Yoga has become ubiquitous in many public schools’ physical education programs and for good reason. It emphasizes fitness, it is something that students of varying athletic ability can do, it does not require elaborate equipment, and it helps students do what we all need to do — let go of that tenseness in our shoulders, breathe, relax.
But some parents in the Encinitas Union School District north of San Diego contend that classes in a pilot yoga program amount to religious indoctrination and are, therefore, a violation of First Amendment rights.
(Yes, before reading further, breathe.)
A small group of parents has been protesting outside of Encinitas’ Paul Ecke Central Elementary School. As the mother of a first-grader, Mary Eady, says in the New York Times,
They’re not just teaching physical poses, they’re teaching children how to think and how to make decisions. They’re teaching children how to meditate and how to look within for peace and for comfort. They’re using this as a tool for many things beyond just stretching.
Meditation, say Eady and other parents, does not belong in public schools because it is a spiritual practice; she equates yoga instruction with indoctrinating children in, as it were, Hinduism. Yoga poses represent “Hindu deities and Hindu stories about the actions and interactions of those deities with humans,” she says.
Assisting Eady and the other parents is the San Diego County-based National Center for Law & Policy, which (according to its website) is a “nonprofit legal defense organization” that “focuses on the protection and promotion of religious freedom, the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, parental rights, and other civil liberties.” Its president, Dan Broyles, cites quotes made by the nonprofit organization that is supporting the elementary school’s yoga foundation, the Jois Foundation, which was founded by an Encinitas parent in memory of the father of Ashtanga yoga, Krishna Pattabhi Jois.
According to Broyle, statements by Jois Foundation leaders about the physical act of yoga being part of a spiritual quest are proof that the yoga program is a “transparent promotion of Hindu religious beliefs and practices in the public schools.” What would be the response if “a charismatic Christian praise and worship physical education program” were used in public schools, asks Broyle. He has threatened to sue the school district and parents have started a petition to eliminate the yoga program.
A representative of the Jois Fundation, Russell Case, refutes such claims of the yoga program’s aim having any sort of religious intent.”We’re good Christians that just like to do yoga because it helps us to be better people,” he says in the New York Times.
Making Yoga a “Namaste-Free Zone”
This “when is an om just an om” controversy about the teaching of yoga in public schools has been raised before but, the New York Times notes, usually in reference to charter schools which are publicly financed but set their own curricula. Aware of such issues, some yoga teachers in New York City make their classes in schools a “namaste-free zone”; some schools with yoga programs see them as ways to introduce children to other cultures and languages.
San Diego being a multi-ethnic, multi-religious region like New York City, school administrators in the Encinitas Union school district are standing by the yoga program. Superintendent Tim Baird indeed says the yoga classes are “merely another element of a broader program designed to promote children’s physical and mental well-being” and points out that there is an opt-out clause for those parents who do not want their children to participate.
Rather than raise a tempest in a chai teapot, there is an out for parents who’d prefer their child not do yoga for fear of religious indoctrination. A recent Encinitas Union school board meeting to discuss this issue began with the Pledge of Allegiance which certainly makes mention of religion — is it not, then, another example of “religious indoctrination” that has no place in a public school?
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