Encinitas Ruling: Yoga Is Exercise, Not Dogma

Yoga, as taught in the Encinitas school system, is a simple exercise program rooted in American culture, not Indian culture, a judge of the San Diego Superior Court ruled on Monday.

Yoga, as taught in the Encinitas school system, is a simple exercise program, a judge of the San Diego Superior Court ruled on Monday.

The parents of two children in the school system had filed the suit, claiming that teaching yoga in the Encinitas schools constitutes religious indoctrination and violates the separation of church and state. With the ruling, the Encinitas Union School District can continue teaching yoga as part of its health and exercise curriculum. Students attend two 30-minute yoga classes each week.

San Diego Superior Court Judge John S. Meyer emphasized in his ruling that yoga’s origin in Indian culture doesn’t mean that its use in the U.S. is religious in nature.

“Yoga as it has developed in the last 20 years is rooted in American culture, not Indian culture,” Meyer said, according to Reuters. “It is a distinctly American cultural phenomenon. A reasonable student would not objectively perceive that Encinitas school district yoga advances or promotes religion.”

Meyer noted that the school district had removed cultural references from the curriculum, including Sanskrit terms. Yoga postures have been given more kid-friendly names: Lotus pose, for example, is referred to as the “crisscross applesauce” pose.

Meyer noted that the opponents of the yoga class were not describing yoga as the phenomenon taught in the school classes, but rather relying on information from the Internet and other unreliable sources.

“It’s almost like a trial by Wikipedia, which isn’t what this court does,” Meyer said.

The ruling is particularly important by setting a precedence that even though a cultural phenomenon has its root in metaphysical beliefs and practices from another culture, those beliefs don’t necessarily automatically carry over into its U.S. expressions. Yoga in the U.S. today has become a uniquely American phenomenon, which stands on its own merits.

Encinitas Supt. Tim Baird emphasized that the program is about teaching healthy exercise and eating habits; the school also hopes to decrease instances of fighting and bullying. Supporters also noted that yoga is used at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego to help military personnel wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We are not instructing anyone in religious dogma,” Baird said to the LA Times. “Yoga is very mainstream.”

The yoga program is funded by a $533,000 grant from a local Asthanga Yoga studio. The studio is linked to the Jois Foundation and supported by hedge-fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones II and his wife, Sonia, who studied with yoga teacher Krishna Pattabhi Jois.

The ruling is not likely to be the end of the story. The lead attorney for the parents, Dean Broyles, said he will likely appeal.

Yoga is increasingly taught at public schools and social programs to ease the stress that even kindergartners are exposed to in today’s hectic world. Most yoga classes so far are part of an after-school program or are offered at only a few schools or teachers.

The Encinitas case is significant, because the Encinitas Union School District was the first to adopt yoga classes as part of their district wide PE curriculum. The Jois Foundation believes the program could eventually serve as a national model to help schools teach students life skills, the AP reports.

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