Alabama ends nearly 30-year-old yoga ban but with some strange caveats

Mayank Chhaya-

Alabama has lifted a nearly three-decade-long ban on yoga in public schools as long as the practice is shorn of the Hindu nomenclature of its poses and exercises, the use of Namaste as a greeting and meditation.

Rep. Jeremy Gray

State Representative Jeremy Gray, a Democrat representing Opelika, waged a nearly three-year-long battle between 2019 and 2021 to eventually get a bill passed rescinding the ban. The bill was signed into law by Alabama Governor Kay Ivey on May 21.  Gray’s advocacy came in the face of an aggressive and oftentimes risible pushback from Christian conservative groups and lawmakers who saw yoga as a trick to convert people to Hinduism.

It is a measure of their influence that even the final bill that was signed into law was studded with extraordinary caveats. For instance, while expressly prohibiting students from using the greeting Namaste and engaging in meditation, it also says, “Chanting, mantras, mudras, use of mandalas, induction of hypnotic states, guided imagery, and namaste greetings shall be expressly prohibited.”

In an interview, Rep. Gray acknowledged he was blindsided by some last-minute amendments to his bill by his Republican colleagues on the floor of the Senate. He said in an interview that two senators put these amendments much to his surprise but given that they were last minute, he had to make a choice between killing the bill altogether and reaching a compromise. He chose the latter describing the passage as “bittersweet.”

He said he would have preferred his bill that was passed in the Alabama house after he worked out a compromise with his Republican colleagues to be cleared by the Senate as well. “They put in the amendments at a time when it would have been hard for me to take the amendments off without killing the bill. So I am happy that I got the bill passed but I am bittersweet,” he said.

The original ban on the practice of yoga in K-12 schools was imposed in 1993 amid some extraordinary objections from conservative Christian groups and lawmakers who practically called yoga a Trojan Horse for Hinduism. In a sense, the ban on yoga was a consequence of America’s longstanding culture wars, especially in Southern states where conservative Christian politics overwhelms all discourse.

Rep. Gray, a former football player North Carolina State University, said he started practicing yoga over a decade ago and has benefited a great deal from it. A practicing Baptist Christian, he said he has never considered yoga as interfering with his faith. “Yoga is now as American as it gets and we all have to be open-minded about it,” he said.

In his interview, Gray said the opposition came mainly from 60-plus white lawmakers not fully aware of yoga’s traditions. He attributed the eventual passage of the bill to the fact that wives of many of the conservative lawmakers practice yoga and they see clear benefits. “A lot of my colleagues are older; white men of age 65 which is probably the average age. They are very conservative. A lot of them have never taken yoga. Maybe their wives have. That’s why they voted for the bill,” Gray said.

On the specific question of the amendment to exclude meditation, Gray said, “The meditation part is really tricky. In the amendment, which is crazy, it is saying that you can’t spiritually meditate but you can meditate on a secular realm. How can you even distinguish if someone is meditating in a spiritual world or a secular world?”

He agreed that prohibiting the use of Namaste was like prohibiting saying hello. The word Namaste has no religious undertone and yet conservative lawmakers singled it out apparently in their phobia that it might turn its user into a Hindu.

Although the passed bill forbids the use of Namaste, meditation and other aspects that go naturally with yoga, Gray said there was actually no way to seriously police that and enforce it. He said he did not expect a concerted effort to individually monitor whether schools really follow the law to a tee.

In that sense, it is even more significant that yoga has been reinstated in public schools in a state which in any case did not stop many other institutions, including private schools and prisons, from practicing it.

With the ban ended in Alabama, it brings to a close one of the stranger aspects of America’s culture wars.