Yoga in classrooms Instructors bring ever-popular practice into local schools, minus the religion

Rachel Glowacki leads Melissa Brandt’s first-grade class in yoga exercises at Sullivan’s Island Elementary School.

Rachel Glowacki wears black yoga pants and a peaceful smile, poised to show 50 adults some basic yoga breaths and stretches. But before they start, she issues a note of caution.

“Nothing incorporates a religion,” says Glowacki, teacher and partner at Kids Yoga Journey.

Her partner in training, Jennifer Marvel, quickly agrees.

“Some people think yoga is a religion,” Marvel adds. “But you can also call it movement, exercise, breathing.”

Why so much forewarning?

Because they are training public school teachers at Mamie P. Whitesides Elementary School in Mount Pleasant how to incorporate yoga into their classrooms. And yoga made national news earlier this month when California groups threatened to sue over a mandatory public school yoga program that they contend promotes Hinduism.

Yet the teacher training at Whitesides is evidence of yoga’s increasing presence in Lowcountry schools, often as part of larger wellness pushes.

“We need to take a more concerted approach to wellness,” said Dave Spurlock, Charleston County School District’s director of physical education and health. “Many schools are looking to yoga for a holistic approach.”

At Whitesides, Glowacki and Marvel address the issue right off.

“We are committed to creating programs that are public-school friendly,” Glowacki, who is Christian, tells the teachers.

Glowacki, co-creator of the iPad app “I Am Love: Kids’ Yoga Journey,” shows the app on a Smart Board and clicks through the pages of a book on the screen. The app prompts different yoga poses as they read. The teachers follow, laughing when they bump into one another.

Yoga stretches and breathing technique can work with any book read in class, Glowacki notes.

How else could it help children learn?

One teacher suggests using poses that form the same mathematical angles she teaches.

The school music teacher says she could start with passive poses and move to stronger ones while teaching different musical sounds.

Marvel adds that poses can mimic the shapes of letters while teaching the alphabet.

The goal: Get students up and moving while they learn. Then show them how to calm down and breathe, especially when they get too wiggly in class or feel anxious or angry.

The teachers sit down to learn a breathing technique that mimics ocean waves.

So is this type of yoga promoting a faith?

In California, a group of parents and the National Center for Law and Policy launched a campaign to remove school yoga classes, contending they promote Hinduism and, therefore, violate religious freedoms.

The Encinitas Union School District superintendent argued that officials selected instructors and designed the program to avoid religious elements.

However, one Encinitas parent who observed a class told a National Public Radio reporter, “They were being taught to thank the sun for their lives and the warmth that it brought, the life that it brought to the Earth and they were told to do that right before they did their sun salutation exercises.”

Parents fighting the program are backed by the National Center for Law & Policy, a nonprofit that promotes “religious freedom, the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, parental rights, and other civil liberties,” according to its website.

However, local pastors say the issue is how yoga is presented, especially in public schools.

“If what is being called ‘yoga’ is simply exercises and stretching to soothing music, I don’t see a problem with it. But if it involves Hindu meditations, incantations or other elements of Eastern religions, I have a big problem with it being offered at any school,” said the Rev. Ed Grant, pastor of Calvary Lutheran Church in West Ashley.

The Very Rev. John Burwell, rector at the Church of the Holy Cross on Sullivan’s Island, encouraged Christian parents to watch what their children are being taught and discuss how their biblical values relate to that.

“I would have no objections to anyone teaching breathing exercises based on yoga in a public classroom,” Burwell said. However, “I would discuss the exercise regimen with the child along with everything else being taught.”

A Christian friend once told Glowacki, “It’s a sin to do yoga.”

Glowacki had those concerns. But she found that how much yoga involves any faith, or no faith at all, depends on the teacher and the setting.

For instance, she teaches Christian yoga at Seacoast Church where classes meditate on Bible verses and the Lord’s Prayer.

“Yoga isn’t a religion,” Glowacki said. “It is an art, a philosophy. It’s a tool for mind and body control.”

Glowacki and Marvel encourage parents to sit in on classes and talk to their students’ yoga teachers if they have concerns.

“In the decade that I have been teaching yoga to children, I have had two instances where a parent or school was apprehensive,” said Marvel, who has taught in private and public schools. “Children are simply learning ways to use their bodies, brains and breath as vehicles to manage stress, calm down, perk up or let go of anxiety, sadness, fear or anything else.”

One school asked to call it Movement Class. A year later, they renamed it Yoga, said Marvel, Kids Yoga Journey’s training director.

Amy Kassis, a children’s and prenatal yoga specialist who owns Yoga Mama Studios on Folly Road, recently took the word “karma” out of her materials to avoid religious connotations.

“Karma means doing good or simply stewardship, but the language barrier can have an unexpected negative response with an uninformed audience,” Kassis said.

Kassis said she opened Yoga Mama to help children discover flexibility, balance, self-respect and focus, not to teach Hinduism or Buddhism. She and her husband are active Blessed Sacrament Church members, and their daughter is a student at its school.

“Yoga should not be confused as a religion based on the geographic region of its origin,” Kassis said. “Yoga in the modern world, and especially children’s yoga, is a way to find balance from our overstimulated lives.”

Leigh Crowder-Biearman, who lived in San Diego not far from Encinitas, was working as an occupational therapist when she took her first yoga class.

“It just made so much sense to me,” Crowder-Biearman recalled.

Today, through her Yoga Kidz, she teaches yoga in a half-dozen Charleston area public schools thanks to funding from the TBonz Community Foundation. She started five years ago at Mitchell Math and Science Elementary School in downtown Charleston.

When she first pitched the idea to Spurlock, Charleston County schools’ physical education director, he was enthusiastic. As a coach, he had used yoga with his football teams for almost 20 years to build strength and flexibility.

But he had one condition.

“We cannot approach it from any religious standpoint,” he said. “And today, I’ve never had an angry phone call from a parent.”

Out of nearly 1,000 local students Crowder-Biearman’s classes have reached, one or two parents in the same middle school asked that their children not participate.

“We just make it so it’s accessible to anyone,” Crowder-Biearman said.

She focuses on breathing and mental discipline in her work with at-risk students, who grapple with serious life stressors.

“We really teach kids self-control and give them strategies to use when they are overwhelmed, stressed or angry,” Crowder-Biearman said.

For instance, she teaches students to stop when they feel angry and take a moment to feel their breathing and heartbeat calm before reacting.

Mitchell Elementary PE teacher Cassie Connor said she never felt uneasy about bringing yoga to her school, nor have any parents voiced concerns to her.

“I have seen nothing but positivity come from yoga being in our school,” Connor said. “The teachers use it for the kids as well as themselves.”

Back at Whitesides, the teachers sit in calm silence practicing ocean “breathes.” Eyes closed, they breathe in and picture waves rolling in.

Breathe out, and they picture the waves receding as they exhale with a gentle whoosh.

They go over other breathing techniques, called things such as the volcano breath and Darth Vader, and how each can help students simmer down, breathe and focus.

“This is exactly what they need by the time they get to my office,” calls out Cynthia Perez, assistant principal and de facto school disciplinarian.

The teachers burst out laughing. Most nod knowingly.

CORRECTION: Leigh Crowder-Biearman’s name was incorrect in earlier versions of this story. We regret the error.

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