Yoga still banned in Alabama public schools, for now, as conservatives cite Hinduism ties

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A 28-year ban on yoga in Alabama's public schools may be in place a little longer.

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday deadlocked on legislation from Rep. Jeremy Gray, a Democrat, that would lift the prohibition after testimony from Christian conservatives who said it would lead to proselytizing in public schools by followers of Hinduism.

"Yoga is a very big part of practicing Hindu religion," said Becky Gerritson, a longtime conservative activist. "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, and it's outside their parents view, and we just believe that this is not appropriate."

Gray dismissed that in a phone interview Wednesday.

"I’ve been doing yoga probably for 10 years now," he said. "I’ve taught classes for five years, and I can tell you I still go to a Baptist church every Sunday."

The bill would give Alabama public schools the option of offering yoga as an elective. The legislation would limit any yoga practice to exercises, require activities to have English names and ban "chanting, mantras, mudras, use of mandalas, and namaste greetings." It passed the Alabama House on March 11 on a 73 to 25 vote.

More: Alabama House approves elective yoga in public schools. Why was it banned?

The Alabama State Board of Education banned yoga from public schools in 1993 amid allegations from right-wing organizations that hypnosis and meditation techniques were being used in public schools. A woman who testified at one meeting before the State Board of Education claimed a meditation tape made her son "visibly high." The current ban also includes hypnotic states, guided imagery and meditation.

Rep. Jeremy Gray, who played cornerback for the North Carolina State Wolfpack and later played in the Canadian Football League, has taught yoga and said it felt physical and mental benefits from the practice.

Gray, who played cornerback at North Carolina State, said his own yoga practice has led to mental and physical benefits, and questioned why it should be kept out of public schools.

"Athletes do it at Alabama and Auburn universities," he said. "People do it at Methodist Churches. So many people do yoga, why is Christianity the dominant religion in Alabama? So much of this is asinine."

Opponents said the exercise benefits of yoga could be achieved in other ways. John Eidsmoe, the senior counsel of former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore's Foundation for Moral Law, told the committee that the bill should be amended to require parents to sign permission slips for children participating in yoga classes "and state that they understand the Hindu origins of this."

"The very breathing and stretching, these are the essence of Hindu religion, and they're the means by which the energy of the gods flow into us and through us and united us with themselves," he said.

The vote to approve the bill tied, meaning it failed. Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Tom Whatley, a Republican, , immediately moved to reconsider the vote and carry the bill over, which means it can be voted on again. Whatley said two senators who supported the bill were absent, and that he wanted to give them a chance to vote on it.

Gray could not attend Wednesday's meeting due to a House committee meeting occurring at the same time. But he said he would attend the next Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on the topic to address any lingering concerns.

"This is a modernized thing that Americans are doing all over the United States," he said.

Follow Brian Lyman on Twitter: @lynman_brian.

This article originally appeared on Montgomery Advertiser: Alabama Senate stalls effort to lift yoga ban in public schools