Alabama May Lift Yoga Ban; Law Would Remain Stupid

Looks suspicious to Alabama (image: Karen Arnold, public domain)

Well, Alabama’s long-standing reputation as a beacon of tolerance has been tarnished, at least for me, by the revelation that for the past 25 years or so it has forbidden the teaching of yoga in its public schools. But that ban may come to an end this year if Alabama House Bill 235 becomes law.

The rules regarding yoga would remain stupid, but at least the activity would be permitted.

Yoga was banned by the state board of education in 1993, apparently after complaints from conservative groups and parents concerned about the propagation of a “non-Christian belief system.” I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on yoga, though I did learn something about “Bikram” yoga back when I was making fun of its weird and crooked inventor. See Jury Laughs at Hot-Yoga Guy(Jan. 27, 2016) and “Hot-Yoga Guy and His Cars Are Missing” (Jan. 27, 2017). Further research (Wikipedia) reveals that yoga originated in ancient India and is linked to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. But “yoga” seems to be a broad and complicated concept, and the spiritual/religious aspect is just part of it. In the West, most people are familiar with yoga as a form of exercise, not spirituality or religion, but it appears that the risk of contamination was considered too great by the Alabama State Board of Education.

As a result, in 1993 the board adopted a regulation entitled “Certain Teaching Techniques,” which makes very little sense at all. It begins:

The State Board of Education is aware of concerns that certain techniques in some school materials or programs need clarification. The State Board of Education specifically prohibits the use of hypnosis and dissociative mental states. School personnel shall be prohibited from using any techniques that involve the induction of hypnotic states, guided imagery, meditation or yoga.

I forgot to mention that hypnosis, meditation, and “guided imagery” are also banned—at least if connected with suspicious Eastern practices. Though the regulation defines these terms, the definitions are—and I know this will shock you—overlapping and unclear. The regulation defines “meditation,” for example, as “[a]n altered or dissociative state of consciousness often synonymous with hypnosis associated with or derived from the mystical traditions of the East,” while “guided imagery” is said to be “an induction or deepening technique of hypnosis/meditation.” On the other hand, the Board cautions that “guided imagery … should not be confused with the normal use of the imagination.” Okay.

Similarly, “yoga” is defined this way:

A Hindu philosophy and method of religious training in which eastern meditation and contemplation are joined with physical exercises, allegedly to facilitate the development of body­-mind­-spirit.

“Allegedly,” as though the whole thing might be just a 5000-year-old scam that the Alabama State Board of Education is too smart to fall for.

It’s not clear whether teachers in Alabama were actually hypnotizing their students, guiding their imagery, or encouraging yoga back in 1993. But the ban was put in place all the same. As yoga (the exercise) has become more popular, some Alabama schools introduced it but “quickly pulled the plug after learning about the 1993 law,” according to this NBC report.

That struck state Rep. Jeremy Gray as odd. Gray is a former athlete who was used to doing yoga, or at least some of the stretching techniques involved, as part of his training. So he was “stunned” to find out there was an “anti-yoga law” in his state. He and other sponsors have introduced HB 253, which would permit local boards to offer yoga instruction to public-school students. With certain restrictions, which I assume were necessary to get support from across the aisle, because they’re otherwise mostly pretty stupid. Yoga must be elective, not required, which is fine; but also this:

(3) All instruction in yoga shall be limited exclusively to poses, exercises, and stretching techniques.

(4) All poses shall be limited exclusively to sitting, standing, reclining, twisting, and balancing.

(5) All poses, exercises, and stretching techniques shall have exclusively English descriptive names.

(6) Chanting, mantras, mudras, use of mandalas, and namaste greetings shall be expressly prohibited.

Number three is presumably aimed at satisfying people who are very concerned about separating church and state if the church isn’t Christian, such as a guy quoted in the NBC report who said yoga is “the Hindu religion.” No, the Hindu religion is the Hindu religion, but fine, separation of church and state is good so I’m okay with that one. I strongly suspect that No. 4 is stupid, but don’t know enough about yoga to be sure. I’m having a hard time visualizing a pose that isn’t one or more of those things, frankly. If you know what poses Alabama might be concerned about, please let me know, because they’re probably amusing.

I do, however, feel qualified to pass judgment on five and six, and I declare them stupid.

Why it would matter what the poses, exercises, and stretching techniques are called is baffling. If the concern is to protect children from the corrupting effect of foreign words, that seems likely to backfire. Looking at some of these poses, I’m pretty sure the kids are going to come up with “English descriptive names” that are quite obscene, so it might be better to stick with the foreign ones. The ban on chanting and so forth also must be motivated by a belief that those techniques are necessarily “the Hindu religion,” which they aren’t. Likewise, doing a “namaste greeting” doesn’t automatically make you a Hindu, so far as I can tell.

No, wait—I just did it and I suddenly started yelling in Sanskrit, so that one I guess is justified. But the one about the names is stupid.