Trial Kicks Off Over Yoga In Public Schools

practicing yoga in school
Photo Credit: yogaonyork

Does yoga in schools violate religious freedom? This debate has landed in a San Diego, CA superior court, where plaintiffs allege a yoga program funded by a $533,720 grant from the Jois Foundation violates the separation between church and state. Plaintiff expert witness Candy Gunther Brown, a religious studies professor at Harvard, submitted a 36-page brief alleging that yoga comprises religious indoctrination, testifying that all forms of yoga share the religious goal of human salvation. With presiding Judge John Meyer, a confirmed yoga practitioner who has revealed he doesn’t see anything religious about yoga, the trial is shaping up to be an interesting one.

The suit has been filed on behalf of parents and guardians of students in the Encinitas school district by the non-profit, conservative think-tank National Center for Law and Policy, represented by Dean Broyles. As blogged previously by Yoga Basics, those dissatisfied with the Encinitas program take issue with the curriculum’s foundation and funding origins in Ashtanga yoga. Plaintiffs allege that even secular yoga, scrubbed of religious overtones, is inextricably linked to Hindu religion. Defending the program is the Encinitas school district, as well as a group of parents in support of the yoga program, Yes! Yoga for Encinitas.

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In support of the curriculum’s intrinsic religiousness, Broyles cites language that refers to helping students connect with their “inner selves,” and bringing the “inner spirit of each child to the surface.” Quotes from Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, Ashtanga yoga’s progenitor, have been presented to further support that yoga postures may unintentionally lead to “absorption into the Universal/union with the divine.” Brown testified that the school’s curriculum includes the same opening and closing poses as Ashtanga. Further, the curriculum’s inclusion of ethical precepts that resemble the yamas and niyamas, in addition to breathing and concentration exercises, closely resemble classical yoga’s eight-limbed path.

School district officials vehemently oppose this take on their curriculum, asserting that any religious references have been eliminated. A 12-page trial brief filed on behalf of the district contends the “exercise program” was created entirely to enhance mental and physical fitness, with no religious instruction. An additional six-page brief filed on behalf of Yes! asserts that because modern forms of yoga include “paddleboard yoga,” “hip-hop yoga,” and “yoga booty ballet,” it represents more cultural phenomenon than religion.

The trial, scheduled to resume June 24, is being observed closely from all sides, as the outcome will have far-reaching implications for the teaching of allegedly secular yoga and mindfulness-based practices in school settings. In this recognizance, Yoga Alliance (YA) has come out in support of the defense: “We believe that yoga can be taught in a completely secular manner … [and] agree [with the defense] that EUSD students ‘should not be deprived of their world class yoga program merely because of plaintiffs’ personal bias.’”

To refute the claim that yoga is inherently religious, YA has arranged expert testimony from religious and philosophical scholars Chris Chapple, PhD and Mark Singleton, PhD as well as YA board chairman Brandon Hartsell. Singleton remarked, “In my opinion, to claim that the practice of yoga techniques in secular, ecumenical, or religiously plural settings in the United States today is inherently religious is akin to claiming that college basketball is inherently religious because of its missionary Christian origins.”

Are there yoga programs being implemented in school systems near you? What kinds of reactions have their been?

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