Let's stipulate from the start that yoga is, as Merriam-Webster states, "A Hindu theistic philosophy teaching the suppression of all activity of body, mind and will in order that the self may realize its distinction from them and attain liberation."
There's also a "No. 2 definition" in that renowned dictionary: "A system of physical postures, breathing techniques and sometimes meditation derived from yoga but often practiced independently, especially in Western cultures, to promote physical and emotional well-being."
We imagine the people who take classes in yoga studios, in Gadsden and elsewhere, are focusing on that second definition. They're focusing on the physical benefits of the practice, as noted by the American Osteopathic Association: reduction in chronic pain; increased flexibility; increased muscle strength and tone; improved respiration, energy and vitality; a balanced metabolism; weight reduction; cardio and circulatory health; improved athletic performance and protection from injury.
All of those are good things -- so why are we bringing this up?
A document recently was shared online -- we imagine by someone wanting to make the state look bad -- referencing what's permitted and what isn't in Alabama's public schools. That "no-no list" includes "any techniques that involve the induction of hypnotic states, guided imagery, meditation or yoga."
That document had been posted to the state Department of Education's website but has since been removed. State Superintendent Eric Mackey called it "outdated" and said it wouldn't be enforced as long as he's running the department.
We doubt that's not a green flag for teachers to try to mesmerize students into behaving or concentrating on their classwork.
There's one exception -- yoga. It remains verboten in the state's physical education handbook, which cites its Hindu and religious origins and connotations.
The same mindset is present with meditation. It's OK for students if it's "secular," defined as involving "alert, reflective and cognitive contemplation." It's forbidden if it's linked to the "mystical traditions of the East," and involves "focusing on deep breathing and a mantra, or repeated word or phrase." We imagine the buzz at the average public school in Alabama isn't "OMMMMMM" but is "please let me stay awake through this class" or "please let me remember what I studied so I can pass this test."
We really don't have an issue with the notion that public schools shouldn't be involved in religious indoctrination or proselytizing regardless of the denomination. (We'll go to the mat and stay there to defend the right of students to, of their own volition, demonstrate and practice their faith on campus.)
We do have an issue with something else contained in Department of Education documents. They say Alabama P.E. teachers may instruct students on yoga poses, exercises and stretches as long as the "course is not called yoga."
So it's OK to use the physical benefits of the practice to help students feel better and get into shape (rewind to the multiple editorials we've written about childhood and adolescent obesity rates). Just don't use the "y" word.
We know folks who are fearful of kids having their heads turned by ANYTHING, especially when religion is involved, will disagree, but this is just silly.
Yoga has become about as generic as bubble wrap (yes, that started as a brand name). There has been no horde of yogis seeking converts in the exercise studios we referenced. There won't be any in Alabama's public schools, either, if people call what goes on every day by its name.
Look at it this way: Do you think some coach thought up the stretching exercises players do before every game?