June 6, 2013

Yoga in Schools Promotes Spiritual Development & it Has Nothing to do With Religion. ~ Lisa Flynn & Marina Ebert

Photo courtesy of authors

We hear and read a lot about the benefits of holistic education and the importance of addressing all aspects of children’s physical and psychological development.

The question we need to address now is whether in an attempt to rightfully eliminate the influence of any religious paradigm in strictly secular settings such as schools, we are running into a problem of potentially dismissing the value of spiritual development and growth.

In light of the recent controversy in the Encinitas Union School District in CA, this is an important and timely topic. As a small group of parents sues the school for implementing an Ashtanga-based yoga program funded by K. P. Jois Foundation, which they believe “unlawfully promotes religious beliefs,” parties on both sides of the issue are led to ponder an underlying question:

Does spirituality belong in schools at all?

We’d like to make the case that it does. But first, we need to clearly differentiate spirituality from religious indoctrination.

What is spirituality?

Yoga in schools is not a religious practice, but it is a spiritual practice. And nope, that’s not the same thing. To understand how that is true, we first need to define ‘spirituality’. It’s a term that is often used interchangeably with ‘religion’, making it a common area of confusion. A thoughtful article published by the University of California, Berkley Greater Good Science Center, offers a useful definition of spirituality:

“Spiritual development is the process of growing the intrinsic human capacity for self-transcendence, in which the self is embedded in something greater than itself, including the sacred. It is the developmental ‘engine’ that propels the search for connectedness, meaning, purpose, and contribution. It is shaped both within and outside of religious traditions, beliefs and practices.”

Evidently, spirituality can be quite personal and where one individual might connect with his spiritual side through prayer or service work in his church or synagogue, another individual may cultivate his spirituality through the practice of meditation and yet another as she communes with nature or enjoys art or music.

What does science say?

Historically, spirituality has been overshadowed by cognitive development, emotional competency and even physical wellness in science and education. However, a move towards positive development and whole child education is gaining more followers in these fields, as well as generating research-based evidence. John Templeton FoundationMind and Life Institute and many other well respected organizations and centers have it as their mission to build scientific understanding of those “fuzzy” areas of human experience, such as spirituality, creative insight, morality, peak experiences and higher states of consciousness.

One example is a study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies in 2010, which showed that children aged eight to twelve who were more spiritual indicated being happier. Spirituality in this case was defined not by a child’s religious practices, such as attending church, but by a child’s ability to find meaning and value in his life, and engage in deep interpersonal relationships. Certainly, these are benefits achieved as related to religious practices, but they are not exclusive to them.

Another study, published in the Evidence-Based Alternative and Complementary Medicine journal, focused on adults of various religious backgrounds and found that an intensive yoga practice significantly increased specific aspects of people’s spirituality, mindfulness, and mood. Most importantly, yoga was shown to enhance the study participants’ original spirituality, whether connected to a specific religion or not.

This paper clearly made the case for the importance of spiritual development to cultivating the health of the whole being. Here is an inspiring idea from this article:

“Yoga may be a practice that could effectively contribute to manifesting the World Health Organization’s definition of health as a “state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity,” but could extend beyond this to also include the cultivation of spiritual well-being.”

Does spirituality belong in schools?

Photo courtesy of the authors

Being a crucial, universal developmental process, spirituality is already a part of the school environment, as espoused through social-emotional learning, character development, and team building curricula and activities. And, as interest in emotional well-being, resilience and bullying prevention increases in the field of education, it is inevitable that secular programs addressing the development of our children’s spirituality will continue to gain support in schools.

The next question to ask is whether yoga can be used as a practice to enhance spiritual development in schools. Our answer is absolutely! And here is why.

At the heart of yoga is a focus on the inner self. Yoga inspires us to get in touch with who we are inside, to develop and trust our intuition, to cultivate our inner wisdom and peace. Providing the same opportunity to children in an environment where they spend most of their time every day is precisely what the contemplative education movement calls for. A child who learns yoga, mindfulness and relaxation will be developing essential skills for a lifetime of health and wellness in mind, body and yes, spirit.

The following quote, excerpted from the Exercise for Spirit section of the new book by Lisa Flynn, Yoga for Children (F/W, Adams Media, May 2013), illustrates this connection between yoga and spirituality for kids.

“Your child’s spirit connects him with others and is essential to a healthy, well-adjusted child. Yoga practices will help foster your child’s spiritual growth by helping him see the beauty and light within himself, boosting confidence, and allowing him to feel more comfortable in his body. Yoga will help your child get in touch with who he is inside, and in turn will help connect with himself, others, and the world in a richer, more positive, and peaceful way”.

An integral part of psychological well-being, spirituality can be enhanced through the practice of yoga. The following are some important spiritual benefits of yoga for children: (adapted from the Yoga 4 Classrooms® Program Manual)

> Builds confidence and self-esteem

>Supports character development

> Enhances team skills and social interaction

> Develops discipline and self-control

> Supports individuality and self-expression

> Encourages social and environmental awareness and responsibility

> Supports a sense of universal connectedness

>Inspires respect for self and others

Yoga-based practices involving conscious breathing, mindful movement, self- and group reflection and community-building can help promote spiritual development right in the classroom.

For example, visualizations that are secular in nature can be used to help children reach a state of inner peace while promoting a sense of compassion and interconnectedness. The following is an abridged meditation from one of the Imagination VacationTM practices from the Yoga 4 Classrooms® Card Deck, which is being used successfully in classrooms around the world.

“Imagine there is a big, beautiful star above your head. It is glowing bright in your favorite color, sending light out in every direction. You feel the cozy, warm light from the star come down to gently touch the top of your head… Notice the light come into your heart now. With each inhale, feel your heart grow bigger and bigger, brighter and brighter, filling up with love and warmth. See the rays of light radiating out form your heart out to the people you love… to the members of your school community, to the places, animals and people around the world who need it the most today.”

The components of yoga and mindfulness curricula like this one not only make it possible for children to perceive a whole world inside the space of their minds, but also help promote problem-solving, creative and critical thinking, sensory release, relaxation and focusing skills.

Yoga supports spiritual development in schools: Closing argument of a case worth making.

It is clear that the spiritual (as distinguished from religious) aspects of yoga practices are universally acceptable, and more importantly, necessary for healthy development. Enhancing awareness of the self is often neglected in educational settings and perhaps deemed more acceptable for after-school family time. Yet, the quest for holistic education must acknowledge the role that spiritual development plays in personal growth and ultimate well-being, and at the very least, open opportunities for children to become aware and appreciative of their rich inner lives.

Developmentally adapted and school-appropriate yoga and mindfulness programs offer wonderful tools for spiritual development that have nothing to do with the promotion of a specific religion when presented in a secular, appropriate, non-threatening and accessible way.

As we develop a clear understanding of what spirituality is and what role it plays in supporting the whole child wellness, it is our hope that the field of education will continue to include, and even enhance, opportunities for spiritual development. Incorporating yoga and mindfulness education at school is a great start.


For more on the topic of yoga, religion, spirituality and school children:

Let’s Get it Straight: Yoga in Schools is Not a Religious Practice by Lisa Flynn, elephant journal

Yoga in Schools: The Religion Question by Abby Wills, Shanti Generation Blog

The Encinitas Yoga Case: Yoga is Religious, Only It’s Not by Philip Goldberg, Huffington Post


Lisa Flynn, E-RYT, RCYT, Founder of ChildLight Yoga and Yoga 4 Classrooms, has an award-winning kids’ yoga studio in Dover, NH and is the author of the Yoga 4 Classrooms Card Deck and Yoga for Children: 200+ Yoga Poses, Breathing Exercises, and Meditations for Healthier, Happier, More Resilient Children (F/W, Adams Media, May 2013). She shares her knowledge with parents, educators, school counselors and yoga teachers through her trainings and workshops. You can visit her websites at www.childlightyoga.com and www.yoga4classrooms.com.



Marina Ebert, MA, is a Director of Relationship Development at Yoga 4 Classrooms, and assists with research projects at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and the Khalsa Yoga Research Lab at Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School.


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Ed: Wendy Keslick/Bryonie Wise


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