Paul Ecke Central Elementary School in Encinitas, California has started teaching yoga classes to its elementary school students. The classes are to be held twice weekly for thirty minutes a session.
Some parents are raising religious objections to these classes, fearing that the program will promote Hindu religious beliefs. They are claiming it violates their First Amendment rights. One parent said that the school is using yoga as “a tool for many things beyond just stretching.” While many parents have said that their children enjoy the classes, about 200 people have signed a petition saying they are against the program.
The program is supported with funds from the nonprofit Jois Foundation, founded in memory of the father of Ashtanga yoga. Some foundation leaders have equated the physical act of yoga to part of a broader spiritual question, which Dean Broyles, attorney for the Plaintiffs, views as problematic. He explained that, “There is a transparent promotion of Hindu religious beliefs and practices in the public schools” through the program. He asked, “How is a sun salutation or a lotus position not a worshipful pose?” Broyles has explained that the opponents to the Ashtanga yoga classes are not against yoga; they are against the fact that the Jois Foundation has specifically described Ashtanga Yoga as spiritual.
There is a bit of a disagreement as to whether or not the district officials have removed the mystical, spiritual, or religious nature of the yoga. Some say it was removed to make it appropriate for an elementary school class and some say it was not removed because it was not present to begin with. Either way, it is apparently the district, and not the Jois Foundation, that is selecting the teachers and writing the curriculum.
Apparently, the classes are not mandatory for students. The school superintendent, Tim Baird, clarified by saying, “If your faith is such that you believe that simply by doing the gorilla pose you’re invoking the Hindu gods, then by all means your child can be doing something else.” One parent, James Lawrence, has removed his children from the program. He would prefer that his children receive another form of physical exercise instead, but the school has no second option. Instead, his children, along with all of the other children choosing not to participate, do homework or read during the sessions. Further, the plaintiffs allege that children who have opted out of the program have been harassed and bullied.
Enyedi, the yoga instructor, seemed to defend yoga from an exercise/athletic perspective. She said, “The Ashtanga yoga sequence helps me as an athlete. I’m not a Hindu.” One teacher at the school explained that yoga is helping the students; it has helped create a level of focus in the students after they have completed the stretching exercises. The district has said: “We’re not teaching religion. We teach a very mainstream physical fitness program that happens to incorporate yoga into it. It’s part of our overall wellness program.”