In the wake of a landmark ruling where yoga taught in schools was ruled equivalent to “dodgeball” by California Judge John Meyer, news has emerged that the Encinitas school district has accepted a $1.4 million grant from the Sonima Foundation—formerly the Jois Foundation—to expand its yoga program district wide. This expansion in view of the verdict is unsurprising, and the rebranding of the former Jois Foundation—named after the late Sri Patthabi Jois of Ashtanga yoga, with overt roots in Hindu philosophy—is emblematic of the strategy employed by the school district and Foundation members to reframe traditional yoga into something secular, at least for the purposes of getting it into public schools.
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Before proceeding, please check out the caveats I share with blogger Carol Horton around this topic.
Before this trial was fully underway, Judge Meyer postulated that, as a yoga practitioner, he saw “nothing spiritual” about the practice, indicating his bias. Meyer was in good company; in the relatively progressive, well-educated, affluent, and Caucasian bastion of Encinitas—where yoga studios proliferate as readily as coffee shops—few sympathizers could understand those who would shut the party down, casting them as uptight fundamentalists with their panties in a bunch. With the first upscale Jois Yoga studio opening in Encinitas in 2010, bankrolled by Jois Foundation progenitors the Tudor-Joneses, many parents were likely thrilled to see their children receiving “free” high quality yoga.
But to me, the energy behind this felt deeply unsettling. As did the context—a wealthy suburban enclave housing the constituents most invested in yoga, yet least representative of the overall population. After reflecting on the trial’s outcome and considering the evidence, it seemed that context, wealth, branding, and PR drove the verdict, rather than justice. Just as celebrities often receive star treatment in the court systems because of their notoriety and stellar legal defense, yoga received star treatment in a cultural context that prized it, even though this was not necessarily a “fair” assessment of its constitutionality in school settings. Would the same verdict have been rendered in Texas, or South Dakota? Utah? This verdict and resulting punctuations of outcry and praise highlight the deep cultural schisms in the US.
When conservatives attempt to rebrand “intelligent design” and creationism to warrant their inclusion in public school curricula, popular outcry and much wringing of hands ensues among progressives. Yet when a cause this group identifies with—yoga—is similarly rebranded for integration into school settings, regardless of its origins and underlying implications, the outcome is lauded. In both cases, ideology trumps truth. Of course, truth claims no specific paradigm as its exclusive providence. However, yoga infers authenticity. The approach taken by the school district and Jois Foundation in rebranding, marketing, and defending the program at trial felt far removed from the authenticity of the yoga I hold dear.
Case in point: Broyles, the plaintiff attorney appealing Judge Meyer’s decision, pointed out that some children who participate in the EUSD program are, in fact, aware of its origins. Several children attended a conference about Ashtanga yoga last March at the Catamaran Resort on Mission Bay, which included a discussion about teaching Ashtanga yoga to children in and out of the school system.
Meanwhile, the objective of the $1.3 million dollar grant, in addition to expanding district-wide, is to fund a three-year study on the effects of yoga on students, with plans to generate a curriculum that will eventually be free to schools nationwide.
Do we want to spread yoga at all costs? Even if we think that it makes us better people, and makes the world a better place, is it worth trampling on the constitutional rights of those with less favored ideologies? What if our positions were reversed?