by Victoria Moran, CLC, CHC/AADP, RTY-200
Politics can be tough business, any time, anywhere. And in the heart of the American South at this divisive time in history, public service is definitely not for the faint of heart. Maybe this is why a new star on the U.S. political horizon is getting noticed. Jeremy Gray, state representative from Alabama’s 83rd District, home of Auburn University is young (thirty-five). Black. Vegan. And he just nurtured through legislation allowing for schoolchildren in his state to be taught yoga.
Back in 1993, a law passed there banning yoga in public schools (the equivalent of state schools in the UK). It was believed that yoga involved a kind of self-hypnosis and would turn children away from Christianity. Gray was unaware of this ruling when he discovered yoga as a college athlete and saw the powerful difference it could make for sports longevity. “Once I started to teach yoga at our local recreational center, I was able to embody the practice in a different way, understanding the importance of breathing, of being able to control your temperament, being one with yourself.”
When he realized that there was a yoga ban in his state, he set out on the long process of getting that ruling overturned. A lifelong Baptist, he says, “I know that church people can do yoga because I’m a church person who does yoga. When we talk about the origin of anything — Easter or the Christmas tree, for example — those origins are almost always from a different place, time, and culture. As Americans, we adopt things and adapt them and make them our own.” In other words: kids can benefit from yoga and not change their religion.
Gray first introduced his bill in 2019. He consulted with various mentors in the Statehouse about what tweaks and compromises would give it the best chance of passing. He was advised to take out Sanskrit words and anything with “religious undertones” and focus on heath promotion. His bill still didn’t make it to the House floor.
“That kind of lit a fire in me that I was going to educate everyone in Alabama about yoga. I spent the whole summer getting allies. I had people calling their legislators, telling them all the benefits.” While these telephone efforts were underway, Gray was also paying attention to something else going on in his state: an appreciation of mental health issues which had not been adequately addressed or supported before.” When $26 million of the state budget was earmarked for mental health, Gray realized that yoga could be seen as an evidence-based, cost-effective addition to this effort, and he shifted his emphasis in this direction.
Passage of a bill is always a tedious process and COVID slowed things even more, but this one passed the House in April and went to the Senate where Gray, a Democrat, teamed with a Republican co-sponsor, Senator Tom Whatley. A surprise ally surfaced: Whatley’s father, former Representative Charles Whatley, who practices yoga and champions its virtues.
The bill passed the Senate, and Alabama governor Kay Ivey signed it into law on May 21, calling it “a step forward for Alabama.” It’s also, in Representative Gray’s point of view, a step forward for consensus building and the endangered art of getting along. “We [liberals] don’t have much of a voice when comes to what goes on the calendar and all those things, but we do have strategies. We can get amendments added to bills we don’t like, and we can connect informally with people on the other side about things we do have in common, like family and sports.”
Jeremy Gray has not found his different-drummer diet to be an obstacle in relating to his fellow legislators. He traces his vegan journey back to his Christian practice of fasting. “I used to fast from something every year and one thing I would do is whatever I was fasting from, I wouldn’t add back into my diet. It was maybe a ten-year journey of taking away pork and chicken and beef. Then I went to seafood but I kept learning about mercury contamination and other problems with that. And then I got to basically dairy that is, as you know, just as bad for you as fatty meats. I finally landed on something called ‘vegan.'”
He experienced an upswing in his energy levels and mental capacity, and a greater ability to deal with stress. He in turn opted to invest these boons in his hometown of Opelika and beyond. “Everything I do is to help people, whether it’s with health and wellness, or in the community center (images shown) where I’m trying to make kids productive, the community productive.”
Follow Rep. Gray on Instagram @RepJeremyGray.
Victoria Moran started her career in journalism and has written 13 books. She has practiced yoga for over 50 years and when she read about Rep. Gray’s work in Alabama, she was immediately in touch. Follow her vegan/yogic/ayurvedic journey on Instagram @VictoriaMoranAuthor, and check out her suggestions for the best recent books on yoga and ayurveda on the book and authors’ site, Shepherd.com.