For nearly 30 years now, yoga has been banned in Alabama public schools. The state introduced a ban on teaching yoga in schools in 1993, citing its links to Hinduism, and since then it's not been possible for schoolchildren to be taught any kind of yoga flow stretches. This is because Christian conservatives historically argued that to teach an exercise practice that is linked to an Eastern religion would be to go against the Constitutional ban on teaching religion in public, secular schools. In this context, yoga was equated with prayer.
However, as anyone who's creakily folded themselves into a sun salutation knows, there is very little about yoga that is actually spiritual when it's being done for exercise reasons. The majority of yoga poses are taught for strength and flexibility, not for any kind of meditative purpose. And although breathing and relaxation are key to a smooth yoga flow, there is no need to associate these with any kind of religious beliefs at all.
It seems that modern-day lawmakers in the state agree. The most recent bill, brought for a third time by a Democrat (Jeremy Gray, who is a qualified yoga teacher and football coach), has now been approved by the Republican state legislature and governor. It was signed last Thursday by Governor Kay Ivey and it's now official: yoga poses and stretches may now be taught in schools in Alabama - at the discretion of individual local school boards.
There are limits, however. Words like "Om" and "Namaste" are forbidden; no Eastern descriptions of poses can be used (so no "vinyasa", just "flow"); and parents will have to sign permission slips on behalf of their children to acknowledge that the practice of yoga is linked to Hinduism. Nevertheless, the opportunity for children to learn a very health-giving type of exercise is now available, and this seems to be only a good thing. As Gray himself states, some stretches and breathing exercises for children during the school day can improve their concentration as well as their physical health.
Gray also acknowledges that in order for the Bill to pass in a Republican-majority Senate, it had to include some dramatic wording amendments, such as a clause to prohibit hypnosis and meditation-based practices. But as he pointed out, yoga doesn't involve hypnosis anyway - so if including that wording meant that the bill would be passed, he was happy to leave it in. He hopes that these clauses can be taken out in time in any case, when yoga is more accepted as a practice in schools.
Most people have welcomed the news that the restriction has been lifted. Brian Lyman, a veteran statehouse reported, summed this sentiment up succinctly: "Thus do we close the book on one of the stupidest moral panics in Alabama history, which really is saying a lot."