On Saturday at the Confluence, Bobbie and I made sure to attend the session on teaching yoga to children, featuring Manju Jois, Jois Foundation director Eugene Ruffin and Eddie Stern, as well as Foundation teachers.
It started with a demonstration of a children’s yoga class (shortened to 10 minutes, perhaps, rather than the normal 20, 30 or 30). I promise you, there wasn’t a sanskrit word or mention of God throughout. Here are some of the poses the kids did: mountain, peak-a-boo (our trini position in sun salutes), cricket, sunset, sunrise, plank. The children did “yogi benders,” which involved the teacher saying parts of the body that are all that’s allowed to touch the floor/mat. In other words, “two hands and two feet” or “two hands and one foot.”
It wasn’t just stretching or shapes, though. There was a focus on the kids’ breathing. But no Ashtanga-sequence order or anything I could see.
The fact is, the panel was so “unnewsworthy” that I didn’t think we’d even post anything about it. But then a story appeared in today’s U-T San Diego — the region’s main paper — that included two things I felt needed to be passed on to a wider Ashtanga community.
The first is the headline to this post. That’s a quote from Dean Broyles, the attorney with the National Center for Law & Policy, who has filed the lawsuit on the behalf of upset parents. (By the way, the NCLP has gone to some length to distant the parents and ask that their privacy be respected. You can still Google Jennifer Sedlock, if you want, to try to figure out your own context for things. I’ll admit to finding the demand for privacy a bit disingenuous when she isn’t exactly a private figure. If you have a press kit, you aren’t that private.) Here’s its full context:
“A lot of criticism we get is, ‘What do you have against a little sweating and stretching?’ ” Broyles said. “The answer is, ‘Absolutely nothing.’ I’m not even against people doing yoga. I’m against the government teaching Ashtanga Yoga.”
Again, nothing I saw on Saturday screamed, or even whispered, Ashtanga. But as this story continues to develop, I think it is becoming clearer and clearer that it is the root of the Jois Foundation in Ashtanga, in particular, that is a focus of opponents’ attention. (The looming issue is whether this is a first foray, the beach-head if you will, in the fight against all yoga being taught in schools.)
At this point, we fall into the key debate — which at this point may end up being decided by the courts: Is yoga religious? Perhaps a slightly different, but no less problematic for a public school setting, version: Is yoga spiritual?
I think it’s difficult to argue that it isn’t a lot easier to find teachers and practitioners of Ashtanga yoga who connect it to spirituality than, say, a teacher and students at a gym. But what the Jois Foundation is teaching in the schools, again by what we saw on Saturday, is closer to your typical gym yoga, with perhaps a bit more focus on the kids being focused, sitting quietly — a demand we make of kids pretty often, if you think about it. That, in and of itself, doesn’t seem terribly controversial. (Do high school sports teams practice visualization, for instance? Is that somehow relevant here?)
So it comes down to a few things:
- Specifically to this lawsuit: Do you believe the Foundation people when they say that they have removed anything religious from what they are teaching?
- More generally, and it sure looks like the lawsuit is trying to set a precedent here: Do you think yoga — specifically meaning asana and pranayama, maybe some pratyahara– can just be a tool that brings physical, emotional and psychological benefits? (This is what the law suit’s brief addresses. And if you don’t think it can be, then I don’t see these opponents stopping with the Jois Foundation program.)
Manju, Ruffin and Eddie all stressed the many reasons why yoga can be and is just a tool. It teaches concentration, its helps the body be healthy — two traits that kids need in order to be successful in school (not to mention life). The trouble, I assume it just has to be said, is it is rooted in a culture out of America’s mainstream.
Why do I say that? Well, there was this piece in the Wall St. Journal on Friday: “Why Public Schools Should Teach the Bible.” Was the point of the article that we need religion in schools? No, it was this: “Westerners cannot be considered literate without a basic knowledge of this foundational text.”
And the piece — admittedly by two TV personalities, at which point the credibility of my using it for my argument may fall, but it is in the Wall St. Journal — goes on:
The Bible has affected the world for centuries in innumerable ways, including art, literature, philosophy, government, philanthropy, education, social justice and humanitarianism. One would think that a text of such significance would be taught regularly in schools. Not so. That is because of the “stumbling block” (the Bible again) that is posed by the powers that be in America.
It’s time to change that, for the sake of the nation’s children. It’s time to encourage, perhaps even mandate, the teaching of the Bible in public schools as a primary document of Western civilization.
Teaching the Bible is of course a touchy subject. One can’t broach it without someone barking “separation of church and state” and “forcing religion down my throat.”
Yet the Supreme Court has said it’s perfectly OK for schools to do so, ruling in 1963 (Abington School District v. Schempp) that “the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as a part of a secular (public school) program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”
The Supreme Court understood that we’re not talking about religion here, and certainly not about politics. We’re talking about knowledge. The foundations of knowledge of the ancient world—which informs the understanding of the modern world—are biblical in origin.
Can you imagine students not reading the Constitution in a U.S. government class? School administrators not sharing the periodic table of the elements with their science classes?
And then there is this line: “It is possible to have education without indoctrination. On this point, believers and nonbelievers should be able to ‘see eye to eye.'”
That sounds to me like pretty much the same point the Jois Foundation’s people are making. Perhaps we could put it this way: “Westerners cannot be healthy and reach their full potential without a basic knowledge of breathing and calming physical techniques.”
Is that controversial?
Now, the second point I wanted to mention. Tim Miller plays a feature role in the U-T’s piece. Here’s what he has to say as a board member of the Jois Foundation:
“The overall intention is to provide kids with tools that will allow them to live healthier, happier and more productive lives,” he said.
Miller described Ashtanga as a dynamic version of yoga, characterized by the integration of breath and movement.
“Due to the active nature of the practice, it is considered to be very suitable for young people because it provides a good physical workout. But it also brings calmness and clarity to the mind,” he said.
“The Jois Foundation has gone to great lengths to remove anything potentially controversial in the practice,” he said. “There is no chanting, no reference to spirit or God, no use of the traditional Sanskrit names of the postures and no attempt to indoctrinate the children into any particular beliefs.”
Hey, there’s that word “indoctrinate” again.
Posted by Steve