Students will no longer need to bend over backward to — legally — practice yoga in Alabama.
In a 73-25 vote Thursday, the state’s House of Representatives passed a bill that will lift a quarter-century ban in public schools that some believe is unique to Alabama. Yoga was forbidden by the Alabama Board of Education in 1993 after opposition by conservative groups over its Hindu roots. The bill now moves to the Alabama Senate.
Amid reports of racism and violence against Asian Americans and other minorities, the measure is a positive step, said Nikunj Trivedi, the president of Coalition of Hindus of North America. He said practicing yoga is cultural appreciation, not cultural appropriation.
However, the Alabama bill, Trivedi said, does not go far enough. Chanting and teaching Sanskrit phrases like the greeting “namaste,” which means “I bow to you,” remains prohibited.
“You can’t just selectively take something,” Trivedi said. “That’s a very colonial way of thinking where you just strip away the Indigenous culture and pick and choose.”
The legislation’s sponsor, state Rep. Jeremy Gray, a Democrat from Opelika, acknowledged that it does not rescind all parts of the ban, saying “there’s no such thing as a perfect bill.”
“I had to think about the long game and bigger picture and what am I trying to do here,” he said. “I’m trying to make yoga accessible to children in K-12 public schools.”
To reach the compromise, Gray first needed to change the minds of his Republican-majority House.
When he introduced the measure in 2019, Gray said many other lawmakers did not understand it. The bill was a runner-up for the “Shroud Award,” a superlative given every legislative session to the “deadest bill.” After his bill’s failure, Gray developed an education campaign, having doctors and yogis talk to lawmakers. He had picked up bipartisan support by 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic stalled the legislation.
Now yoga is increasingly prevalent, Gray said. More than 14% of American adults practiced yoga in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control, which includes yoga in activities recommended to schools. The breathing exercises helped him during the summer’s unrest and when he had the coronavirus, he said.
Gray, who began practicing yoga in college as a football player at the end of his workouts, said yoga is everywhere in the state — there’s even a yoga program available to the state’s prison inmates.
He didn’t realize it wasn’t permitted at schools until he visited a class to speak about politics and lawmaking and told students he meditated to help himself focus. The students and faculty in the room appeared uncomfortable at the mention, he said, and teachers later told him they became certified to teach a course but were not allowed to because a group of parents complained.
No other state has a similar ban, Gray said.
In 2016, a Georgia school eliminated the word Namaste from its yoga class and coloring pages with the symbol of the Mandala to mollify parents offended by the non-Christian forms of expressions.
Groups that argued against the Alabama bill believe it violates the Establishment Clause and the separation of church and state.
The act of meditation is spiritual, argues constitutional lawyer Eric Johnston, who works with Christian advocacy groups that have spoken out against the measure.
“If you pass a law that says you can do stretches and sit in positions and so forth, that’s fine,” Johnston said. “But to say you can teach yoga is an entirely different thing because yoga is an exercise of the Hindu religion.”
Johnston and others say they don’t object to adults participating in yoga but they feel children are impressionable.
“Children at that age are very tech-savvy and if they are taught yoga, all they have to do is Google it and they will immediately find information on the spiritual aspects of it and look at it,” he said. “And if they look at it, it might lead them to believe that’s something they should be involved in.”
One of the most vocal advocates for lifting the ban, Rajan Zed, the president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, said yoga, even without the traditional chants and phrases, will be beneficial “to the overall well-being of Alabamians.”
“It is a step in the positive direction,” he said.