Yoga in the Schools, Let’s Talk….

I’ve been meditating on writing this blog post for a while, and today, during an intense morning yoga practice, it all came to me, and well…here ‘tis.

Having just moved to our sweet new town of Encinitas, I would be remiss not to talk about the controversy and impending lawsuit surrounding yoga in the public elementary schools here in town. It seems quite ugly, pinning parents against the school administration against yogis, all the while portraying children’s yoga in a negative light. So I channel my old friend Winnie and think, “oh bother.”

I don’t wish to review the controversy here in this space.  And I want to take caution as I write this, especially since I do not know all the facts and I am the “new kid on the block” so to speak. Rather, I will write from my heart, experience, passion, and observations.

Yoga comes in many forms (Hatha, Kundalini, Ashtanga, Iyengar, to name a few).  Each of these practices stems from a certain set of beliefs, of traditions, and are practiced in different ways. As an adult, I enjoy mixing up my practice – chanting, “keeping up” in Kundalini, and the moving meditation of a good vinyasa flow class. For me, I find connection to a Higher Source. My intentions become clear. I am inspired to take better care of myself and my family, to eat healthier, and am reminded to be patient, compassionate, mindful, and grounded.

For me, a children’s yoga program (in particular a preschool program in the case of Yogi Playground) is a heart based program, rather than spiritually based. That is, a program in which children learn and explore that their actions, choices, and wellness begins at the heart. What we do affects others. It is our responsibility to take care of ourselves and the world around us. A children’s yoga program connects one to nature, follows the seasons, fosters self-esteem, teaches balance and coordination, and teaches us how to be still, how to breathe.

So Why Should Children Practice Yoga? Oh goodness, why shouldn’t children practice yoga?! Yoga, or we can call it Wellness, is a way of life, on and off the mat. Yoga improves concentration, focus, and balance. It promotes healthy choices, and greener choices for the environment. It’s living mindfully and presently, promoting positive self esteem and body image, body awareness, and impulse control. Children who practice yoga fare better academically as they have better concentration and focus. It builds a sense of community. And it empowers with the tools to make healthy choices, and to manage childhood stress and emotions through the breath.

 All this is done through story, games, song, and movement. We stretch like animals, we emulate the natural world, standing grounded as a tree or tall as a mountain. Sometimes we stray from our mats for a fun game of Yogi Yogi Dog. We use crazy amounts of props. We laugh. We talk. We dance.

In my classes we put our hands on our hearts and say “Home,” representing that we can always return to the safe, comfortable place in our hearts. We may repeat, “Peace Begins With Me.” We say Namaste, as a way to thank each other for a great class. If one parent expressed concern over any of these practices, I would modify immediately as it’s my passion to bring yoga to children, to build a positive, strong yoga foundation for our preschoolers. In no way do I want to jeapordize this opportunity by making parents uncomfortable.

Children’s yoga brought into public school should not include Hinduism, chanting, prayer, spirituality, or discussion of the divine in any form. My training, through MiniYogis, reinforces this idea of keeping these aspects out of our programs. There is room for this, of course, in a private class if the parents or caretakers ask for it.

 The reality is that teaching children is very different from teaching adults. And what’s more is that parents are trusting us with their children’s education. This is a grand responsibility! Most of my classes last school year were in the schools, preschool and a private first grade. As a parent myself, I do not want religious ideals imposed upon my children, particularly in the school setting. I can certainly empathize with the parents in the Encinitas public school district. I have heard (via parents) that the program, funded by one foundation and employing only teachers trained by the foundation, did introduce some fundamentals of ashtanga yoga, as well as postures. I’m curious to know exactly what was being offered. What were the elements of the program? After parents expressed concern, the principal stated that all aspects of Hinduism and devotion were taken out of the practice. Whether this happened before or after concern was expressed is unclear to me. I’m wondering if the program was presented in full to the parents prior to it’s inception. Was there a  frank, open conversation, to demystify children’s yoga, to clarify that it is not a religious practice, nor would it include any devotional aspects?  This would have helped set a positive foundation between the school, yogis, and parents. After all, yoga means union.

Children’s yoga is growing and I am so excited to be part of the progression. My sincere hope is that the Encinitas school district and the parents can find common ground, and that ultimately, perhaps with a change in the program and a better understanding of yoga for kids, yoga will continue as part of the school day for these children. At the end of the day, yoga is only positive, promoting and cultivating healthy lifestyle choices through creative movement, song, fun, and games.

Thank you for taking the time to hear my thoughts on all this. As a member of the Encinitas community, I will do my part to promote open dialogue among parents and educators. I would love to hear your thoughts as well. Please do share. And as always, dear friends, Peace and Namaste.

*Please note I do not take photos during my classroom sessions, out of respect for our special circle time together.