This story was originally published on June 24, 2013, to the author’s The Washington Times Communities column with the original title, Teaching Yoga to Children: Harmful or Beneficial?
Like anything new and foreign introduced into a community or society, offering and teaching yoga to our children is accompanied with skepticism and controversy.
The popularity of yoga in the United States has increased dramatically in the last five years. In December 2012, Yoga Journal revealed that 20.4 million Americans practice yoga, compared to 15.8 million from the previous Yoga in America 2008 study, an increase of 29 percent.
From celebrities and corporate executives to housewives and the elderly, yoga is attracting and maintaining a strong following, for good reason. Regular yoga practice can help reduce stress, increase overall fitness, and provide relief and management of chronic conditions and diseases.
In addition, recent studies have suggested that teaching yoga to school-aged children increases their patience, attention span, competitive spirit and cognitive abilities, leading to increased learning and ease of new-skills comprehension, according to T.S. Ganpat and H.R. Nagendra.
So it’s no surprise that yoga programs for children are popping up across the country.
Unfortunately, bringing this awareness and understanding to all parents, not just those parents who already practice yoga themselves, is proving difficult.
“Although my adult classes are full and growing, the kid’s program is not,” explains Marta Fiscus, certified yoga instructor and K-12 arts teacher.
“I think there are two reasons for this. First, children already have their schedules full with soccer, ballet, music lessons, etc. These are activities that parents automatically enroll their kids in. It’s common ground. The new offering of yoga in this community has never been routine. Also, I think this community still has a preconceived idea that yoga is something foreign.”
This community Fiscus refers to is the small, Appalachian town of Cumberland, Md.
Fiscus has been teaching children in many capacities for almost 25 years, beginning in New York City where she worked as a toddler specialist teaching gymnastics, movement, art and music. After moving back to her native Western Maryland, she became a certified K-12 visual arts teacher and worked in both the public and private schools.
In 2007, shortly after she gave birth to her second son, Fiscus began teaching yoga to adults.
“I never had any intention of teaching yoga, but a job became available and my fellow yogis suggested I would be good at it. Once I became more confident as a yoga teacher, I was able to expand my vision to bringing yoga to children.”
With her extensive childhood teaching experiences, along with a desire to deepen her own yoga practice, Fiscus felt it was time for the children of her community to experience the joys and benefits that come with yoga.
Fiscus researched children’s yoga programs and discovered Radiant Child Yoga founded by Shakta Kaur Khalsa. She enrolled and became certified. Fiscus now teaches the first yoga program ever offered in Allegany County Maryland through a partnership between Tri-State Community School for the Arts and Beginnings Montessori School as an after-school activity requiring fees and signup.
Fiscus has great expectations for the program’s future sprinkled with some reservations and concerns considering Cumberland has an unemployment rate of more than eight percent and was recently listed among the top ten poorest cities in the country.
“At this point, the only way I foresee the program being successful in this area is to make it part of the school curriculum,” Fiscus states with hope.
Unfortunately, the ‘foreign’ fear and misconception of yoga may be what keeps yoga from becoming a part of public school curriculum, regardless of the demographics and economics of the community.
Encinitas Union School District (EUSD) in California is learning this lesson the hard way.
EUSD implemented its yoga curriculum last year as part of a larger health and wellness initiative, funding the program with a $533,000 grant awarded to EUSD by the K.P. Jois Foundation.
In April 2013, a lawsuit was filed by concerned parents of EUSD on behalf of attorney Dean Broyles from the National Center for Law and Policy. The suit alleges that EUSD incorporated Ashtanga yoga into the school’s curriculum, which “unlawfully promotes religious beliefs” and violates the U.S. Constitution.
The trial began May 20 with testimony given by many experts for both the defense and plaintiff.
Witness testimony for the plaintiff began with Dr. Candy Brown, professor at Indiana University. Brown presented arguments that yoga is “inherently religious.”
“Ashtanga yoga, as endorsed by the EUSD yoga curriculum, in my expert opinion, promotes and advances religion, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Western metaphysics,” testifies Brown.
As one of three witness for the defense, Chris Chapple, Ph.D., professor of Indic and comparative religion at Loyola Marymount University, asserted that “yoga may be practiced free from religious ideology,” and concurred with parts of Brown’s testimony related to who practices yoga but added that Brown neglected “to note that yoga is also practiced by Sikhs, Muslims, and Christians in India and elsewhere.”
Adding further testimony for the defense was Mark Singleton, Ph.D. and professor at St. John’s College. The website for Yoga Alliance, quotes Singleton as stating, “In my opinion, to claim that the practice of yoga techniques in secular, ecumenical, or religiously plural settings in the United States today is inherently religious is akin to claiming that college basketball is inherently religious because of its missionary Christian origins.”
There is no denying that yoga is a Sanskrit word and that Sanskrit is the language of the Vedas, India’s ancient religious texts. But the common practice of yoga in the West has been stripped of these religious and ancient roots and is considered by many to be a secular practice beneficial to anyone regardless of their spiritual path or preference.
And who has more to benefit from a healthy mind/body practice than our children?
“I am really hoping the word about kid’s yoga will get out there,” Fiscus adds. “Yoga poses come naturally to children, whether they are athletic or not. So when a child realizes, ‘Hey, I can do this,’ it sparks excitement and confidence. No doubt parents will see that children’s yoga is not only fun, but helps their kids develop confidence, self-awareness, and the ability to calm themselves, which is only the beginning of the lifelong gifts yoga gives to the young.”
The judge in the EUSD lawsuit ruled this morning that the yoga program was not religious and could continue being taught as part of the District’s wellness program.
© 2013 Paula Carrasquillo and A Yogini Transformed.
Paula Carrasquillo is an active yogi, author, and advocate who has lived in numerous watersheds throughout the United States, including Colorado, Maine, Maryland and New Mexico. She currently lives in the Washington, D.C. metro area. Paula is passionate about her family, friends and the motivational and brave people she meets daily through her online writing and social media exchanges. To Paula, every person, place, thing, idea and feeling she encounters is significant and meaningful, even those which she most wants to forget. Follow Paula on Twitter and check out her other blog.