Yoga May Return to Alabama Schools, But ‘Namaste’ Still Forbidden

The new Bill proposes that exercises taught to students be anglicised, without using any Hindu chants or mantra.

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In 1993, Alabama enforced a ban on yoga in schools, deeming it "inappropriate" as the ancient practice can be traced to its religious roots. Now, 28 years later, that may change as the state’s House of Representatives passed a Bill to override the ban – approving it by a vote of 73 to 25 on 12 March. The Bill is now pending approval from the Senate.

“I’ve been doing yoga for seven years. I know its benefits, so it is very dear to my heart, and I think Alabama will be better for it,” said Democrat state legislator Jeremy Gray from Opelika, who sponsored the Bill and has been trying to bring back yoga to classrooms since 2019, according to TIME Magazine.

A former cornerback at North Carolina State University, Gray said he was introduced to yoga through football and believes the exercises can benefit students. He has been teaching and practising yoga for years.

According to The New York Times, Gray said officials on both ends of the debate are now slowly warming up to the idea, despite the initial wave of criticism. “A lot of people in their districts have reached out to them, and a lot of their wives actually do yoga. So I think it has a good chance of getting passed,” he said to the NYT.

The Bill, which has gained massive media attention among other legislative priorities of Gray, proposes that the exercises taught to students must have exclusively English names. It offers students the option to not participate in yoga and opt for an alternative activity instead, besides prohibiting them from using terms like ‘namaste’.

Facing Opposition

Twenty-five representatives in the 105-member House voted against the Bill over religious concerns. "Yoga does not need to be taught to small children in public schools,” Eric Johnston, a legal adviser for the Alabama Citizens Action Program (ALCAP), a church-supported group that holds sway in the Legislature, told NYT, adding that they very much intended to fight the Bill in the Senate.

In an interview to NBC, Joe Godfrey, executive director of ALCAP said, “It’s an issue of separation of church and state. You’ll hear people invoke that when it comes to Christianity because they don’t want prayer in school. Yet they want to teach yoga?”

But Gray is hopeful that the Bill will come through. “You can never change some people. If you have to vote your district, I understand it,” Gray told Associated Press.

Why Was Yoga Banned?

Spurred by conservative groups, the Alabama Board of Education in 1993 voted to prohibit yoga, hypnosis and meditation in public school classrooms to avoid students from practising a science that originated from Hinduism.

Meditation was identified as a problem if it involved deep breathing techniques that required a person to chant a mantra, reports local news website AL.com.

“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,” the Alabama State Board of Education’s Administrative Code earlier stated.

(With inputs from AP, The New York Times, TIME and AL.com)

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