SAN LEANDRO, Calif. — The high-profile yoga lawsuit that posed the question, “Is yoga religious?” came to a close recently with a three-judge panel deciding that, in the case of California’s Encinitas Union School District, it is not.
The 4th District Court of Appeal upheld the July 1, 2013 decision of the San Diego Superior Court, stating that EUSD’s yoga program “is secular in purpose, does not have the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion, and does not excessively entangle the school district in religion.”
But several parents of EUSD students are not ready to give up the fight against the district’s yoga program just yet.
Launched in May, the Web site “Truth About Yoga” is “seeking to educate people about yoga being mandatory in the schools," Jennifer Sedlock, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the program, told India-West.
“The Web site is really the resource — if you will — to help people in the community start to understand what’s happening, because the media has pictured it so one-sided,” Sedlock said.
“Truth About Yoga” provides a chronology of the three-year yoga trial from the perspective of the 200 parents, links to published news articles and court documents, and some background information on Ashtanga yoga and the Jois Foundation, now known as the Sonima Foundation, which funded the program.
Some of the problems the parents cited with the yoga program were kids putting their hands together in a praying position, saying “Namaste,” chanting “Om” and performing the surya namaskara, or the sun salutation.
The district took down posters about India, renamed the “lotus” position the “criss-cross-applesauce” position, and have been continually revising the program’s curriculum since.
“People say we took religion out of it,” EUSD Superintendent Timothy Baird told India-West. “I don’t think we took religion out of it; I think we took out the cultural context.”
The lead attorney for the parents against the program, Dean Broyles, said it was disrespectful to Hinduism to rebrand yoga as an exercise when it had a spiritual purpose.
“To take a religious practice and belief system and slap an American label on it is profoundly inappropriate and disrespectful to Hindus,” he told India-West.
Broyles pointed to the Hindu American Foundation’s “Take Back Yoga” campaign and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s push to reclaim yoga’s roots, as an illustration of its ties to Hinduism.
The Hindu American Foundation’s Web site states: “As the multi-billion dollar yoga industry continues to grow with studios becoming as prevalent as Starbucks and $120 yoga pants, the mass commercialization of this ancient practice, rooted in Hindu thought, has become concerning. … ‘Take Back Yoga’ aims to bring to light yoga as a life-long practice dedicated to achieving moksha, or liberation/union with God.”
Broyles and Sedlock said they weren’t against the practice of yoga, but said it was inherently religious and, thus, should not be promoted by the school.
Both added that they would be supportive of a voluntary, afterschool yoga club in the same way they support afterschool Bible study.
“Using school resources to teach kids religious beliefs, practices or rituals is forbidden under the First Amendment, but allowing children to organize voluntary afterschool clubs is fine, because the school is not initiating it,” Broyles said.
Sedlock added that “there are so many concerns that have nothing to do with religion,” such as where the grant money was coming from.
The Sonima Foundation, which declined requests for an interview, provided the $533,000 grant to the district to start the program and to measure its results as part of a joint study with the University of California, San Diego, and the University of Virginia.
But the lead attorney for the school and an EUSD parent, David Peck, said religion was the main focus of the trial, and the evidence in support of their case, such as drawings of mandalas from art classes, was weak.
“I have yet to hear of anybody who’s converted to Hinduism or any other Eastern religion — student or adult — who has been taking yoga for exercise purposes,” Peck told India-West.
He added that a majority of the parents in the district supported the program.
Baird explained that the schools are not doing Ashtanga yoga, which he described as a very rigid and traditional form of yoga.
“We had very early on made a conscious effort to make sure we were focused on the elements of yoga related to health and wellness,” Baird said.
Because so much of it was altered to focus specifically on the aspects of the practice related to fitness, Baird said there was no way it could be called Ashtanga yoga; it was specifically EUSD yoga, or “21st century P.E. (physical education).”
A pilot version of the program began in the 2011 to 2012 school year as an extra class at one school in the district, Capri Elementary School, eventually expanding to the rest of the schools in the district based on the positive anecdotal evidence.
“Kids were able to use some of those yoga strategies in classrooms to calm themselves down, to de-escalate situations that might have otherwise led to a fight or an incident on the playground,” Baird said. “Kids were able to focus better in classes.”
Four years into the study, Baird said the suspension rate has gone down by 58 percent, student attendance is up, and teachers are reporting students have better focus in class.
“One of the things we do as parents is tell our kids to focus,” Peck told India-West, “but we don’t really give them the tools to do that. Yoga is one of those things that’s been proven time and time again to help with focus and concentration.”
On the other hand, Broyles said the research that has been done on Christian prayer has shown similar benefits to yoga, but that does not mean it should be promoted by the school.
Baird said he agrees yoga can be a religious activity, but, just like most other activities, its meaning is heavily dependent on context.
“There’s a lot of things you could use in religious practice or things that originated in religious practice that are not religious,” he added. “It’s all about the context about how the program is taught and delivered to students.”
In a related development in Los Angeles, the more secular forms of yoga are being indirectly challenged through a ban on unpermitted vending in city parks for playing their morning music too loudly.
L.A. Beach Fitness and Yoga With Helen, neither of which responded to requests for an interview, hold classes at Silver Lake Meadow Park that local residents complained were making city parks unusable.
Rajan Zed of Nevada, president of Universal Society of Hinduism, urged the Los Angeles City Council to reconsider and exclude yoga from the vending ban in city parks and beaches, which appeared to be criminalizing yoga, according to a press release.
Zed’s statement added “that yoga, referred as ‘a living fossil,’ was the repository of something basic in the human soul and psyche; and regulating it was kind of a religious infringement.”