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Leah Asmelash | CNN Online | Montgomery | April 2, 2021:: An Alabama bill that would reverse a 28-year ban on yoga instruction in public schools has stalled in committee after opponents claimed the practice would introduce Hinduism into public schools.
The bill, introduced earlier this year by Rep. Jeremy Gray, would remove the ban on yoga, allowing K-12 students enrolled in public school to take the class as an elective. Whether the class is offered would be left up to local boards of education, but the bill would allow the class to be presented as an option.
“I can give you a ton of reasons why yoga is beneficial and those reasons are backed by studies and data,” Gray said in an email to CNN. “There is no study to my knowledge that says doing yoga exercise converts people to Hinduism.”
Yoga would be valuable to students, Gray argues, not just for its physical benefits — improving balance, flexibility and core strength — but also for its mental health benefits. Across the country, suicide rates have been rising. In Alabama, they are higher than the national average, with 17 people between the ages of 15 and 24 dying by suicide per 100,000 people. Yoga, Gray says, could help students deal with stress and anxiety.
“You see these patterns where if you have trauma as a young person, it follows you as an adult,” Gray said Thursday during an appearance on PBS. “I think that yoga has a component of self-care.”
But critics like Becky Gerritson, executive director of the Eagle Forum of Alabama, a conservative advocacy group, say the bill is unnecessary. The group spoke against the bill on Wednesday during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Students in Alabama schools already do stretches and other movements, Gerritson said. The bill, she said, would add meditation and guided mindfulness, which she argues violates the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits the teaching of religion in public schools.
“We should not be spending taxpayer money, resources and time teaching children Eastern spiritual practices,” Gerritson told CNN.
Gerritson told CNN she would not be against a yoga as an extracurricular activity, like as a school club.
The bill, according to the Alabama legislative website, states that “All instruction in yoga shall be limited exclusively to poses, exercises, and stretching techniques.” All techniques would be required to have English descriptive names, and chanting, mantras and using the greeting “namaste,” which translates as “I bow to you” would be prohibited.
But yoga has been banned in Alabama public schools since 1993, Gray said. He first introduced a bill to overturn the ban in 2019.
“If yoga exercise is good enough for our Alabama prisons, local gyms, local churches, private/charter schools, sports teams, military & veterans, and the everyday citizen, then why is it not good enough for our most vulnerable children in K-12 public schools?” Gray said. “This bill not passing would be a great disservice to those children who really need it.”
Gray, who practiced as a yoga instructor and has been doing yoga for more than a decade, said Alabama was the only state to ban it in public schools. Gray, who played football at North Carolina State University, was introduced to yoga as an athlete.
The bill remained in committee due to a tie vote, Gray said. But two lawmakers were absent, so the committee approved a motion to have the bill brought back up at a later date.
The Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote on the bill again next week, Gray said. If the bill passes committee, it will be sent to the full Senate for approval. The bill has already approved by the Alabama House of Representatives.
CNN’s Madeline Holcombe contributed to this report.