Some parents question new yoga program in classroom | AspenTimes.com

Some parents question new yoga program in classroom

Jennifer Davoren
Aspen Times Staff Writer

A yoga program planned for Aspen Elementary has been put on hold as school officials and parents evaluate its potential religious impact on the classroom.

Twelve classes of children, totaling 220 students in grades one through four, were scheduled to begin a children’s yoga program in early September. Organizers say the program was proposed as a way to help kids cope with their return to school. Rowdy tots could be calmed and readied for class work after recess using a series of relaxing breathing and stretching techniques.

The Aspen Center for New Medicine, with help from the Aspen Youth Center and Aspen Education Foundation, is sponsoring the program. The idea of introducing the “Yoga Ed.” program to local youth actually came about during an expert yogi’s presentation at the center in February.

“We had a large response from people interested in getting more yoga into the Aspen community,” said Betsy Fifield, chair of the center’s Children’s Health Initiative. “There are no yoga classes available for the kids.”

Aspen Elementary Principal Barb Pitchford said nearly 50 percent of her teachers turned out for a meeting about the program last spring. She and a majority of the school staff liked the idea of alternatively calming and invigorating exercises for their charges, she said.

“In this day and age, children, I think, are overstimulated visually and auditorally,” Pitchford said. “To just have that quiet time of reflection, or just playing with one other person … anything that can teach them how to focus on a single thing, to learn how to sustain focus on anything, would be a wonderful thing.”

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Yoga Ed. ? a program endorsed by an institution named “Elementary School of the Year” by Time Magazine ? is drawing interest from Aspen Country Day School and Carbondale Middle School, Fifield said.

Teachers of the 12 Aspen Elementary classes were scheduled to begin training next Tuesday. The program would have begun the following week.

However, plans were halted when a few parents called the school to question whether yoga would bring religion into the classroom. For some families, the chanting that accompanies a selection of yoga techniques creates a challenge for separation of church and state.

Both Pitchford and Fifield had trouble finding any reference to chanting in the Yoga Ed. curriculum guide. Pitchford did find a section that mentioned “affirmations,” which the guide categorized as “I” statements made by the practitioner. “I am a healthy person” and “I can focus on one thing at a time” were listed as examples.

The program also utilizes a silent meditation, or “guided relaxation” time, Pitchford said. However, this section of the program does not require students to focus on one particular subject or meditate in a way that recalls a specific religious practice.

“Yoga has been around for a long time … and it’s been used in a lot of different cultures for many different reasons. I understand why some people could have initially been confused,” she said. “As far as this specific program, Yoga Ed., there is no religious agenda or anything associated with religion. It has all been omitted from the program.”

Fifield cited examples of other Eastern practices that have been successful abroad.

“Karate and judo have traditions in Eastern religion, and those have gone on to become very popular with the kids. Therefore, I feel confident that the Yoga Ed. program will do the same,” she said.

In order to clear up confusion over the yoga pilot program ? as well as to field questions and complaints from concerned parents ? school officials and program organizers have set up a meeting next week. The meeting, set for 4 p.m. Sept. 4 in Aspen High School’s new seminar room, will include a presentation from the Yoga Ed. founder Tara Gruber. District officials are expected to help mediate the discussion.

Copies of the Yoga Ed. curriculum are also available for review before the meeting in both Pitchford’s and district superintendent Tom Farrell’s offices.

Feedback created by the community meeting will determine the future of the program, Pitchford said.

“If there’s a significant number of parents, after gathering information, that are still concerned about it, we don’t necessarily have to go forward with it,” she said. “If you don’t want it, it’s just a pilot program ? it’s not in the curriculum.”

[Jennifer Davoren’s e-mail address is jenniferd@aspentimes.com]