Think Yoga and Mindfulness in Public Schools Are a No-Brainer? Think Again

Screenshot from Mindful Schools' "Room to Breathe" trailer.

Religion in public schools is once again in the news. Just last week, the Washington Post called out Christians in Kentucky for public-school Bible classes that arguably cross the constitutional line between teaching about the Bible and practicing religious devotion to the Bible. The American Civil Liberties Union has threatened to file suit.

In March, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported on a more unusual lawsuit over religion in public schools. A federal judge in Georgia sent to jury trial—slated for next fall—a dispute over a school yoga and mindfulness program. Christian parents complained that yoga and mindfulness are religious practices that do not belong in schools. But it’s not these Christians who are suing. Instead, the school is being sued for “capitulating” to Christian complaints by ending the yoga program and transferring the program director in order to calm the “uproar,” thereby advancing a competing “religious cause.” The school found itself in a kind of catch-22: whether it ignored or responded to religious concerns about yoga and mindfulness it risked a lawsuit. However, charging the school with favoring Christianity over yoga distracts—as I explained recently in Psychology Today—from the more legally interesting and novel question of whether school yoga and mindfulness are themselves religious.

School yoga made international headlines in 2013 when Christian parents sued California’s Encinitas Union School District for unconstitutionally establishing religion. A judge ruled that yoga is religious, but can be taught in schools because kids will not perceive it as promoting religion. By contrast, in 2016 Pennsylvania’s Board of Education found a yoga-based charter school in violation of laws prohibiting public schools from providing “religious instruction.”

My new book, Debating Yoga and Mindfulness in Public Schools: Reforming Secular Education or Reestablishing Religion?, draws on my experience as an expert witness in four legal challenges to public-school yoga and meditation programs. The book identifies three problems with how yoga and mindfulness are being added to public-school curricula.

“Secular” yoga and mindfulness may be religiously coercive

United Press International reported last week on a developing, nationwide legal challenge to school mindfulness programs. The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), headed by Jay Sekulow (a personal attorney for President Trump), has collected 82,000 signatures on a petition arguing that school mindfulness unconstitutionally coerces children to participate in meditation based on Buddhism. Jai Luster, spokesperson for the Calm Classroom mindfulness program, rebutted the charge of coercion by explaining that kids “have the option of sitting there quietly or putting their heads down and taking a nap.” This response does not consider how kids might feel pressured by watching peers and teachers meditate—and possibly encourage them to join in. The potential for subtle coercion has been of special concern to courts in evaluating school programs.

The Supreme Court has not yet considered whether yoga or mindfulness can be taught in public schools without violating the Constitution. The Court has, however, consistently ruled against school prayer and Bible reading, even when children are allowed to “opt out.” One reason is that children may feel subtly, even if not overtly, coerced to participate, due to the influences of teachers as role models and peer pressure, bolstered by mandatory attendance. Only one federal court ruling, Malnak v. Yogi (1979), has considered the constitutionality of school meditation: the court held that teaching Transcendental Meditation in the classroom violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment—even if meditation is offered as an elective.

Are school yoga and mindfulness religious practices? It depends who you ask, and whether the legal context is First Amendment religious free exercise clause protection or establishment clause restriction. For example, in 2011, Dr. Glenn Mendoza sued New York’s Good Samaritan Hospital for religious discrimination against him as a practitioner of Arhatic Yoga, Pranic Healing, and Superbrain Yoga. In this context, Mendoza described yoga as “devoted spiritual practice rooted in religion and ancient spiritual teachings of meditation . . . no different than being Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Catholic or Muslim.” In 2012, Mendoza sought to co-found a public charter school based on these same yoga and meditation practices—this time arguing that the practices are purely “secular,” “educational” tools. Pennsylvania’s Charter Appear Board denied the application, finding it legally unacceptable to define a practice as “religious” in one context and “educational” in another, based on legal convenience.

As I recently explained to The Conversation, one of the most influential popularizers of mindfulness, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist who founded the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society, has acknowledged that he wants the term “mindfulness” to do “double duty.” He intends for people to equate mindfulness with “paying attention” even as he understands the term as an “umbrella” for the essence of Buddhism.

Many advocates of school yoga and mindfulness are no doubt sincere when they speak of these practices as secular resources that are desperately needed by an education system rife with stress, obesity, drugs, bullying, violence, under-achievement, and over-saturation with technology.

But certain proponents have admitted to trying to slip religion into schools under the radar. Hinduism Today calls school yoga a “Vedic Victory,” and Buddhist Geeks dubs school mindfulness “Stealth Buddhism.”

Regardless of motives, research suggests that “secularizing” yoga and mindfulness—by subtracting language, gestures, and objects linked with Hinduism, Buddhism, and other spiritual traditions—may not be enough to remove religious effects. Studies show that participants in “secular” yoga and mindfulness are more likely to report spiritual experiences and develop spiritual motives the longer they practice.

In one study, among participants with one year of yoga, 43 percent identified as Christian, 23 percent as spiritual but not religious (SBNR), 4 percent as Buddhist. After six or seven years, 28 percent identified as Christian, 31 percent as SBNR, 9 percent as Buddhist. Only 19 percent initially saw yoga as spiritual, but, after longer exposure, 43 percent called yoga their “spiritual path.” Another study found that longer-term meditators are less likely to be monotheists or religious “nones” and more likely to identify as “Buddhist” or with “all” religions.

Scientific research fails to show that programs are appropriate for all children.

Claims about health and educational benefits of yoga and mindfulness seldom note weaknesses in the scientific evidence. Many studies are poor quality: using small sample sizes, without randomized, active controls, and based on self-report data.

A 2014 study found that subjects who self-report that mindfulness lowers stress are, judging by cortisol levels, actually more stressed. A 2015 study found that children practicing mindfulness exhibit a “pattern of elevated levels of A.M. cortisol” that has been “associated with increased stress in children.” Yoga can also cause kids to feel more stressed and have lower self-esteem.

Marketers use scientific claims to lobby for mandatory programs. A “main objective” of the Jois/Sonima/Pure Edge Foundation is to require “yoga and meditation competency” for teacher “credentialing” and as an “essential component of the education system.” The “mission” of actress and movie producer Goldie Hawn is to get MindUP or similar programs “absolutely mandated in every state.” Calmer Choice is a “universal” mindfulness program—delivered to “entire schools” without asking students to “identify challenges they may be confronting”—to prevent “violence, suicide, and self-destructive behaviors.” Asking kids about individual challenges is important because practices may be contraindicated for those with a history of suicidality, trauma, abuse, psychosis, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or addiction.

Programs may cause problems they promise to solve. A research studythat cites forty reports and reviews of meditation-related difficulties asked 60 meditators to describe their “difficulties” meditating; answers included fear or anxiety (82 percent), depression or grief (57 percent), worldview changes (48 percent), physical pain (47 percent), traumatic memories (43 percent), anger or aggression (30 percent), and suicidality (18 percent). Such experiences were reported during simple exercises such as “mindfulness of breath” with an aim of stress reduction.

Injury rates for yoga are higher (0.8 per 1,000 hours) than other types of exercise and sports that kids might do in PE (0.13 per 1,000 hours). In one survey, 61 percent of yoga practitioners reported negative experiences, including physical injuries (56 percent), emotional problems (12 percent), and mental problems (5 percent). The American Yoga Association has advised against yoga for children under age sixteen because postures can interfere with still-growing bodies.

There is so much media hype about yoga and mindfulness that parents may be unaware of readily available alternatives—such as aerobic exercisenappingmathmusic, or offering a healthy lunch—that have been shown through scientific research to provide similar benefits.

School programs risk cultural appropriation and cultural imperialism

School yoga and mindfulness borrow from Asian religious traditions, as interpreted by wealthy European Americans, and often target low-income, “inner-city” African Americans and Latinxs.

“Secularized” programs extract, and potentially distort, cultural resources in a manner that can be critiqued as cultural theft. Marketers take what they see as the “essence” of another culture’s traditions, leaving behind what they dismiss as mere “baggage.” Ironically, positive orientalist stereotypes that equate Asian ancestry with spiritual wisdom most easily go unnoticed.

Programs are marketed as tools for “managing classroom behavior”—especially in schools with a high proportion of low-income families. Promotional videos typically showcase black and brown boys whose initial “defiance” gives way to accepting calm. The implicit message is that students of color have inferior “self-regulatory capacities,” are “at risk” for causing problems to themselves and others, and should muster interior resources to step into line as compliant “neoliberal” subjects. Such programs can make it easier to ignore structural causes of racism and poverty by perpetuating “racial disciplining based on negative stereotypes.”

Targeted populations may already have cherished spiritual resources that they find effective in coping with life’s challenges. African American and Latinx communities are statistically more religiously active—and predominantly Christian—than the non-Hispanic, white American yoga and mindfulness advocates who seek to evangelize others with their meditative strategies.

My goal isn’t to ban all yoga and mindfulness from school grounds (in fact, my book concludes with best practice recommendations on how to offer children, parents, and teachers the benefits associated with yoga and mindfulness while upholding legal and ethical standards of informed consent). But transparency and voluntarism are essential. Students and parents need to know, not just about the benefits of yoga and mindfulness, but also about potential religious effects, health risks, and alternatives. Children shouldn’t feel pressured to join in or have to opt out to avoid participating.

Rather, if schools choose to offer yoga or mindfulness outside of regular instructional hours it should be on an opt-in basis. And yoga and mindfulness shouldn’t become a substitute for system-level work addressing the structural causes of racism and poverty. Yoga and mindfulness are both popular and potentially divisive. This makes it especially important to respect cultural and religious diversity and take pains to avoid even subtle coercion.