Judge declares school's yoga classes nonreligious

by Rachel Lynn Aldrich
Posted 7/02/13, 02:35 pm

A judge ruled Monday that a California public school district can teach yoga. The ruling determined that although yoga is a religious practice, the Encinitas Union School District does not teach it that way at its nine campuses.

Superior Court Judge John S. Meyer rejected the pleas of parents from the San Diego County school district. Parents complained that the classes were inherently religious and violated the constitutional principle of separating church and state. Meyer sided instead with school administrators who argued the practice, while often religious, is taught in a secular way to promote strength, flexibility and balance.

The judge said parents who objected relied on personal opinions, while some pulled information from Internet searches. “It’s almost like a trial by Wikipedia, which isn’t what this court does,” the judge said. Meyer took nearly two hours to explain a decision that explored yoga’s Indian roots and philosophy.

The district received a $533,720 three-year grant from the K.P. Jois Foundation, a nonprofit group based in Encinitas that promotes Ashtanga Yoga, to teach the classes. Schools offer twice-weekly, 30-minute classes along with more traditional physical education to the district’s 5,600 students.

According to the Jois website, Ashtanga Yoga (or eight-limbed yoga) is “an ancient system that can lead to liberation and greater awareness of our spiritual potential.” The eight limbs include physical aspects like the yoga postures and breath control, while others are more spiritual, such as “withdrawal of the senses,” meditation, and “union.” The grant requires Jois to certify teachers, according to an informational sheet released by the Center for Law and Policy, which argued for the plaintiffs.

The judge said the Jois Foundation’s involvement was troubling, but he rejected parents’ arguments that it amounted to a stealth attempt to guide students to Eastern religion. The foundation insists the classes are not religious. The judge emphasized that the school district stripped classes of all cultural references, including the Sanskrit language. The sacred lotus position was renamed the “crisscross applesauce” pose. 

About 30 families opted out of the classes, which the district introduced in 2011 at one campus and later expanded to others, Superintendent Timothy Baird said. The superintendent hailed the ruling, calling yoga “21st century P.E.” that yielded “amazing” health benefits.

Dean Broyles, an attorney for Encinitas parents Stephen and Jennifer Sedlock, said he would likely appeal: “It was the judge’s job to call balls and strikes and determine the facts. … I think he got some of the facts wrong.”

The plaintiffs relied heavily on testimony from Candy Gunther Brown, an Indiana University religious studies professor who found the district’s program is pervasively religious, having its roots in Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist and metaphysical beliefs and practices.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Rachel Lynn Aldrich

Rachel is an assistant editor for WORLD Digital. Follow Rachel on Twitter @Rachel_Lynn_A.

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