(RNS) — Alabama’s public schools are closed for the academic year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
When students return, they may be able to do yoga at school for the first time in decades.
Only a year after being “laughed off the floor,” a bill to lift a yoga ban in Alabama public schools overwhelmingly passed the lower chamber of the state Legislature last month.
“It went from the ‘deadest bill’ in the session in 2019 to passing at an overwhelming majority the next year,” said the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Jeremy Gray.
By “deadest bill,” Gray refers to this proposal winning the “Shroud,” a facetious award given to the most unpopular bill proposed in the House, an Alabama tradition since 1979.
The House victory, on a vote of 84-17 on March 10, opens the door for the state to overturn a nearly three-decade-long ban on yoga at Alabama public schools.
For some Alabamians, 86% of whom identify as Christian, yoga and other non-Christian practices have long been considered satanic.
“Things are finally shifting here,” said Frank Smith, a registered yoga teacher and the founder of Breezeville Yoga in Montgomery. “Alabama might be entering the 21st century.”
The benefits of yoga, meditation and deep breathing are well-documented. Studies suggest regular practice yields a decrease in heart rate, depression and anxiety, as well as improved concentration.
But not all Alabamians are eager to introduce the downward dog to the state’s youth.
Some object that yoga cannot be separated from its Hindu roots and that introducing it at schools is threatening to the First Amendment, which prohibits public school-sponsored prayer or indoctrination.
To the Rev. Clete Hux, keeping yoga out of schools is a matter of fairness.
“If they are going to allow yoga and meditation, they have to allow Christian prayer and other religious practices,” said Hux, director of the Apologetics Resource Center in Birmingham, Alabama.
Hux believes that allowing yoga and meditation at public schools not only threatens Christian values but also bars students from practicing any other religion.
“If I wore a T-shirt that says ‘I Do Yoga’ (at a public school), there would be no problem,” Hux said. “But if I walked in with a shirt that said, ‘Jesus Christ,’ the ACLU would be hopping all over me.”
He’s also skeptical of the health benefits of mindfulness and other practices to deal with stress and anxiety.
“Mindfulness is more like mindlessness,” he said. “And if you empty your mind, you could say that’s synonymous of Eastern meditation, or even of hypnosis, right?”
It’s not only Bible Belt evangelicals who have an aversion toward non-Christian spiritual practices. Catholic priests have warned that those who enjoy yoga are taking risks with their spiritual health.
But over the last decade, yoga has spread everywhere: tech company rooftops, hospital hallways and even airports. Over 20 million Americans practice it, according to Yoga Journal’s latest Yoga in America survey. Advocates praise the physical and mental health benefits of yoga.
Several Alabama state representatives tried lifting the ban since it took effect 27 years ago.
But it wasn’t until Gray took charge that it started to gain traction.
In 2019, Gray, a Democrat who once played in the Canadian Football League, started a grassroots campaign with other yoga advocates across Alabama, including yoga teachers, practitioners, college students, doctors and therapists. They called state representatives, posted on social media and held ongoing strategy meetings at community centers and yoga studios.
“It really was a group effort,” Gray said. “And we got a lot of media attention.”
What else did Gray do differently?
“I also think people just like me,” Gray said, laughing. “That helps with something like this.”
Smith, the Breezeville Yoga founder, said he believes children could benefit from the same calming and stress-relieving effects of regular practice that he’s experienced himself.
“Now instead of getting detention or a whoopin’,” he said, “kids can be sent to go meditate. It’s amazing!”
Smith acknowledged that some Christians who come to his studio find themselves in a moral dilemma. But he said practicing yoga can strengthen a Christian’s relationship with God.
He tells his Christian students not to worry, saying, “‘Look, man, I promise you, if you stay on that mat you will have a deeper understanding of what you believe.’
“And they always do, if they stick with it,” he said.
While the bill’s approval shows flexible thinking in the Bible Belt, Gray made concessions to appease more conservative representatives, such as prohibiting teachers from using non-English words, chants or mantras in their instruction.
Still, some House members — 17 exactly — remained against the bill. While promoting the physiological and mental health benefits of yoga and meditation was a big angle in Gray’s campaign, some conservative state representatives simply would not consider it.
But students can’t legally practice yoga in public schools just yet.
The bill must first pass the Senate, which like the House met briefly this week. The Legislature is not scheduled to meet again until the end of April.
But Gray isn’t worried about finding a state senator to sponsor his bill.
“It’s very rare that a bill passes in the House and then doesn’t pass through the Senate,” he said. “We’re not technically done, but this was a huge feat.”
Regardless of what happens, Gray sees victory in the lower chamber as symbolic of a shift within the state sometimes described as the most Christian in America.
“We’re now in a generation where kids and young adults are free thinkers,” Gray said. “Look at me. I’m an ex-football player, who is a Christian, who does yoga, who used to eat fried chicken every day, who is now a vegan. You can be all of it.”