Last week, the state of Alabama finally repealed its ban on yoga in schools – the only such law in the country. The ban, which was implemented in 1993 after a lobbying campaign by conservative Christian groups, was aimed at keeping the practice’s Hindu roots out of public education. There have been repeated attempts to repeal the ban in recent years, but each has failed.
The new law, which allows interested schools to offer yoga as electives or as an activity over the next school year, isn’t exactly a resounding endorsement of the practice. It states that only the physical elements of yoga are allowed. It explicitly prohibits chanting, mantras, mudras and mandalas. Parents will also be required to sign permission slips indicating that they understand that yoga is part of Hinduism. (Yoga, in reality, is a broad category of practices, schools, and disciplines featured in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, as well as a secular form of exercise in some places.)
To find out what it’s like to watch yoga go from a prohibited activity to an officially tolerated practice, Slate spoke with Jamie Robertson, an instructor in Orange Beach, Alabama. Robertson, 47, is a county school speech language pathologist who runs a studio in town in the evenings. Robertson has also taught at youth yoga camps and advocated for the ban to be repealed. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Slate: When did you learn about the ban?
Robertson: When I first obtained my teacher certification, about seven years ago, I sent a letter to the state: âWe have to do yoga in schools, there are so many programs already. available, let’s invest in one. Let’s just put it in every school in Baldwin County. And I really thought I was such a visionary. Instead of starting with a manager, I started at the top in Montgomery. I thought they were going to say yes, and I was just going to jump in. But I got a letter, and it was a copy of that early ’90s bill, saying that – that was strong language – that was absolutely banned in schools. It stopped me abruptly. Instead, I had to take after-school programs and go through private agencies, like Girl Scouts.
What did you think when you learned about the ban?
I thought that was ridiculous, just because I knew how much yoga helped me with anxiety in my early twenties. And being a Christian and raised in the church myself, it didn’t make sense. I just didn’t link it to religion. If we can teach children about self-awareness and self-regulation, it can help with attention and anxiety issues. Yoga is the best fun way for kids to learn mindfulness and body awareness, and then take control of their behavior.
Some opponents have described yoga as almost dangerous. The new law says that “school personnel may not use any technique involving hypnosis, induction of the dissociated mental state, guided imagery, meditation or any other aspect of Eastern philosophy and religious training.” . What do you think of that?
I read something about hypnosis, like we’re going to teach them how to be hypnotized, and it’s just funny to me. What children need to know about meditation is important, but it is only stillness. As long as you’re not using guided imagery, I guess we’ll have to be careful with this. I think the wording will be important. When I teach mindfulness and stillness to children what can be considered meditation is âworking on their focus and attentionâ. And there is nothing wrong with that. I just think we’re going to have to be careful about educating parents and making sure they understand that we are teaching from a scientific and not a spiritual basis when working with children.
Have you ever had any objections to your practice?
I’ve taught so much over the years, and I can think of maybe two situations where they didn’t come back, because they weren’t comfortable with it. And that’s because they didn’t understand it. Out of the hundreds of people I have taught, there have been a few who were offended and thought it was against their religion. Which, as a Christian myself, I find it hard to understand, because it brings me closer to God.
I think once I have conversations with people, it’s rare that someone doesn’t understand it. There will always be an extreme opinion, and some people will not understand. But I think once the parents understand, they will be very welcoming.
So you think it will be fairly widely adopted in schools?
I do. The principals I spoke to who studied mindfulness and yoga, their only obstacle was that they didn’t want to get into trouble with their superiors or any legal issues. And honestly, there are teachers who didn’t even know there was a ban. And so there have already been a lot of teachers making videos in classrooms, PE teachers who just taught breathing, stillness, and stretching, who are probably surprised to learn that there is had a ban.
Did you do anything to celebrate the passage of this bill?
Oh, a cheer and a shout and a few texts to people. I started getting so many texts and emails, because everyone who knows me knows that I have truly been an advocate for it for many, many years. I mean, it’s been a long way. For many years, I felt so alone, knowing the benefits it could have for young people in Alabama, and just not knowing how to make a difference or how to make it happen. And then when I got the news, oh my God, I was so excited.
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