Is yoga religious? Understanding the Encitas Public School Yoga Trial

Practicing yoga is more popular than ever, with plenty of studios to be found across the US. As yoga has now begun to enter school curriculum, some parents and their children are unhappy, feeling that programs such as these are religious. The topic was recently up for debate in Encinitas, CA, where Candy Gunther Brown, author of The Healing Gods: Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Christian America, served as an expert witness in the case. Brown explains the case, the ruling, and its implications.

Are you familiar with a recent court case in Encinitas, California over yoga in public schools?

Yes, I served as an expert witness in this case. The plaintiffs asked me to testify because I am a religious studies scholar who studies yoga’s cultural mainstreaming in America. I accepted the request because part of my job as a university professor is to educate the public about “religion.”

What events led up to the Encinitas Public School Yoga Trial?

The Encinitas Union School District (EUSD) accepted a $533,720 grant from the Jois Foundation to establish (to quote the signed grant) an “Ashtanga Yoga” program staffed by Jois “trained” and “certified” instructors who “partner”ed in developing a “comprehensive” yoga curriculum for Jois to export to “other school systems.” The program appeared religious to children and parents who discussed their concerns with school officials and collected 250 signatures on a petition.

An instructor performing Overcomer pose.

WholyFit Certified Instructor performing “Overcomer” pose in a church building with a Christian cross in the background, 2011. Image courtesy of Erin Garvey.

What is Ashtanga yoga?

Ashtanga, or eight-limbed, yoga was developed by Krishna Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009) from the Yoga Sutras, a sacred text for Hindus. The eight limbs are (1) yama: moral restraint, (2) niyama: ethical observance; (3) asana: posture; (4) pranayama: focused breathing; (5) pratyahara: calm mind; (6) dharana: attention; (7) dhayana: meditation; (8) samadhi: union with God (Brahman).

Ashtanga emphasizes postures and breathing on the premise that these practices will “automatically” lead practitioners to experience the other limbs and “become one with God,” in the words of Jois, “whether they want it or not.”

Ashtanga begins with Surya Namaskara (Sun Salutations, or Opening Sequence) to “pray to the sun god,” Surya, chief Hindu solar deity, coordinates breath with movement (to “let the prana [vital breath, or spiritual energy] flow”), and ends with lotus poses, which symbolize spiritual purity and move prana to facilitate meditation.

What is the Jois Foundation?

The Jois Foundation was founded “in loving dedication” to K. P. Jois, with funding from billionaire Paul Tudor Jones whose wife Sonia is an Ashtanga devotee, to spread Ashtanga, especially to kids. Following the trial, the foundation was renamed Sonima, after Sonia.

What was the judge’s ruling?

Superior Court Judge John Meyer had to decide whether the EUSD yoga program violates the religious establishment clause of the Constitution’s First Amendment by advancing or inhibiting religion or entangling government with religion.

Meyer determined that “yoga,” including “Ashtanga” yoga, “is religious.” Nevertheless, he allowed EUSD’s yoga program to continue, since he did not think children would perceive the program as advancing or inhibiting religion. The judge found the Jois Foundation partnership “troublesome,” but did not rule that it excessively entangled government with religion.

Were you surprised by the decision?

I found the decision inconsistent in its internal logic, as well as with legal precedents and facts in evidence. Courts have found that practices such as prayer and Bible reading cannot be taught in public schools because they are religious. If yoga is religious, it should not be taught in schools. Courts ask whether a reasonable, informed observer would consider practices religious. Children may not have enough information to determine whether less familiar practices are religious.

What would an informed observer perceive as religious about the EUSD yoga program?

EUSD teachers displayed posters of an eight-limbed Ashtanga tree and asana sequences taught by the “K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute”; used a textbook, Myths of the Asanas, that explains how poses represent gods and inspire virtue; taught terminology in Sanskrit (a language sacred for Hindus); taught moral character using yamas and niyamas from the Yoga Sutras; used guided meditation and visualization scripts and taught kids to color mandalas (used in visual meditation on deities).

Although EUSD officials reacted to parent complaints by modifying some practices, EUSD classes still always begin with “Opening Sequence” (Surya Namaskara) and end with “lotuses” and “resting” (aka shavasana or “corpse”—which encourages reflection on one’s death to inspire virtuous living), and teach symbolic gestures such as “praying hands” (anjalimudra) and “wisdom gesture” (jnanamudra), which in Ashtanga yoga symbolize union with the divine and instill religious feelings.

Have any EUSD kids associated the school yoga program with religion?

Yes. Some refused to participate in activities that felt like prayer to them. Many kids in EUSD classes still chant Om, assume jnanamudra, close their eyes to meditate while sitting in lotus, and use Sanskrit, such as Namaste (“I bow to the god within you”) and shavasana for “resting” pose.

How do you explain the judge’s decision?

Judge Meyer discounted everything that happened in EUSD classrooms between August 2011 and December 2012 that “could be arguably deemed religious.” He also overlooked ongoing practices such as Surya Namaskara, shavasana, anjalimudra, chanting Om, meditation, kids’ use of Sanskrit, and EUSD use of the Sanskrit term yoga, which in Ashtanga means yoking with the divine. He refused to admit into evidence a newly discovered document revealing that in March 2013 EUSD-employed “Jois Foundation teachers” took EUSD students on a field trip to demonstrate “teaching Ashtanga yoga to children both in and out of the school system” at an overtly religious Ashtanga conference (opened by a Ganesh Puja).

Meyer got basic facts wrong. He concluded that EUSD removed the appearance of religion by renaming poses, giving the example that “the so-called lotus position was renamed criss-cross applesauce.” The term “criss-cross applesauce” does not appear even once in the spring 2013 yoga curriculum; the term “lotus” appears 194 times. The 2013 EUSD promotional video records a teacher instructing: “go into lotus.” Meyer believed testimony that jnanamudra was replaced by “brain highways,” a claim contradicted by defendant declarations and the video. Indeed, Meyer ignored multiple instances where defense witnesses contradicted themselves, each other, and documents they signed.

What are the implications of this ruling?

The ruling sets a precedent for public schools to offer religious yoga programs. Indeed, just last week, EUSD accepted a new $1.4 million grant from the Jois/Sonima Foundation to expand its yoga program. Scientific research shows that practicing yoga can lead to religious transformations. For example, Kristin is a Catholic who started Ashtanga for the stretching; she now prefers Ashtanga’s “eight limbs” to the “Ten Commandments.” Kids who learn yoga in public schools may also be learning religion.

Candy Gunther Brown is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University. She is the author of The Healing Gods: Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Christian America, Testing Prayer: Science and Healing, and The Word in the World, and she is the editor of Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Healing. Her work has been published in The Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and The Daily.

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