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P.E. stretching raises religion concern

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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

Does stretching on a mat to warm up before physical exercise constitute yoga?

That question came up during a recent meeting of the Legislative Education Study Committee in Santa Fe. Ann Paulls-Neal, a physical education teacher from Albuquerque, was there with other teachers and a physician to talk about student health and, especially, combating childhood obesity.

The John Baker Elementary School instructor told the panel she refers to her exercises as “stretching or mat work” rather than yoga because she doesn’t want to give the impression that religion is involved.

But Rep. Alonzo Baldonado, R-Los Lunas, a non-voting member of the committee, expressed concern. Because yoga is linked to Eastern religions, he said, specifically Buddhism and Hinduism, he wanted to know if parents were given the “option to opt out,” or if kids are offered alternative activities.

“Are we teaching yoga in public schools now?” he asked. “Are parents notified?”

After all, he said, he wouldn’t want his daughters to be exposed to non-Christian religious practices.

Paulls-Neal answered that one student, a Jehovah’s Witness, was excused for religious reasons.

Baldonado, a Christian, insists he has nothing against Buddhism or Hinduism, but said yoga could be seen as a gateway to Eastern religion. “It’s just not something we partake in,” he said in an interview.

He and his wife home-school their three daughters so there’s little chance they will be exposed to yoga or other religious practices, he said. The girls are on a swim team, he added, “and when the coach uses yoga, we opt out.”

“We have the authority, the charge from God, to raise our children as we see fit.”

Baldonado said he “didn’t go looking for a discussion on religion. It just came up.”

Even though Paulls-Neal reportedly referred to stretching and mat work as yoga, she said religion is not discussed or even mentioned in class. The only reason for the exercises is to increase flexibility and help maintain good health.

Baldonado is a GOP House caucus chair and a Valencia County real estate broker.

The head of a nonprofit progressive advocacy group took issue with the questions Baldonado raised at the meeting.

“Of all the things a legislator could focus on to get our public schools back on track, Rep. Baldonado chose this one as his most important,” said Patrick Davis of ProgressNowNM.org. “Even for conspiracy theorists, this one seems far-fetched. How he thinks a rudimentary stretching routine meant to improve physical health could lead students to join a religious cult is beyond me.”

But Baldonado said his position is entirely reasonable, given separation of church and state requirements and general opposition to prayer in public schools.

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