In yoga wars, time for some civil talk from both sides

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Local,Meghan Cox Gurdon

First, I must say that I sympathize with those California parents who object to the teaching of yoga in the public schools, for fear that it will inculcate Hinduism in the young.

And I'm equally sympathetic toward those California educators who have introduced yoga to their schoolrooms, in the hopes of sharing with the children its remarkable benefits of increased strength, tranquility and flexibility.

The battle over yoga in schools -- which is probably more fairly described as "serious unease" over yoga in schools -- is relatively trivial when compared with the great culture wars that roil our society.

Yet precisely because it is such a low-stakes dispute, I wonder if it does not offer a small way forward.

Every disagreement does not have to harden into mockery and name-calling. Every first impression does not deserve a passionate defense -- or prosecution.

If we are ever to become a somewhat less polarized country, we surely need to listen with a bit more charity to those who may seem to us to have cockamamie ideas, whether they're teaching "eagle pose" to children or objecting to it.

The objecting parents, who are mainly Christians, are concerned that spiritual exercises designed to "empty" the mind are improper for children, who ought rightly, in their view, be filled with the love and presence of God. They do not want their children to engage in Hindu practices that emerged, as William Broad detailed in his 2012 book "The Science of Yoga," from murky, semireligious, semisexual origins.

Surely their disquiet is worthy of respect, not contempt.

At the same time, mindfully, the Encinitas Union School District has tried to strip all religious symbolism from the yoga practice in its facilities, substituting descriptive English names like "gorilla pose," for instance, for the Sanskrit "padangusthasana." Yoga teachers in the school system also skip the custom of beginning and ending a session with the chant of "Om."

Surely this can be accepted as a good-faith effort to adapt to parental concerns, not an attempt to throw up an incense smokescreen to hide devious doings.

Years ago, when my small son came home from nursery school and showed me the "sun salute" and "cobra" poses he'd learned, it initially gave me the creeps.

Teaching 3-year-olds to adopt strange fixed poses looked vaguely like some sort of indoctrination, though in what, I wasn't sure. Since his favorite pose was "spear," in which he was poised as if to throw a javelin -- an organic pose for a small boy, as you might say -- I decided it wasn't worth making a fuss. On reflection, nursery school yoga seemed a bit of harmless exercise, and that is what it turned out to be.

Still, it took me a good decade more to venture into a yoga studio on my own account; I preferred other exercise and, like the California parents, wasn't interested in developing a relationship with Shiva or Ganesh.

So when a friend induced me to join her for power yoga last fall, I was totally unprepared for what a fabulous workout it would be, and how physically transformative. I became an instant convert, and have not been able to stop evangelizing about it. (If you could get the benefits of yoga in a tablet, I tell my long-suffering family, everyone would want a prescription!)

Yoga's health benefits are documented (in Mr. Broad's book, among other places). Stories abound of broken bodies -- including those of wounded servicemen and women -- achieving strength and healing through poses that look so dubious to the outsider.

And it doesn't make you a Hindu, either. If anything, yoga has made me a better Catholic. As my fellow practitioners are emptying themselves before chanting "Om," I send my thoughts heavenward and say, "Amen."

Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at mgurdon@ washingtonexaminer.com.

Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at mgurdon@washingtonexaminer.com.

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