Several Ohio public schools have agreed to keep yoga outside their classrooms after more than 100 local pastors argued to state officials that coercing children to practice a "form of Eastern religion" is a violation of the First Amendment.
The pastors who lead congregations in north-central Ohio made their objections to practicing yoga in public schools known in a March letter to the Ohio State Board of Education, Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, Ohio Senate President Larry J. Obhof, as well as the public school superintendents in several counties.
“Yoga is not merely an external physical practice with a purely physiological effect, but rather an internal spiritual practice advertised as being able to provide the power to change an individual and transform the world,” the pastors argued.
“Specifically, yoga’s ‘stretching’ and ‘breathing’ components called ‘asanas’ and ‘pranayama’ in Sanskrit are intended to be spiritually transformative. The courts have repeatedly ruled that yoga and meditation are religious practices.”
The pastors' letter stated that they had learned that "a form of Eastern Religion called yoga is being proselytized during compulsory class hours in the school districts: Clear Fork, Galion, Lexington, Lucas, Mansfield, and Shelby."
In a recent response to the pastors published by Frontlines Ohio, Lexington Local School District Superintendent Mike Ziegelhofer explained that he will take steps to ensure that schools in the district are abiding by the law.
The district includes three elementary schools, a junior high school, and a high school.
“Effective immediately, upon our return to school, all employees of the Lexington Local School District will be notified in writing via e-mail that the use or endorsement of and/or any inference of the use or endorsement of yoga, any forms of transcendental meditation and the promotion, endorsement or practice of any religious beliefs is not permitted within the Lexington Local School District during school hours,” Ziegelhofer wrote.
Lucas Local School District Superintendent Bradley Herman also submitted a response letter, saying that his school district also intends to uphold the law.
“As a public school district, we are mindful of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and the prohibition of religious instruction,” Herman said in a letter sent to Rev. El Akuchie of the Richland Community Prayer Network and Godsfield House of Prayer.
“To that end, we must ensure that we are not doing anything that runs afoul of our obligations and appreciate your concerns.”
Herman stated that there is “no official yoga class or yoga instruction at Lucas High School and no intent to change that.”
In their letter, arguing against the practice of yoga in schools, the pastors pointed to a 1988 Arkansas case commonly known as Powell v. Perry.
In that case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit concluded that “yoga is a method of practicing Hinduism.”
In 1995, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9 Circuit in the case of Self Realization Fellowship Church v. Ananda Church of Self Realization labeled the “Hindu-Yoga spiritual tradition” as a “religious tradition.” In 1979, the 3rd Circuit ruled in the case of Malnak v. Yogi that transcendental meditation can be considered religious and an unconstitutional establishment of religion.
“The practice of Eastern Religion in the classroom during school hours is a form of coercion due to its mandatory attendance, teacher authority, and peer pressure,” the pastors argued.
“In fact, the endorsement of yoga is a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment clause, which forbids government from picking religious winners and losers and enforcing its choice. Without question, Eastern Religion is a practice in conflict with the vast majority of those in our region whether from Judeo-Christian traditions or otherwise.”
The pastors also contend that even though proponents of yoga allege that yoga brings “benefits” to student practitioners, “our Biblical faith tradition brings just as many if not more scientifically proven benefits.”
“Yet ironically in a nation with [a] Judeo-Christian heritage it is school sanctioned prayer, Intelligent Design curriculum and the display of the Ten Commandments that are strictly prohibited from public schools,” the pastors wrote in the letter.
In recent years, the practice of yoga has emerged as a controversial subject as many Christians have endorsed it.
In 2018, Serita Jakes, wife of popular televangelist Bishop T.D. Jakes, ignited a debate over the practice of yoga among Christians after she shared a series of photos showing members of a women's group at The Potter's House of Dallas enjoying a "taste of yoga" as a part of a healthy living endeavor.
A group of Christians who support yoga called Christians Practicing Yoga has been meeting since 2001. The group argues that "the practice of yoga reminds us of the biblical basis for a Christian high theology of the body."
"Where the body is concerned, Christianity has by and large not walked its talk,” the group explains. “It has resisted the radical nature of its own good news. On the one hand, it has the highest theological evaluation of the body amongst all the religions of the world, and on the other hand, it has given little attention to the body's role in the spiritual life in positive terms. High theology; low practice.”
In an earlier interview on Desiring God, well-known evangelical theologian John Piper expressed his opposition to yoga, calling it "antithetical" to Christianity.
"I would want to say that both yoga and tai chi, the little I know and the little research I have done, have their roots in eastern worldviews and are profoundly in those roots antithetical to a Christian understanding of God and the way he works in the world,” Piper wrote.