TO “om” or not to “om”: For those who teach yoga in schools, that is a question that arises with regularity.
The little syllable, often intoned by yoga students at the beginning and end of class, signifies different things to different people. But with its spiritual connotations, it is a potential tripwire for school administrators and parents, along with “namaste” and other Sanskrit words, chanting and hands in the prayer position.
The om question ties into the wider debate over the extent to which yoga is entwined with religion. Yoga program directors, who train and place teachers in the schools and develop curriculums, try to avoid setting off a battle like the one that developed over the Lord’s Prayer.
“Every school is different, and every one has their own permutations and parameters of what you can and can’t do,” said Shari Vilchez-Blatt, founder and director of Karma Kids Yoga on West 14th Street, which holds studio classes and sends teachers to private and public schools in New York.
Bent on Learning, a 10-year-old program based on Grand Street that teaches 3,300 students a week in 16 public schools, is a namaste-free zone. “No namaste,” Jennifer Ford, the development director and one of the founders, said. “No om. No prayer position with the hands. Nothing that anyone could look in and think, this is religious.”
The hard-line policy is stressed in the 100-hour Bent on Learning teacher training. Perhaps a teacher accustomed to working in other settings inadvertently puts hands together in a prayer position, for instance. “It is easily explained, and fixed,” Ms. Ford said. “We weed it out quickly.”
Generally speaking, the money to support yoga programs comes from parent-teacher associations, grants, fund-raising and school budgets. Bent on Learning, which holds a glamorous annual benefit dinner with yoga enthusiasts including Gwyneth Paltrow and Russell Simmons, pays for classes at New Design High School, a public school on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Kate Johnson, a Bent on Learning instructor, teaches more than 100 students each week at the school, in a basement room set aside for yoga. She leads the classes — an elective for gym — through a series of stretches, standing poses and sun salutations. Sanskrit terms for poses are used, on the theory that they are akin to French-derived terms like plié in ballet.
After class, Allyson Lobo, 15, said, “I love yoga,” adding: “It’s relaxing. It makes me feel calm and takes me to a happy place.”
At Karma Kids, which works with more than 1,200 students in 16 schools, Ms. Vilchez-Blatt takes a more elastic position on “om.” “We om,” she said. “I don’t look at it as spiritual. When we say ‘om,’ it is all the sounds in the universe.” Still, she checks whether it is acceptable to school administrators before introducing it in class.
If the answer is no, Ms. Vilchez-Blatt has creative remedies, leading chants of “peace” or, at Chabad programs in Manhattan for children from prekindergarten through age 12, “Shal-OM.”
Jennifer Cohen Harper, director of Little Flower Yoga, which opened in 2006 and teaches about 700 students at 13 public and private schools, also discusses with administrators the content of classes. She may incorporate “om” and “namaste,” which she translates as “the light in me bows to the light in you.” The students do not do the prayer pose, instead placing their palms over their hearts.
If any qualms are expressed, Ms. Harper edits the language or behavior in question. “Occasionally someone will ask, ‘Do you guys do a lot of chanting?’ and you get the idea to stay away from it,” she said.
Jessica Soo, director of the after-school program at St. Luke’s School, an Episcopal elementary school in Greenwich Village where Little Flower teaches, has no objection to the use of “om” or “namaste.” She noted that in addition to the Little Flower classes, a staff foreign language teacher does yoga with students and discusses Sanskrit. “The kids are exposed to other cultures and religions in our school,” Ms. Soo said.
At Achievement First Bushwick Elementary School, a charter school, an after-school elective class taught by Little Flower instructors recently started when a teacher, Lisa Vandegrift, rang a singing bowl. Such a bowl is sometimes used in religious ceremonies, but here it had the secular goal of quieting rambunctious children and focusing their attention.
The students were led through energetic and playful sun salutations set to a song with Sanskrit lyrics describing a high to low push-up position. “What’s that funny word? Chaturanga!” Toward the end of the class, the students sat quietly in a cross-legged position, eyes closed, breathing in and out. One child made a ritual gesture called a mudra, with the backs of her hands resting on her knees and forefingers and thumbs forming O’s.
“I have no idea where she learned a mudra,” Ms. Harper, Little Flower’s director, who was observing, said with a laugh. “We never teach mudras. Kids come with ideas from TV.”