SAN DIEGO (RNS) In an elementary school classroom with an American flag draped over one wall, a couple dozen students rose to standing positions. Then they shifted into poses called “volcano part one,” “silent gorilla,” and “rag doll.”

Some students may not realize it, but the semiweekly, half-hour course might be gone by the time they return in the fall.


Children practice yoga at El Camino Creek Elementary School in Carlsbad, Calif. Photo by Lilly Fowler

This image available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

In this upscale, seaside suburb just north of San Diego, parents have filed a lawsuit arguing the Encinitas Union School District should do away with the yoga elective because the discipline is inherently religious, and the teaching of it in the public schools violates the First Amendment.

The trial resumes this week in San Diego Superior Court and a decision could come as early as Wednesday (June 26).

This “represents the clearest case I have observed of the government advancing, endorsing, or promoting religion,” said Dean Broyles, president of the National Center for Law and Policy, a nonprofit based in Escondido, Calif., dedicated to defending religious freedom, traditional marriage and the sanctity of life.

“In America we do not allow the government to pick religious winners and losers, especially when you have a captive audience of very young and impressionable children as we do in our public schools,” he said.

Broyles represents the plaintiffs, Stephen and Jennifer Sedlock, whose child attends El Camino Creek Elementary School in Carlsbad, Calif., which is part of the Encinitas Union School District.

School district leaders say they have tried to accommodate the dozens of parents who are disturbed by the new schedule, ridding the yoga courses of any elements that could be construed as religious. Teachers, for example, do not instruct the children to chant or place their hands in prayer position.

Still, the court battle has divided the community. Some children have been teased for opting out of the elective and told by classmates that “they and their parents were ‘stupid’ for believing that the yoga program was religious,” according to the lawsuit.

Mary Eady has not to allowed her son, who attends one of the schools in the district, to take the elective because of her Christian beliefs.

“They are seeking to shape the way that the children view and interact with the world,” Eady said.

Parents against the program argue yoga should be an after-school option.

Timothy Baird, the district’s superintendent, said all students, whether or not they opt out of the program, receive the mandatory amount of physical education instruction.

Inside the courtroom, tensions run high. Candy Gunther Brown, a religious studies professor at Indian University Bloomington and the plaintiffs’ expert witness, argued that religion includes not only theistic beliefs, but also bodily practices.

But David A. Peck, a lawyer with Coast Law Group LLP, a firm based in Encinitas, said “the folks who are against the yoga program are conspiracy theorists.”

Peck represents families of more than 150 students who want the yoga program to stay. Together they’ve formed a nonprofit called “YES!” or Yoga for Encinitas Students.

“I think to say that if some group of people view it as religious then it’s necessarily religious to everybody is just myopic,” Peck said. “It’s shortsighted.”

Although experts point to a 1979 federal court case that grappled with the instruction of transcendental meditation in the public schools, no court has ruled on whether it is appropriate to teach yoga in public schools.

Yoga instruction, however, has been offered in schools throughout the country for years, with the help of organizations such as Yoga Ed., based in Los Angeles and dedicated to bringing the practice to youth. Since its launch in 1997, YogaEd. has certified nearly 1,000 teachers to teach yoga in public and private schools, as well as for groups like the Girl Scouts.

Trainer Brynne Caleda says the program ensures the yoga curriculum meets guidelines set by the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, a nonprofit organization that sets the standard for best practices in physical education.

The Encinitas yoga curriculum that runs in all nine of the district’s schools began with a $533,720 grant from the K.P. Jois Foundation, an organization launched in 2011 with a goal of helping children around the country attain better health through the discipline.

The foundation is named after Krishna Pattabhi Jois, a prominent instructor who popularized a form of classical Indian yoga known as Ashtanga, and who taught celebrities like Madonna and Sting. It was started by Sonia Jones, a yoga devotee, and her hedge-fund billionaire husband Paul Tudor Jones.

Paul Tudor Jones has supported the University of Virginia’s Contemplative Sciences Center, whose mission is to explore meditation and mindfulness. Together with the University of San Diego, they are conducting a study on the benefits of yoga for kids.

In Encinitas, approximately 5,000 elementary students participate in the study, periodically submitting information, such as their body weight. Schools in Queens, N.Y., and Houston are also planning to introduce yoga courses. And if the results of the study prove promising, foundation leaders hope other places will follow suit.

Christina Reich, El Camino Creek’s yoga instructor, said she personally has never viewed the practice as religious.

“What I’ve really seen teaching is it makes you sort of better and deeper into whatever it is that you love,” said Reich. “I had punk rock students in New York who were atheists who just became deeper into their punk rock music.”

Carrie Brown, principal at the school, said she is disappointed by the hostility that surrounds the lawsuit.

“I know there’s nothing subversive going on. It’s just fitness,” Brown said. “I’ll be really sad if our yoga program goes away because I think the kids like it. So I’m just kind of still waiting and holding my breath.”


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  2. [...] Is yoga instruction religious? San Diego court case may decideReligion News ServiceSAN DIEGO (RNS) In an elementary school classroom with an American flag draped over one wall, a couple dozen students rose to standing positions. Then they shifted into poses called “volcano part one,” “silent gorilla,” and “rag doll.” Some students …Trial resumes in case against yoga schoolKFMB News – KUSI News – San Diego CA – News, Weather, PPR – Principal …KUSIall 3 news articles » [...]

  3. William Doherty

    Believe it or not, the issue whether yoga instruction is religious will be resolved by an American court right here in the USA. The San Diego Supreme Court will pronounce its verdict this week.

    I think I could resolve this lawsuit by advising the Encinitas School District to change the name of their physical education course from “Yoga” to “Pilates”. But that would spoil all the fun. Everybody would be mad at me even though I saved both sides a bundle in very expensive legal fees.

  4. Alka Van Haren

    Yoga doesn’t have to be religious (it is totally up to you) I am a practicing Christian who was born in India. Body, mind and spirit is what yoga is all about. Not a bad thing at all. It helps you deal with your life in a way you never imagined. In my humble opinion, everyone should be practicing Yoga. Namaste :)

  5. I have a cranky, perverse view on this: Yoga is religion lite–it’s a secularizeable and in the US largely secularized Hindu spin-off. I’m fine with that. What bothers me is that Christianity lite isn’t equally acceptable. In fact the view seems to be that Christianity can’t be lite–that any Christian symbols or ceremonies are intrusive preaching or proselytizing.

    • David Thompson

      That’s because Christianity has too many vocal evangelical/fundamentalist, politically active, divisive and subversive actors to ever be a Christian-Lite. What other religion other than the 33,800 sects of Christianity do you know of that goes state by state, town by town, and country by country proselytizing where ever it can. It’s surely not eastern religion. Jewish don’t do it. Muslims took over by conquest, but not proselytization. Christianity is just intrusive and obnoxious. If you are not that way that’s great, but there are 100 million evangelical/fundamentalist who want creationism taught in schools, so Christians have to be fought at every chance.

      • Of course given the obnoxiousness of evangelical/fundamentalists–which I recognize–you could argue for quite a different conclusion, viz. that the best way of squelching these detestable people is precisely by promoting Christianity lite–a variety of customs and practices evangelicals would regard as trivial or idolatrous. Why can’t we make a distinction between religiosity as such–the harmless, entertaining symbols and ceremonies, and the ridiculous garbage evangelicals promote, e.g. creationism and their absurd “values,” and say: sure, when it comes to religiosity, to symbols and rituals, enjoy, but absolutely no accommodation for false empirical claims or religious “values.” Why is that so hard?

  6. Is Kung fu as practiced by monks also religious? The truth is, most exercises are done to maintain balance. It is an Asian viewpoint that to have a balance life you must have yin and yang combined. What will you do inside monasteries…just pray and sit all day and lock your legs sitting down till you cannot stand? You have to stretch like a bamboo swaying with the flow of the wind making its poles sturdier…. and also of how you see and view things altogether.-:)

  7. Yoga is a form of Eastern spirituality. However, they are NOT teaching yoga. They ARE teaching something called Hatha Yoga, a way to stretch the body and mind to prepare if for spiritual practices, whatever those may be: Christian, Moslem, Hindu, Taoist, Atheist, whatever. So what they are teaching is neither religion nor “religion lite.”

    Think of it this way: in Minnesota, it is common to have church get togethers where they serve a couple of food dishes known as lutefisk and lefse. However, it’s possible to make and eat those dishes with no reference to any religion. The same is true with the hatha yoga being taught in Encinitas.

    • Encinitas Mom

      Don … it is not Hatha Yoga, it is Ashtanga yoga. If you do some reading, you will find that this form of yoga is full of a philosophy that is not secular. The founder of Ashtanga yoga has quotes all over the internet and in books that speak to their belief that through practice, all will come. Also, the students were read to from books that described how the poses were imparted to yoga from the gods and they were made to watch videos (I believe in these videos, followers of Jois were bowing down at his feet and kissing his feet … though I am unable to verify this as I have not seen it myself… only been described what happened from a student). The kids were required to memorize sanskrit terms and understand why we are “thankful” to the sun (the sun salutations were designed to be worship of the sun). There are many actual experiences that students had over the last 2 years which violated the separation clause. Now the district wants us to believe that the grant is not being implemented as required in the Memorandum of Understanding (however, they have not amended the MOU formally). Who is to ensure that when the attention is off of the program they don’t go right back to those practices? This should be a free after or before school program in the district. I would not have a problem with the stretches apart from all of the other teachings, but they should not call it yoga. Call it CORE (for CORE strength) and work on balance, strength, flexibility.

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