Debating Yoga and Mindfulness in Public Schools

Reforming Secular Education or Reestablishing Religion?

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Candy Gunther Brown
  • Chapel Hill, NC: 
    University of North Carolina Press
    , May
     456 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In this provocative new book, Debating Yoga and Mindfulness in Public Schools, Candy Gunther Brown argues that a new concerted effort to reestablish religion in public schools comes not from Catholics or evangelicals, but from advocates of yoga and mindfulness. Efforts to teach yoga and mindfulness to students, popularly viewed as beneficial and secular, are, Brown persuasively claims, “[both] secular and religious in purpose and effect” (5). Brown notes that these practices are often put in schools to advance religious agendas and involve students in Buddhist and Hindu practices. She also provides a moral argument, suggesting that, as currently implemented, programs for yoga and mindfulness in public schools coerce children to participate in religious activities.  

Five chapters of the book focus on efforts to spread yoga in public schools, primarily highlighting the work of Ashtanga yoga advocates who are connected with the Jois Foundation (later renamed to Sonima, and now called Pure Edge). The Jois Foundation sought to make yoga a mandatory part of the school day. Starting in 2011, this foundation was able to get yoga integrated into the Encinitas Union School District in California, and their efforts have since spread nationally. Concerned parents in Encinitas challenged the district’s choice to teach yoga, claiming in the case Sedlock v. Baird, in which Brown testified as an expert witness, that it advanced an establishment of religion. Though the judge in the case agreed that yoga was religious, he found that the version being practiced did not constitute an establishment of religion because it had been sufficiently stripped of religious language and context.

Brown documents numerous examples of how the attempt to integrate yoga in the school system was tied to religion. Children learned stories from the yoga sutras, which Brown suggests is comparable to having children devotionally read the Sermon on the Mount, and they performed Sun Salutation, a way of expressing devotion to the deity Surya. Hiring yoga teachers was not only the prerogative of the school district, but also was done collaboratively with the Jois Foundation, which employed only practitioners closely tied to their organization and views. After reading the book, it seems almost baffling that any court could have decided that this did not constitute a clear establishment of religion.

Two chapters are devoted specifically to mindfulness-based programs in public schools. Brown points out that advocates of these practices have often seen them as a kind of “stealth Buddhism,” which they seek to sneak into secular spaces. The author frequently cites Jeff Wilson’s Mindful America (Oxford University Press, 2014), showing that figures like Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, used mindfulness as a vehicle to promote their religious convictions.   

The book also includes chapters on practices that government has deemed to be religious and prohibited in schools. One chapter deals with the Pennsylvania Charter School Appeal board’s decision not to approve a charter for a school that taught Superbrain Yoga. The other chapter examines a failed appeal to the same board by a group seeking a charter for a Waldorf school, a type of schooling based on the educational ideas of the anthroposophy movement. Brown perceptively notes that one obvious factor that affected these cases is that the appeals board had a financial incentive to reject charter school applications, lest they lose funding for public schools. In contrast, the Encinitas School District stood to gain much-needed funding from the Jois Foundation if teaching yoga was allowed. 

A final section of the book tackles the impact of these yoga and mindfulness practices, including an examination of their purported health benefits. Brown concludes with recommendations: While she suggests that it might be technically possible to have a secular program, the proposed guidelines of “transparency and volunteerism” would seem to preclude most efforts to promote yoga and mindfulness in public schools, because they would bar religious gestures, objects, and language. Above all, Brown specifies that schools should only have opt-in programs, because mandatory programs with the option to opt-out can become coercive.   

Many of the fiercest critics of yoga in public schools are evangelical parents. Though it is often easy to dismiss narratives of Christian persecution in the United States as absurd, Brown makes a compelling case that these evangelicals are marginalized by better educated and funded forces. Evangelical children are being forced to worship Hindu gods, and even if they opt out of practicing yoga and get removed from those classes, they cannot escape the influence of yoga in the school system.

The main defenders of evangelicals include groups like the Alliance for Defending Freedom, a legal organization widely known for its hostility to LGBTQ rights, according to Brown. She argues that scholars and legal experts have been less willing to help evangelicals because doing so would make them bedfellows with groups they dislike. The situation is akin to the fable of the “Boy Who Cried Wolf”; since evangelicals have long claimed that secular public education stifled their faith, their concerns have largely been ignored in a situation where they are being induced to engage in what they see as heretical religious worship.

Rather than neutral evaluators or critics, academics have often played the roles of champions of mindfulness and yoga practices in public schools. The book documents that The Center for Education Policy and Law at the University of San Diego and the Center for Contemplative Sciences at the University of Virginia (my own institution) both received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Jois Foundation to conduct research to vindicate its yoga programs as being effective at promoting health (103­–106). Brown suggests that even when scholars of Hinduism feel that yoga is religious, they often face pressure to conceal their conclusions, lest they face professional sanctions.

That public schools should be used as a venue to spread religious views is alarming. Brown has written an important work of publicly engaged scholarship that documents how some advocates of mindfulness and yoga are using schools to disseminate religious traditions. Hopefully this book’s audience will extend beyond academics, and it will reach both the legal community and educators who should be made aware of the nature of these programs. School prayer and devotional scripture readings in the classroom were supposed to have been discontinued in the 1960s. In new forms, and connected to Buddhism and Hinduism rather than Christianity, they seem to be making a subtle return.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Isaac Barnes May is a Research Fellow of the Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia.

Date of Review: 
June 30, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Candy Gunther Brown is Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University, is the author of several books including The Word in the World and The Healing Gods.


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