the parents of encinatas vs. yoga: is yoga in schools “religious indoctrination?”

The public school system is hardly a new frontier for yoga. There are an increasing number of studies that report yoga helps children focus, relieve stress and improve academic performance, and there are increasing efforts to place yoga programs in public schools.

However, these well-intentioned efforts are experiencing a backlash. According to a group of parents in Encinatas, California, a yoga program in local elementary schools is a form of religious indoctrination. And they’re willing to take legal action to back their claim.

Encinatas is no yoga backwater. It’s the long-standing home of Parahamsa Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship, was the proposed site of John Friend’s Anusara wonderland, and is headquarters for Jois Yoga, the branded wing of Pattabhi Jois’ Ashtanga system founded by Sonia Jones.

It all started with a twice-a-week yoga program put into place by the Encinatas Union School Board and funded with a $533,000 grant from the Jois Foundation. Approximately 40 parents have sought legal counsel and are considering filing a lawsuit on the grounds that the yoga classes are “unconstitutional,” reports the North County Times.

The crux of the disagreement over the program is whether the particular type of yoga being taught and the lessons themselves are inherently religious.

District officials say that they have stripped any semblance of religion from the classes, but some parents are worried that that may not be true.

“I think that they really would like to think that, but I don’t think that, in actuality, it has been done,” said Mary Eady, who has pulled her son from the classes at Park Dale Lane. “There’s really a lot of unease among a lot of parents.”

For some of the concerned parents, the yoga poses serve as religious expression or a way to invite Hindu deities into the body.

Inviting “Hindu deities” into the bodies of children is a little extreme. But this story does bring up some bigger questions about what yoga is and where it fits in our culture. “Yoga is a worldwide exercise regime utilized by people of many different faiths,” Superintendent Tim Baird told the North County Times. “Yoga is part of our mainstream culture.”

The Ashtangis at The Confluence Countdown have been keeping a close eye on this story. They even reached out to the National Center for Law and Policy, the legal firm advising the parents of Encinitas who oppose the school program. Their key question – what are the religious aspects of the program that have the parents so up in arms – weren’t answered, but they received a press release, a copy of the grant proposal and some other generic literature.

The Confluence Countdown has also noted that the Universal Society of Hinduism has expressed support of the school district’s yoga offerings. Headed by Hindu statesman and zealous traditionalist Rajan Zed, the Confluence Countdown bloggers has rightly observed how this may just rile things up even more.

“This is the same group that tends to act in support of what I’d call a more traditional Hinduism and an accompanying yoga — in other words, a yoga that is rooted explicitly in the Hindu faith and its intellectual traditions. …sort of all the things about which the parents who have threatened a lawsuit over this program are complaining.”

If the USH can get behind the yoga in schools agenda, could it more about indoctrination than people are willing to admit? If anything, it goes to show the precarious, postmodern place that yoga in North America finds itself. A path to spiritual enlightenment or secular health-promoting practice – and can it be everything and anything?

  1. Oh, this is truly where yoga and law intersect, I guess. 😉 But seriously, I’m torn here. My first reaction was disdain at these parents, and then I realized I think they are right, constitutionally speaking. Yoga has an amazing place for children in this world. It may just not be in public schools. And for those of us who want to continue to practice yoga in our daily lives, it is important to remember that the reason it should not be in public schools is because we all have the freedom to practice what we want to practice. In my life, yoga is spirituality, and that is how Ashtangis teach it. I do not have a daily Ashtanga practice, but we cannot have it both ways. Stretching and breathing are great for kids, but call it that. If we want them to be doing yoga, offer that . . . but not in public schools. Oh, I hate when the lawyer in me gets in the way of spreading my yoga love everywhere. 😉

    • thanks for commenting, rebecca, and i really appreciate your viewpoint. it’s definitely a complex issue. while we know that yoga isn’t about worshiping hindu deities or brainwashing children, it is an inherently spiritual practice. offering it in public schools means it has to be secularlized – and when that happens, is it still yoga? or is it just stretching, breathing and relaxing? which are great and beneficial for kids, but does it have to be called yoga?

  2. Good points raised here in the comments above. No argument that the traditional context of “yoga” is “religious,” not that it is inherently aligned with Hinduism (Buddhism and Jainism, for instance are also “yogic cultures). BUT, the practices of hatha and raja yoga can easily be practiced secularly.

    I think it’s akin to the secularization of a core practice of Buddhism: satipatthana. Most Americans, if they know of this practice know of it by its secular name: “mindfulness.” AND, exercises designed to cultivate greater concentration, relaxed, calm focused attention are simply good for kids (as for all of us).

    Maybe the simplest way around this is to find a word or phrase that avoids the associations of the religious context of postural practices, and breathing and concentration exercises. Something like “Body and Mind Integration” or something equally bland? 🙂

    Here’s an essay I wrote about this perennial question about the relationship between yoga and religion:

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