Jeremy Gray, a state lawmaker in Alabama, has been practicing yoga for years, initially as a workout after college football matches and later as a means of instilling in himself the virtues of focus and patience.
Now the Democrat from Opelika needs all the patience he can get as he seeks to overturn a 28-year yoga ban in Alabama public schools. The ban, believed to be the only statewide prohibition of its sort in America, is proving to be tougher to scrub from the statute books than might be expected.
Gray is preparing to present a bill to the Alabama senate that would allow public schools and students to engage in yoga during gym classes for the first time in almost three decades. The lifting of the ban was approved by the state house of representatives in March, and last week Gray’s bill passed out of the senate judiciary committee and now awaits a full debate and vote on the senate floor.
But the closer Gray’s vision comes to fruition, the more it draws enemy fire. The main hurdle to reform lies with conservative Christian groups who argue that just the mere act of allowing yoga in the classroom will expose kids to the risk of converting to Hinduism.
“Yoga is a very big part of the Hindu religion, and if this bill passes then instructors will be able to come into classrooms as young as kindergarten and bring these children through guided imagery, which is a spiritual exercise,” Becky Gerritson, director of the conservative Alabama Eagle told state senators recently.
The idea that yoga is a gateway drug to Hinduism strikes Gray as palpably ridiculous. He has practiced yoga for 10 years, yet remains a committed Christian worshipping in a Baptist church.
“The promoting of Hinduism argument is the only talking point these conservative groups have, and it makes them look very misinformed and miseducated on the issue,” Gray told the Guardian.
The lawmaker said that he was struck by the contrast between the view of teachers who were strongly in favor of lifting the ban so that schoolchildren could benefit from yoga’s ability to reduce anxiety and depression, and the conservatives who had never tried yoga and who had no direct connection to public schools who were opposing it.
“To me you cannot be well versed on something you never experienced. We have individuals opposing a bill that really doesn’t affect them, but those individuals in education are 100% behind it,” Gray said.
The lawmaker points to official statistics that show that one in seven Americans have had some experience of yoga. The federal public health agency the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the use of yoga and meditation in schools to reduce “those stressful feelings and increase your ability to remember things more clearly”.
But conservative groups are not giving up without a fight. The National Center for Law & Policy, an organization of Christian lawyers who take on legal cases backing anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage and other causes that they call “civil liberties”, has produced a factsheet claiming to prove that yoga cannot be separated from its religious roots in Hinduism.
“Yoga can be dangerous, causing injuries, death from stroke, and psychotic episodes,” the document says.
Nikunj Trivedi, president of the Coalition of Hindus of North America, said that the latest claims were just a new iteration of age-old discrimination against America’s 2.5 million Hindus. “These arguments are a reminder of the Hindu-phobia that existed in the US in the 19th and early 20th century, when Hindus were portrayed as strange cult followers out to alter your mind and get you to do crazy things. It’s sad to see such Hindu-phobia still persisting.”
Trivedi added that the physical stretching that most Americans associate with yoga has nothing to do with the religious manifestations of the art. “Most people don’t do yoga, what they do is asana or postures. Doing postures is not going to make you Hindu,” he said.