School yoga classes draw fire from conservatives

12/16/2012 12:00 AM

12/16/2012 8:21 AM

ENCINITAS – By 9:30 a.m. at Paul Ecke Central Elementary School, tiny feet were shifting from downward dog pose to chair pose to warrior pose in surprisingly swift, accurate movements. A circle of 6- and 7-year-olds contorted their frames, making monkey noises and repeating confidence-boosting mantras.

Jackie Bergeron's first-grade yoga class was in full swing.

"Inhale. Exhale. Peekaboo!" Bergeron said from the front of the class. "Now, warrior pose. I am strong! I am brave!"

Though the yoga class had a notably calming effect on the children, things were far from placid outside the gymnasium.

A small but vocal group of parents, spurred on by the head of a local conservative advocacy group, has likened these 30-minute yoga classes to religious indoctrination. They say the classes – part of a comprehensive program offered to all public school students in this affluent suburb north of San Diego – represent a violation of the First Amendment.

After the classes prompted discussion in local evangelical churches, parents said they were concerned that the exercises might nudge their children closer to ancient Hindu beliefs.

Mary Eady, the parent of a first-grader, said the classes were rooted in the deeply religious practice of Ashtanga yoga, in which physical actions are inextricable from the spiritual beliefs underlying them.

"They're not just teaching physical poses, they're teaching children how to think and how to make decisions," Eady said. "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."

Eady and a few dozen other parents say a public school system should not be leading students down any particular religious path. Teaching children how to engage in spiritual exercises such as meditation familiarizes young minds with certain religious viewpoints and practices, they say, and a public classroom is no place for that.

Underlying the controversy is the source of the program's financing. The pilot project is supported by the Jois Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in memory of Krishna Pattabhi Jois, considered the father of Ashtanga yoga.

Dean Broyles, the president and chief counsel of the National Center for Law and Policy, a nonprofit law firm that champions religious freedom and traditional marriage, according to its website, has dug up quotes from Jois Foundation leaders, who talk about the inseparability of the physical act of yoga from a broader spiritual quest.

Broyles argued that such quotes betrayed the group's broader evangelistic purpose. "There is a transparent promotion of Hindu religious beliefs and practices in the public schools through this Ashtanga yoga program," he said.

The move by the Encinitas Union School District to mandate yoga classes for all students who do not opt out has elevated the discussion. And it has split an already divided community.

The district serves the liberal beach neighborhoods of Encinitas, including Leucadia, where Paul Ecke Central Elementary is, as well as more conservative inland communities.

On the coast, bumper stickers reading "Keep Leucadia Funky" are borne proudly. Farther inland, cars are more likely to feature the Christian fish symbol, and large evangelical congregations play an important role in shaping local philosophy.

Opponents of the yoga classes have started an online petition to remove the course from the district's curriculum. They have shown up at school board meetings to denounce the program. Broyles has threatened to sue if the board does not address their concerns.

The district has stood firm. Tim Baird, the schools superintendent, has defended the yoga classes as merely another element of a broader program designed to promote children's physical and mental well-being. The notion that yoga teachers have designs on converting tender young minds to Hinduism is incorrect, he said.

"That's why we have an opt-out clause," Baird said. "If your faith is such that you believe that simply by doing the gorilla pose, you're invoking the Hindu gods, then by all means your child can be doing something else."

Eady is not convinced.

"Yoga poses are representative of Hindu deities and Hindu stories about the actions and interactions of those deities with humans," she said. "There's content even in the movement, just as with baptism there's content in the movement."

Russell Case of the Jois Foundation said the parents' fears were misguided. "They're concerned that we're putting our God before their God," he said. "They're worried about competition. But we're much closer to them than they think. We're good Christians that just like to do yoga because it helps us to be better people."

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