A recent article in the NY Times discusses the protests by some parents in a California school district where first graders are having 30-minute yoga classes. This would seem to be a beneficial program for small children, doing something positive in the area of physical education, just as art and music classes do, as well as foreign language classes. In the age of strictly controlled and standardized curricula, it’s refreshing to see something creative happening, even if on a small scale. According to the article, the yoga sessions have a noticeably calming effect on the 6- and 7-year olds. So what’s the reason for the protests? Religious indoctrination, specifically the protesters “were concerned that the exercises might nudge their children closer to ancient Hindu beliefs”. This need to protect children from knowledge has had the unfortunate result in American schools of discouraging teaching about world religions, with a by-product being a wide-spread lack of knowledge about Islam (as well as of other non-Christian religions). In the absence of knowledge, stereotypes replace reality.
The intersection of religion, physical exercise, and politics has had some interesting case histories. Recently, the Falun Gong spiritual movement in China, combining slow-moving exercises with meditation and a basic moral philosophy, after gaining widespread popularity in the 1990’s, was suppressed by the Chinese government, fearful that such a large movement could threaten state control. In 19th-century Germany, Friedrich “Turnvater” Jahn (Father of Gymnastics Jahn), who had studied theology, wanted to encourage greater physical fitness among the Prussian youth, after seeing the humiliation of Germany’s defeat by Napoleon. What started out as gymnastics (he invented the parallel bars, the balance beam, horizontal bar, and the vaulting horse) turned nationalistic and was seen as a threat by the authorities, leading to his arrest.