California Yoga Row Deepens
By Visi R. Tilak
More and more children in the U.S. are learning yoga in schools and studios, with teachers saying it can help them relax and focus while improving their flexibility and motor skills.
But yoga’s growing popularity has also stirred controversy, as some see it not just as exercise but as a form of worship that goes against their religious beliefs.
Stephen and Jennifer Sedlock, from Escondido, Calif., are among hundreds of parents who oppose a yoga teaching program in their children’s school.
Encinitas Union School District, which manages nine state-run schools, introduced yoga lessons to its 6,000 students in August after receiving a $530,000 donation from the The Jois Foundation, a yoga center based on the Ashtanga form of the practice, which is more physical than others. Yoga is not mandatory in the schools, as children can opt out of classes.
Last week, the Sedlocks filed a civil suit against the school – the district’s El Camino Creek Elementary School–requesting it to remove yoga lessons from its physical education curriculum, saying the program hurts their religious sensibilities.
“EUSD’s Ashtanga yoga program represents a serious breach of the public trust,” their lawyer, Dean Broyles, said in a statement. “This is frankly the clearest case of the state trampling on the religious freedom rights of citizens that I have personally witnessed in my 18 years of practice as a constitutional attorney,” added Mr. Broyles, whose says the lawsuit does not seek money damages.
Yoga, a spiritual, mental and physical discipline, has its origins in ancient India, and has its roots in Hindu and Buddhist traditions.
Hundreds of other parents signed a petition urging the EUSD Board of Trustees to stop the schools from teaching yoga as part of their regular curriculum, and to make it instead an afterschool activity.
The schools’ management rejects that teaching yoga is a form of spreading Hindu beliefs. “Public schools are not allowed to teach religion. That would be a violation of the Constitution. The yoga program taught in the Encinitas Union School District provides no religious instruction whatsoever. There is no discussion of spiritualism, mysticism, or religion in any context. The students simply perform the physical components of movement and breathing related to mainstream yoga,” says a note published on their Web site and addressed to parents.
David Miyashiro, a senior official at the body that manages the school, told India Real Time that the aim of teaching yoga in schools is to “foster lifelong health, social, and emotional wellness in our students.” In a bid to further dissociate yoga from its religious connotations, the schools’ program has removed any language that could be interpreted as religious.
“So for example, the sun salutation, would be called an “Opening Sequence 1 or 2” to keep it as mainstream as possible,” says Mr. Miyashiro, who is confident that the yoga program will continue. The sun salutation involves stretching and touching one’s toes, a gesture that could be seen as bowing to Hindu gods.
The schools enjoy the support of many parents who are happy about their kids learning yoga. They have signed petitions and started Facebook groups saying so.
Many who practice yoga believe that it can be kept separate from religious beliefs.
“If teachers chant invocations in Sanskrit then, yes, they are bringing in religious influence and there is no place for this in schools,” says Los Angeles-based Shana Meyerson, the founder of mini yogis, a studio that teaches yoga to children.
“But yoga in general is non-religious and does not conflict with any personal belief systems,” adds Ms. Meyerson, who says simply practicing yoga postures is nothing more than physical exercise.
Some argue practicing yoga from a young age can help children better prepare for high-stress environments.
“The modern world moves very, very fast for children and it’s not long before they feel the pressure to keep up despite our best efforts to shield them from this pressure. Kids feel it,” says says Alexandra De Collibus, who has been teaching a style of yoga aimed to children for the last decade. “Yoga functions as a type of valve to release that building pressure while at the same time nurturing and developing a strong, flexible, resilient and resourceful body, mind and spirit.”