Encinitas has a reputation for being a mellow beach town, but the recent kerfuffle surrounding “signgate," the sale of the Pacific View property and even the general plan update might be enough to make one second guess that. Add to the list of controversy the recent threat of a lawsuit by the Escondido-based, National Center for Law and Policy (NCLP), against the Encinitas Unified School District (EUSD) for its Ashtanga yoga program, funded by the Jois Foundation, and currently being taught in the district’s nine schools.
In a news release the NCLP alleges that “the stated goal of the Jois Foundation is to promote the ‘gospel’ of Ashtanga,” which makes it unconstitutional to teach in a public school.
EUSD Superintendent Dr. Timothy Baird said the yoga program is far from unconstitutional.
“To be unconstitutional, we would have to be promoting religion and religious instruction in our program. That just isn't happening,” Baird stated in an email to Encinitas Patch. “What we are promoting is physical activity and overall wellness. The District has selected the instructors, we are designing the curriculum, and we are training the teachers. There is no religion in this curriculum.”
The NCLP’s president and chief council, Dean Broyles, did not return calls but did email Encinitas Patch a news release, which suggests that there are approximately 60 concerned parents who think that Ashtanga Yoga is quasi-religious or downright promotes Hindu concepts, such as multiple gods, in a public school.
Ashtanga yoga’s background
According to the news release, the founder of Ashtanga Yoga, Sri Patthabi Jois [who passed away in 2009 at age 94], also known as Guru-ji, has been quoted on numerous occasions saying: “‘It is very important to understand yoga philosophy; without philosophy, yoga practice is not good, and yoga practice is the starting place for yoga philosophy.”
But Baird says that EUSD has made sure to remove cultural contexts from the yoga classes.
“In an effort to make the program more ‘kid friendly,’ and to try and avoid creating controversy with some of our parents, we have removed the Sanskrit terms for some of the poses,” stated Baird, who added that Sanskrit is merely a language and not religious.
Some of the parents have objected to the use of Sanskrit in classes, according to Baird, but he stated “that would be comparable to saying that teaching Latin is promoting Catholicism or using Hebrew is teaching Judaism.”
Balancing a fine line between Ashtanga’s roots and parent’s concerns
In an effort to further placate concerned parents, Baird stated, “We have also removed pictures or artifacts from classrooms that might represent yoga's Indian roots.”
Despite these efforts to allay fears that Ashtanga is promoting Hindu concepts, Baird thinks that these moves don’t equate the school district removing religious concepts from the program.
“I don't really believe that we have taken religion out of the program because the only way to put religion into the program is to teach a religious philosophy and then incorporate the yoga into that philosophy. We are not doing this,” Baird stated.
Ashtanga replacing other PE classes
The NCLP’s press release, in the subtitle, claims: “Encinitas adopts religious Ashtanga yoga program to replace physical education.” The NCLP, a non-profit 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,’ according to its website, concludes in its news release:
“EUSD has not provided any physical education alternative for these students. This means that students who opt out are not currently meeting the minimum weekly PE participation mandated by California state law.”
EUSD’s Baird suggested that this allegation is simply not true. “Yoga is being offered as a part of every student's regular in-school PE program. In addition to yoga, though, students will still be required to participate in other PE activities during the week.”
Quantifying the benefits of yoga—without parents’ consent?
The NCLP and group of concerned parents, some of whom have removed their kids from the Ashtanga program, have a couple of concerns about the program—besides their belief that Ashtanga has overt religious themes.
According to the NCLP press release, the EUSD Ashtanga program is being studied jointly by the University of San Diego and the University of Virginia (UVA), “with the goal of confirming the benefits of Ashtanga yoga, a system of deeply religious Hindu beliefs and practices.”
That study is being led by John Campbell, the head of the newly formed Contemplative Sciences Center at UVA (CSC). Campbell studied under Patthabi Jois and is an Ashtanga practitioner. He also has a PhD in religious studies with a particular focus on Tibetan and Indian Buddhism and Tantric philosophy.
The news release goes on to claim that “the CSC has expressed a desire to re-merge the practice of yoga and meditation with its spiritual roots. It is the UVA CSC which is ‘studying’ the EUSD students and the results of regularly practiced Ashtanga yoga on children.”
The release also claims that “personal data is being collected regarding EUSD students participating in Ashtanga yoga in the form of measurements and questionnaires. Many parents were not initially aware of the study and did not provide informed consent for their children to participate as test subjects.”
Dr. Baird counters that argument in his email to Patch:
“Our [EUSD] staff did the height, weight, and pulse, not the USD [or UVA] students. This is data that we already have. [We supplied] a biometric release from parents to collect. We use this data in some of our state reports regarding physical fitness. No researchers have been in classrooms taking data; that is not part of the study model.”
The NCLP contends that the USD/UVA study lacks transparency. According to its release, there is a “financial and spiritual connection between UVA, the Jois Foundation, and the EUSD Ashtanga Yoga program.”
Billionaire Paul Tudor Jones and his wife Sonia, who opened Jois Yoga on Coast Highway in Encinitas, are both dedicated disciples of Sri Patthabi Jois. Earlier this year, Paul Tudor Jones gave a $12 million grant to UVA, his alma mater to form the aforementioned CSC, according to the release.
The Tudor Joneses were also instrumental in the founding of the Jois Foundation and allegedly gave the Jois Foundation $533,000 to fund the EUSD Ashtanga yoga grant.
“EUSD concerned parents are naturally questioning the validity of an alleged ‘study’ so fraught with obvious religious and financial conflicts of interest,” claims the NCLP release.
The Jois Foundation’s CEO, Eugene Ruffin, said that he’d like to see the focus of the debate center around what can be done to improve the health and stress levels of students, teachers and administrators in schools.
“Nobody has come up to us with a list of specific questions about any of the postures or the program,” Ruffin said. “What we see is an absence of a ‘whole concept’ of health in physical education. We’re trying to provide a cost-effective option for that absence; we’re not trying to brand or push a particular type of yoga.”
When asked whether the Jois Foundation is primarily pushing Ashtanga in schools, Ruffin responded, “It doesn’t matter what type of yoga is being taught in school. We know that yoga, which is reimbursable by Medicare and leading insurance companies such as Kaiser, is offered for our returning soldiers by the federal government for PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder]… there’s a ton of positives of yoga. We know it works. But we’re not pushing a particular brand of yoga. But we’re connected to and know Ashtanga, so we use that.”
The final gospel
Ruffin refuted that Ashtanga incorporates religion, at least not in the EUSD program.
“I can’t see any credibility or any objectivity in that we are facilitating some kind of religious goal. In fact, most of the people involved in the foundation, by and large, are Judeo-Christian in background; the foundation’s primary goal is to provide solutions to health in our public schools and the health of the children, not the preaching of Hinduism.”
Superintendent Baird echoed Ruffin’s sentiment. Yoga classes, he said, are now not only found in schools, but in churches, YMCAs, and every fitness gym.
“It provides a great physical workout and reduces stress and increases focus and confidence. Yoga is the perfect exercise program for students who are faced with an increasingly stressful world, where more and more young people are less fit.”
Baird encouraged parents to attend a class so they can see for themselves that religion is not present in the Ashtanga yoga program.
“I am confident that once these parents observe a lesson they will see that there is no religious component to the program. We are getting hundreds of letters of support from the program and less than [one percent] of our families have expressed concern.”