“We need to direct our attention inward and connect to the breath,” yoga instructor Rachel Brathen writes in her New York Times best-selling book about the practice. “Focusing on our breath keeps us present, calms the mind, and allows us to develop the awareness of the body we need to practice with care and compassion.”
Since the ancient discipline with roots in Hinduism and Buddhism became a popular exercise in the West, yogis have inundated popular culture with their pursuit of that elusive “calm” in a rapidly spinning world.
“Mindfulness,” the meditative state associated with yoga, has likewise been adopted as a way to clear the mind.
So when administrators at Bullard Elementary School in Kennesaw, Ga., implemented yoga and other mindfulness practices in the classroom to reduce students’ stress, they probably envisioned peace and relaxation in their future.
Instead, they received a flurry of complaints — from parents who felt yoga represented the encroachment of non-Christian beliefs.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Bullard’s principal, Patrice Moore, sent parents an email last week announcing changes to its yoga program.
“I am truly sorry that the mindfulness/ de-stressing practices here at Bullard caused many misconceptions that in turn created a distraction in our school and community,” Moore wrote. “While we have been practicing de-stressing techniques in many classrooms for years, there have been some recent practices associated with mindfulness that are offensive to some.”
Among the elements of the program that will be eliminated: the Sanskrit greeting “Namaste,” placing hands “to heart center” and coloring pages with the symbol of the Mandala (a spiritual symbol in Indian religions representing the cosmos).
Moore noted that a rumor had also spread about using or teaching “about crystals having healing powers.”
“We will ensure that nothing resembling this will be done in the future,” she said.
Parents were concerned about yoga’s spiritual origins.
“No prayer in schools. Some don’t even say the pledge of allegiance,” Cobb County mother Susan Jaramillo told NBC affiliate WXIA. “Yet they’re pushing ideology on our students. Some of those things are religious practices that we don’t want our children doing in our schools.”
Christopher Smith, whose sons attend Bullard, shared a similar sentiment on Facebook.
“Now we can’t pray in our schools or practice Christianity but they are allowing this Far East mystical religion with crystals and chants to be practiced under the guise of stress release meditation,” he wrote. “This is very scary.”
Smith directed people to “google ‘mindfulness indoctrination.’”
Cheryl Crawford, a yoga instructor who has taught at several Atlanta-area schools (although not Bullard), told the Journal-Constitution that yoga can help calm students who are anxious about their studies or coping with anger and bullying issues.
The exercise is not intended to endorse any faith, she said.
“It’s a way to get children aware of their breath patterns, their tendencies and habits,” Crawford told the Journal-Constitution. “Often times they’re focused outwardly, they’re not focused inwardly. It helps them if they’re very worried. … It’s a physical act, but you’re using your mind and your breath.”