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Georgia parents' yoga objections: Does 'mindfulness' in schools cross a line?

In a Georgia school, parents have become concerned that a yoga program that they say strayed into religious territory.

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Jhasitti Gardley (l.) Jayce Tuck, with his father Oakland Raiders defensive end Justin Tuck (behind) and Angie Alvarado (r.) demonstrate yoga exercise poses as part of the Sonima Foundation health and wellness programs launch with the Ravenswood City School District on Jan. 21, 2015 in East Palo Alto, Calif. In a Georgia school, parents have become concerned that a yoga program has strayed into religious territory.

Tony Avelar/Invision for Sonima Foundation/AP/File

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Yoga is supposed to focus on developing harmony and calm, but a Georgia elementary school's mindfulness program has erupted into the latest controversy on the separation of church and state in school.

Many schools have adopted mindfulness programs in recent years, either as a strategy to relieve test anxiety or as an alternative to physical education in budget-strapped school districts. The key to the yoga programs, as with nearly any school activity, is to tread carefully – or perhaps mindfully – around the line between education and belief.

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For parents at Georgia's Bullard Elementary School, the line was crossed.

Following complaints from parents, the school held a meeting last Thursday to discuss the mindfulness practices and concerns with parents, Rose French reported for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution. On Friday, Principal Patrice Moore sent a letter home that promised to exclude the word "namaste," as well as coloring pages of Hindu symbols and the movement of hands to heart center.

The letter, published by NBC affiliate WXIA, also announced the creation of a parent committee to advise the school on future programs.

"While we have been practicing de-stressing techniques in many classrooms for years, there have been some recent practices associated with mindfulness that are offensive to some," Ms. Moore wrote in the letter.

The origins of yoga are spiritual, but most American yoga enthusiasts value the practice for its physical benefits and emphasis on breathing, stretching, and strengthening. Most Americans attach minimal if any religious value to yoga poses.

The parents at Bullard Elementary School seemed to recognize this, but they told news media their concerns stemmed from what some staff members have been adding to the yoga curriculum on the side.

Bekka Miller Fedusiv, whose child attends Bullard Elementary, said several "rogue teachers" had given individual students books about Buddhism and taught them to pray using crystals, according to Travis Gettys of Raw Story.

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Another parent told local media the concern was "not as much the Yoga, but the crystals, chackras and other new-agey things going on from an employee who works as a 'healer' in her spare time helping troubled people correct their energy fields," according to 11Alive's Valerie Hoff.

The principal's letter addressed these concerns as well, for which the healing powers of crystals had become a flashpoint.

"Although teachers have never used nor taught about crystals having healing powers during these breaks, we understand it has become a belief," the principal wrote to parents. "Therefore we will ensure that nothing resembling this will be done in the future."

The mindfulness program and yoga will continue at Bullard Elementary School, now that parents and staff have clarified the extent to which yoga qualifies as exercise rather than religion. The Christian parents had been offended because they viewed such curricula as a double standard against their own faith, but following the meeting they decided they had made their case.

"No prayer in schools. Some don't even say the pledge, yet they're pushing ideology on our students," Susan Jaramillo, a mother from Cobb County, told WXIA. "Some of those things are religious practices that we don't want our children doing in our schools."

[Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify that Susan Jaramillo is not a parent of a student at Bullard Elementary.]​