Alabama Still Hasn’t Lifted Its Yoga Ban

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

As I mentioned last year, yoga has been forbidden in Alabama public schools (K-12) since 1993 because the State Board of Education thinks doing yoga can turn you into a Hindu, and no, I am not exaggerating about this. SeeAlabama May Lift Yoga Ban; Law Would Remain Stupid” (Mar. 10, 2020) (explaining why I am not exaggerating about this). To my knowledge, and everyone else’s, there is no evidence that doing yoga will cause someone’s religious beliefs to change involuntarily, and maybe more to the point, a state government has no business worrying about whether it could. (In fact, as I recall, there’s some amendment or other to the Constitution that prohibits the government from taking the position that one religion is better or worse than another. It’s one of those near the beginning, I’m pretty sure.) And yet for almost 30 years now, Alabama has had this anti-Hindu, I mean anti-yoga rule.

In 2019, Rep. Jeremy Gray sponsored a bill that would have amended (but not eliminated) the rule, lifting the state ban on yoga “poses, exercises, and stretching techniques.” Not all poses, mind you, only those that involve “sitting, standing, reclining, twisting, and balancing,” and maybe some of you know poses that don’t involve at least one of those things, but it seems doubtful to me. Even under the amended rule, any aspect of yoga that seems too … well, foreign, would still have been banned: all poses, exercises, and stretching techniques would be required to have “exclusively English descriptive names”; you couldn’t use the word “namaste”; and absolutely no “chanting.” So consider for a moment how dumb the existing rule must be if this much more sensible, enlightened version would still be dumb.

Well, that existing rule is still in effect, because Gray’s bill did not pass last year (it didn’t get a vote in the state senate because of COVID-19), and sources reported last week that it has now failed to pass for a second time.

HB 246 did pass the Alabama House by an impressive (considering that it’s Alabama) 73 to 25 vote, but the Senate Judiciary Committee deadlocked on the measure, so it failed to reach the Senate floor. And if you still think I was exaggerating about the concerns that yoga will turn people into Hindus, even though I said I wasn’t exaggerating, here’s some testimony by one of the bill’s opponents:

“Yoga is a very big part of practicing Hindu religion,” said Becky Gerritson, a longtime conservative activist based out of Wetumpka. “If this bill passes, then instructors will be able to come into classrooms as young as kindergarten and bring these children through guided imagery, which is a spiritual exercise, and it’s outside their parents’ view, and we just believe that this is not appropriate.”

Brian Lyman, “Alabama Senate committee deadlocks on bill to lift K-12 yoga ban,” Montgomery Advertiser (Mar. 31, 2021).

By “spiritual exercise,” of course, she means “non-Christian spiritual exercise,” as you can tell by the fact that her second sentence really has no discernible meaning otherwise. (That is, unless you think Becky is just concerned about separation of church and state. Then she might just be saying that a “spiritual exercise” of any kind doesn’t belong in a public school. But if that’s what Becky was concerned about, she wouldn’t have had any reason to bring up the Hindu religion specifically. So let us terminate this thought experiment.) “Guided imagery” is banned by the same rule, which applies to “any techniques that involve the induction of hypnotic states, guided imagery, meditation[,] or yoga.” These all seem to be roughly equivalent to the Alabama State Board of Education, and are all aspects of its general concern that such “dissociative mental states” might put children at risk of being infiltrated by “the mystical traditions of the East.” (Yes, that’s what it says.)

Rep. Gray has pointed out that his own experience suggests the Beckys of Alabama are wrong, because he has been able to resist the diabolical influence of those Eastern mystical traditions for a decade. “I’ve been doing yoga probably for 10 years now,” he told the Advertiser. “I’ve taught classes for five years, and I can tell you I still go to a Baptist church every Sunday.” He also pointed out that yoga is common in Alabama outside of the K-12 ban zone, and yet it doesn’t seem to have the effect claimed. “Athletes do it at Alabama and Auburn Universities,” he said. (The former actually sells yoga mats, in fact, apparently heedless of the potential risks.) “People do it at Methodist churches.” And if “[s]o many people do yoga” in Alabama, Gray reasoned, then if the Beckys are right, “why is Christianity the dominant religion in Alabama?”

Maybe more to the point, why are there virtually no Hindus there? According to the Pew Research Center, the religious composition of Alabama’s adult population is 86% Christian, 12% unaffiliated, and 1% all non-Christian faiths combined. (One percent apparently didn’t know how to answer the question.) So as Gray is suggesting, if yoga is the gateway for these sneaky Eastern mystical traditions, it seems like they need a better strategy.

According to the report, two senators were absent when the vote was taken, so the bill may (or may not) pass in another vote when they are present. As noted above, the amended rule would still be dumb, but it would be some amount less dumb than it currently is (though I think just as unconstitutional). Whether that amount will be measurable is hard to say.