Yoga in classroom brings out critics and supporters | AspenTimes.com

Yoga in classroom brings out critics and supporters

Naomi Havlen
Aspen Times Staff Writer

A large crowd voiced a vast array of opinions on a proposed yoga program for Aspen Elementary School students Wednesday.

The three-hour meeting of the Aspen School District board drew teachers, yoga instructors and concerned parents. Critics and proponents of the so-called “Yoga Ed.” program disagree over whether the program would bring religion into classrooms, violating separation of church and state

The pilot program is sponsored by the Aspen Center for New Medicine, along with the Aspen Youth Center and the Aspen Education Foundation. The stretching and breathing regimen is meant to help children relax and focus on their schoolwork, organizers say.

But the program has some community members questioning the historical and religious background of yoga.

“You’re all kidding yourselves if you feel like there is no spiritual or religious underpinning,” said Rev. Jeffrey Fouts from Christ Episcopal Church.

He said he is undecided on the subject and noted that the issue could be one of semantics, based on what kind of yoga is taught.

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In Fouts’ research, he found Web sites that claim yoga to be unequivocally religious, and others that say specific teachings of yoga are completely neutral. Organizers and authors of the program told the board that the yoga curriculum is neutral, emphasizing the mental and physical benefits of simply stretching and breathing.

“This is not a religious-, dogma- or faith-based program,” said Yoga Ed. founder Tara Gruber. “We don’t chant or recite specific principles or philosophy. It is not connected to any belief system.”

Gruber said children taking yoga can achieve more in school and become more focused students.

Supporters of the program voiced their own experiences with yoga, ranging from skeptics who found the stretching beneficial after injuries or surgery, to yoga students who never learned any historical or religious background in their classes.

Steve Woodrow, pastor of First Baptist Church in Aspen, led the charge against the program, presenting his research into the historical and religious background of yoga. He told the board he was representing himself as a concerned parent of two students at Aspen Elementary School, rather than speaking for the church.

Woodrow said it would be impossible to separate yoga’s spiritual aspects from its physical aspects. He noted that the description of the program provided by its authors include words like “mantras,” “transcendental meditation” and “chanting,” which all implicate religious practices.

“I don’t want my children to be part of that,” he said, receiving applause from many audience members. A couple of other parents in the room told the board they would pull their children out of the district if the yoga program is taught.

On Tuesday night, 60 teachers trained with the yoga instructors at Aspen Country Day School, and many told the school board they are already using similar techniques in their classrooms.

Third-grade teacher Jeff White said he saw so much anxiety in his 8-year-olds during a round of standardized testing that he had the kids do some stretches to relax ? some of the same stretches he learned at the teacher training.

“What about the Pledge of Allegiance? The kids are saying that every day, and it says ‘under God,'” White said.

Aspen Elementary Principal Barb Pitchford told the board she recommends adopting the program. A more formal recommendation from Pitchford and district Superintendent Tom Farrell will be presented to the board next Monday.

Board member Augi Reno said the board hopes to make a decision about the program at Monday’s meeting.

Reno said there may not be a straight “yes or no” decision about the program. Board members may use some of Pitchford’s other suggestions, such as using Yoga Ed. as an after-school, extracurricular activity, or changing the language in the curriculum to be more secular in nature.

[Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is nhavlen@aspentimes.com]

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