SANTA FE — Yoga is taught at John Baker Elementary School in Albuquerque, but the term itself is taboo.
Physical education teacher Ann Paulls-Neal on Friday told a legislative committee that she refers to yoga as "stretching or mat work" to avoid any suggestion that the class is religious in nature.
Nonetheless, state Rep. Alonzo Baldonado, an evangelical Christian, questioned her about whether alternate activities are offered to children who object to yoga based on their religious beliefs.
Paulls-Neal said she had one student, a Jehovah's Witness, who was excused from yoga on request.
She said her yoga class makes no mention of any religion, instead placing all the emphasis on physical activity and its importance in staying healthy.
Paulls-Neal, other teachers and a physician testified before the Legislative Education Study Committee about programs to combat childhood obesity.
Baldonado, R-Los Lunas, said his concern was that yoga is grounded in Eastern religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism.
"I think it tends to open a door to a practice tied to a religious belief," he said in an interview after the hearing. "There is a good population of people out there who feel that way, so we have to ask if another option is available for them."
Baldonado homeschools his three daughters. He said his girls attend a private swimming program, but he removes them from it when the coach uses yoga as a means of improving strength and flexibility.
Parents with children in public schools should have the option of a different activity if they oppose yoga as a possible gateway to religious indoctrination, he said.
Baldonado said his position was reasonable, based on opposition to organized prayer in public schools.
"If I started reading scriptures from the Bible in schools, I'm sure there would be objections," he said.
State Sen. Bill Soules, a teacher at Onate High School in Las Cruces, said he knew of general criticisms of yoga being based on religion, but said he had heard of no school using it for anything except exercise that would make kids stronger and healthier.
"It's a concern of the far right," said Soules, a Democrat, who serves on the legislative committee with Baldonado.
Soules said algebra also had roots in religious teachings and rituals, but it is taught in public schools without any debate.
Though the hearing ended with a discussion of yoga and religion, worries about kids being fat brought Paulls-Neal and other teachers to the Capitol.
One study from 2011 said about 27 percent of kids in New Mexico were obese.