Judge John S. Meyer’s ruling allowing California’s Encinitas Union School District to continue its yoga instruction program elicited a long, luscious sigh of relief. What a shame it would have been to see children denied the physical and mental benefits of a yoga practice (many documented by scientific research) because of a few parents’ fears.
A lawsuit filed by the National Center for Law and Policy on behalf of Stephen and Jennifer Sedlock, whose children attend one of EUSD's nine schools, contended that yoga is a religious practice that violates the separation of church and state. The Center is a Christianity-based nonprofit organization that focuses on protecting and promoting religious freedom, the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, and parental rights.
The district's yoga program is funded by the Jois Foundation,
which promotes a fast-paced, demanding form of physical yoga called ashtanga. Judge Meyer said
that even though yoga is an ancient practice with roots in Hinduism, there's "nothing religious" about EUSD’s
curriculum, which emphasizes respect, proper breathing and posture.
Exposing children (or anyone) to the physical practice of yoga is not the same as indoctrination, any more than a module about Karl Marx in a World History class is intended to create communists. Ultimately, the meaning of any practice is rooted in intention. A "Sun Salutation" is nothing more than a series of body moves and stretches unless the person doing it chooses to see the sun as a deity and the movements a form of worship. Like beauty, worship is in the
eye of the beholder, which is why the Bible, Koran and other ancient texts are viewed as literature or philosophy by some, as sacred ancient
text by others, and by still others as the literal word of God.
Given Judge Meyer’s ruling, parents who hoped to stop the district’s yoga instruction are understandably disappointed. Religion engenders passion, and beliefs are deeply held.
Parents could, if they chose, use their disappointment as a springboard to rich conversations with their children
about what yoga means to them and their families. It could become a means of
reinforcing values that call for worshiping only God as defined by their
religion — without depriving anyone else of the myriad benefits that yoga
As we wrote in Yoga Wisdom at Work, we know plenty of dedicated yoga practitioners who are connected to in varying ways. Their views on yoga practice are dependent on their intentions. Some view it as little more than physical exercise, and others as a non-religious spiritual practice. We also know many people who see yoga as a practice that enhances an complements deeply held religious values. In his book The Promise of Love, Sex and Intimacy: How a Simple Breathing Practice will Enrich Your Life Forever, master yogi Mark Whitwell emphasizes the need for people to understand that yoga is not religion, and that yoga practice is a valuable tool to help "fuel the passion" for one's religious beliefs.
In our experience, yoga is a neutral practice that can be shaped — or twisted — by those doing the practicing. Many yoga scholars have emphasized this egalitarian aspect of yoga, including Sri K. P. Pattabhi Jois, for whom the Jois Foundation is named. "Yoga is a way of life and philosophy. It can be practiced by anyone with an inclination to undertake it, for yoga belongs to humanity as a whole. It is not the property of any one group or any one individual, but can be followed by any and all, in any corner of the globe, regardless of class, creed, or religion."
If by definition the practice is open to anyone, regardless of religious beliefs, it is an odd way to brand a "religion" and a ridiculously ineffective way to disseminate dogma. We agree that public schools should not be in the business of promoting religion, which is why we are perfectly comfortable with yoga as part of any school's wellness program.