Gov. Kay Ivey of Alabama has signed a bill allowing public schools to provide Yoga, breaking a nearly 30-year moratorium in the state. Christian conservatives who support the ban say Yoga will encourage people to convert to Hinduism.
Yoga will also be offered as an elective in grades K-12 under the new legislation.
Although the state lifted the ban, it still places some restrictions on how schools can teach Yoga. For example, students would not be permitted to greet others by saying “Namaste.” Hindu/Buddhist style is out.
The bill notes that “Chanting, mantras, mudras, use of mandalas, induction of hypnotic states, guided imagery, and namaste greetings shall be expressly prohibited.”
It further specifies that all poses and workouts must be given English names. A parent’s permission form will be needed before any students try a tree pose.
In 1993, Alabama passed a law against Yoga in classrooms, one of the battlegrounds in the country’s cultural wars. And it took a challenge to lift the ban. Rep. Jeremy Gray (D-Ala.) first proposed a bill to lift the Yoga prohibition more than a year ago. On the last day of the legislative session, his proposed bill received final passage.
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,” according to NPR affiliate station WBHM.
Gray said he started practicing Yoga while playing college football at North Carolina State University.
“Studies have shown that yoga helps children cope with daily stressors,” Gray said in March, adding that it also strengthens their attitudes, endurance, and resilience, as well as their concentration.
Last month, he claimed that his religious beliefs had never prevented him from attending his Baptist church. He also said that the state’s top football teams have long practiced Yoga in sports-crazed Alabama.
Conservative groups protested the pro-Yoga bills, including the Foundation for Moral Law, founded by former state Chief Justice Roy Moore, and the Alabama chapter of the Eagle Forum, founded by activist Phyllis Schlafly in 1972.
“Yoga is a practice of Hindu religion,” the Eagle Forum of Alabama wrote in an email urging the ban to be maintained. “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,” it continued.
The community claims that each Yoga pose was created as “an offering of worship” to Hindu Gods rather than exercise.
The Universal Society of Hinduism, meanwhile, disagrees. In a statement applauding Alabama lawmakers for voting to lift the Yoga ban, it calls Yoga “part of the world’s heritage.”
“Alabamans should not to be scared of yoga at all,” said Rajan Zed, the society’s president, pledging that it would help the state’s students. He added that “traditionally Hinduism was not into proselytizing” and that many Yoga practitioners are not Hindu.
According to Jimi Lee, founder of Yoga & Love, a charity in Alabama, the Eagle Forum played a role in the ban’s existence. Lee told WBHM last year that the Yoga ban was one of many contentious religious policy changes in 1993, including a school prayer bill. Alabama’s prayer statute was later overturned, but the prohibition on Yoga and other activities continued.
Christians and atheists were “strange bedfellows” in opposing Yoga during the controversy over lifting the ban, Lee said, adding that atheists “don’t want anything even remotely religious to be taught in schools.”
Despite the current law’s restrictions on how Yoga can be performed, news that the ban had been lifted was welcome.
Inbox: Gov. Kay Ivey has signed the bill allowing K-12 schools to offer yoga as an elective. Thus do we close the book on one of the stupidest moral panics in Alabama history, which is really saying a lot. #alpolitics pic.twitter.com/wnzcTYFyKp
— Brian Lyman (@lyman_brian) May 20, 2021
According to veteran statehouse writer Brian Lyman of the Montgomery Advertiser, the repeal of the Yoga ban marks the culmination of “one of the stupidest moral panics in Alabama history, which is saying a lot.”