Parents of school children in Encinitas, Calif., have expressed opposition to yoga classes taught at local elementary schools on the grounds that they promote the Hindu religion.
The two-year-old grant-funded program, initially offered to students at Paul Ecke Central Elementary School, has now been expanded to nine schools in the Encinitas Union School District.
According to media reports, about 60 parents expressed their concerns about the yoga classes at a recent school board meeting.
Encinitas Union School District Superintendent Tim Baird told India-West that there has been no serious move at the school board level to terminate the yoga program. The district hopes to continue the program for as long as possible, he added.
For the 2012-13 school year, EUSD received a $533,720 grant from the KP Jois Foundation to fund yoga programs for K-6 elementary school students.
The foundation encourages the technique of K. Pattabhi Jois, a Mysore native who established Ashtanga yoga – the discipline that raised the ire of the parents.
“We have 30-40 families…a small group that (has) expressed concern,” Baird said.
EUSD’s yoga instructors start from “a base of what’s called Ashtanga yoga,” the school superintendent explained, but instructors are not limited to Ashtanga yoga for instruction.
Baird said EUSD is also partnering with the University of San Diego and the University of Virginia for the two institutions to do research on the benefits of the yoga program.
Several Indian American yoga instructors defended the program to India-West, saying it provides health benefits and instills confidence in youth.
Ashwini Surpur, director of yoga therapy at Yoga Bharati, stressed that yoga does not expressly support any religion, but is a method to alleviate stress and improve wellness through exercise.
“As far as I am concerned, there is nothing religious about yoga. Yoga cannot be religious. Because if it’s religious, it is not yoga, it’s a spiritual practice,” Surpur said.
“Spirituality is often confused with religion in many cultures,” she added.
Surpur said yoga focuses on preventative health when it is started early. “When you are talking about prevention, you don’t wait until you are 30 or 40. Yoga is rightly given to children because they are the ones that need to learn how to live and how to live peacefully in a competitive environment,” she said.
Zabie Khorakiwala, a 200-hour Yoga Alliance certified instructor and violence prevention coordinator at the University of California, Irvine, also emphasized to India-West that yoga is not a religious practice, but provides children with life skills.
“Yoga is fostering their mental, emotional, and physical health, which are all aspects of the self that need to be addressed at an early age. One of the most beautiful aspects of the yoga practice is that it is bringing children together and cultivating a positive environment instead of one that is filled with bullying, cliques or divisiveness.”
“Yoga is not a religious practice. In the simplest of terms, yoga gives us the opportunity to come to the mat and take the peaceful energy we cultivate out into the world,” Khorakiwala said.
“Unfortunately, the conservative view is very one-sided and also misses the point,” Surpur added. “No teacher is trying to say that you should not follow your religion. If a Christian practices yoga, he becomes a better Christian. If a Muslim practices yoga, he/she becomes a better Muslim,” Surpur said. “The idea is not creating issues with your beliefs, but reinforcing your beliefs.”
After a group of parents registered their objections to the Ashtanga yoga classes at a school board meeting, thousands signed petitions supporting the EUSD yoga program.
Critics of the district’s program contend that yoga and Hinduism are intertwined. Dean Broyles, president and chief counsel of the National Center for Law and Policy, told The New York Times, “There is a transparent promotion of Hindu religious beliefs and practices in the public schools through this Ashtanga yoga program.”
Bidyut Bose, executive director of the Niroga Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Oakland, Calif., that promotes health and wellness for families and communities, disagrees. While the Indian American acknowledged that yoga originated in India, Bose told India-West that it is not bound to any country or religion.
He explained that yoga has deeply transformed at risk-youth in alternative schools and juvenile halls in the San Francisco Bay area. “Children can benefit greatly from yoga. Mindful yoga is especially relevant nowadays, given the challenges with childhood obesity and multi-tasking with a myriad electronic toys leading to endless distractions, and social media attempting to compensate for pervasive social disconnection.”
Niroga Institute programs are currently offered to youths at school districts in the Bay area and to young adults at Alameda County Juvenile Hall and Santa Rita Jail.
Bose cited research showing that yoga decreases stress significantly and increased self-control and emotional awareness in youths.
Social scientists and psychologists have documented how self-control through yoga increases academic potential and fights against substance abuse, binge eating and various other hurtful practices, he added.
“Yoga involves secular practices that involve an anchoring in mindfulness, connecting with breath, and emerging in movement. Leading neuroscientists consider mindfulness practices as essential mental training to prepare our children for the challenges of the 21st century,” Bose said.