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Alabama Will Now Allow Yoga In Its Public Schools (But Students Can't Say 'Namaste')

The new law will allow Alabama public schools to offer yoga for students. Here, kids participate in a yoga class in Pennsylvania.
Susan L. Angstadt
MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images
The new law will allow Alabama public schools to offer yoga for students. Here, kids participate in a yoga class in Pennsylvania.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has signed a bill to allow public schools to offer yoga, ending a ban that stood for nearly 30 years. Christian conservatives who back the ban said yoga would open the door for people to be converted to Hinduism.

The new law allows yoga to be offered as an elective for grades K-12. While it erases a ban that, over the years, some schools had not realized existed, it also imposes restrictions on how yoga should be taught. Students won't be allowed to say, "Namaste," for instance. Meditation is not allowed.

"Chanting, mantras, mudras, use of mandalas, induction of hypnotic states, guided imagery, and namaste greetings shall be expressly prohibited," the bill states. It also requires English names be used for all poses and exercises. And before any students try a tree pose, they'll need a parent's permission slip.

Alabama adopted its yoga ban in schools in 1993 — one of many fronts in the culture wars in the United States. And it was a fight to undo the ban: State Rep. Jeremy Gray, a Democrat, first introduced a bill to revoke the yoga taboo more than a year ago. His new bill got final approval Monday — the last day of the legislative session.

As NPR member station WBHM reported, Gray "did not like language added by the Senate that required parental permission slips and bans meditation associated with Eastern mystical traditions, but he went along with them to avoid missing the session deadline."

Gray has said his experience with yoga began when he played college football at North Carolina State University.

Describing yoga's potential benefits, Gray said in March, "Studies have shown that yoga helps children cope with daily stressors" and improves their behavior, flexibility and strength, along with their concentration.

His own practice has never stopped him from going to his Baptist church, he said last month. He also noted that in sports-loving Alabama, the state's elite football programs have long embraced yoga.

The pro-yoga legislation was opposed by conservative groups, including former state Chief Justice Roy Moore's Foundation for Moral Law, and the Alabama chapter of the Eagle Forum, a conservative group that was founded by activist Phyllis Schlafly in 1972.

"Yoga is a practice of Hindu religion," the Eagle Forum of Alabama said in an email that urged maintaining the ban. It added, "Religious practice in the school's constitutes a violation of the establishment clause of the 1st Amendment as public schools cannot promote the practice or ideology of religion."

The group also alleges that each yoga pose was designed not as an exercise but to "be an offering of worship" to Hindu gods.

The Universal Society of Hinduism disagrees. It calls yoga part of the world's heritage, in a statement applauding Alabama lawmakers for voting to lift the yoga ban.

"Alabamans should not to be scared of yoga at all," said Rajan Zed, the society's leader, promising yoga will benefit the state's students. Saying many yoga practitioners are not Hindu, he added that "traditionally Hinduism was not into proselytizing."

The Eagle Forum played a role in the ban's creation, according to Jimi Lee, who leads Yoga & Love, a nonprofit in Alabama. Speaking to WBHM last year, Lee said that in 1993, the yoga ban was one of several controversial policy shifts involving religion, including a school prayer bill. Alabama's prayer law was later struck down, he said, but the ban on yoga and other practices remained.

In the debate over revoking the ban, Christians and atheists became "strange bedfellows" in opposing yoga, Lee said, noting that atheists "don't want anything even remotely religious to be taught in schools."

Despite the new law's limitations on how yoga is practiced, news that the ban is now being lifted received a welcome.

According to veteran statehouse reporter Brian Lyman of the Montgomery Advertiser, the yoga ban's demise represents the end of "one of the stupidest moral panics in Alabama history, which is really saying a lot."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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