employees, but work for various yoga centers who contract with both public and private schools wishing to offer yoga classes. Some teachers describe their classes as a “namaste-free zone”:
“No namaste,” Jennifer Ford, the development director and one of the founders [of Bent on Learning, which teachers 3,300 students in 16 public schools], said. “No om. No prayer position with the hands. Nothing that anyone could look in and think, this is religious.”
The hard-line policy is stressed in the 100-hour Bent on Learning teacher training. Perhaps a teacher accustomed to working in other settings inadvertently puts hands together in a prayer position, for instance. “It is easily explained, and fixed,” Ms. Ford said. “We weed it out quickly.”
Shari Vilchez-Blatt, founder and director of Karma Kids Yoga, notes that she makes sure to check with school administrators about whether it’s all right to om or not to om. An after-school program at an Episcopal school does not object to the use of Sanskrit words and sees using them as a way to introduce children to other cultures and languages.
My 14-year-old son Charlie used to have yoga classes as part of his Adapted Physical Education program in a suburban New Jersey public school. The classes were taught by the school’s PE teacher and, as I noted when I happened to observe the students doing yoga one day, she did say “om” and “namaste” and held her hands in the prayer position. Charlie and the other children in his class are all on the autism spectrum and, the focus being on getting them to follow the instructor and imitate her as best they could, the spiritual and religious aspects of yoga were not at all noted. But yoga is deeply connected with the beliefs of Buddhism and Hinduism and taking note of this can teach children about other cultures and their cultural practices and beliefs.
Given the passions that arise about the mention of religion in public schools — consider the controversy about the California teacher who took 25 points off a student’s grade when he said “Bless You” — would yoga teachers in public school be best advised to make their classes a namaste-free zone?
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