Lawsuit: Parents claim yoga in gym class promotes Hinduism

February 25, 2013

Yoga in schoolA group of parents is suing the Encinitas Unified School District (EUSD) over the “inherently and pervasively religious” yoga program that the school district has implemented as part of its physical education program.

The complaint specifically claims that the school’s “Ashtanga yoga program unlawfully promotes and advances religion, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Western metaphysics.” 

“Ashtanga yoga,” isn’t a special kind of yoga – just the opposite actually:  it’s the formal name of what is commonly referred to as “yoga” (Power Yoga and vinyasa yoga are derivations of Ashtanga).

The style was popularized by K. Pattabhi Jois.  Jois died in 2009, but had spent most of his life teaching the yoga style that he had made popular.

The nonprofit K. P. Jois Foundation carries on Jois’s work, at least in regards to schools: it provides grants to implement health and wellness programs in schools that utilize yoga and nutrition programs.  The foundation provided such a grant for the Encinitas school district for the implementation of those programs.

According to the complaint challenging the school district’s use of this program, however, the goal of the Jois Foundation is to “spread the gospel of religious Ashtanga yoga to school children nationwide and worldwide,” which it does through “purchasing access” to “young and impressionable” students.

The complaint goes into much greater detail about the foundation, portraying both its founding and its ongoing activity as a massive conspiracy to spread religious doctrine through a deceptively innocuous message of promoting the well-being of body and mind.

The complaint further alleges that there is “empirical evidence to support…the belief that mere “physical” yoga…leads to personal religious transformation” and “that participants in ’secularized’ yoga often do come to embrace religious yoga.”

The big question you may be left wondering is where these religious elements come in with the school district.

The complaint actually does identify instances in support of this alleged promotion of religion, but none are particularly persuasive.

The first set of instances are a part of the argument that, because the history of yoga is rooted in Hinduism and other Eastern philosophies, that it is an inherently religious practice with no way to secularize it.

For example:

  • “Children were taught by a EUSD employed yoga teacher to put their hands in a ‘praying hands’ position and say ‘Namaste’ to each other. ‘Namaste’ is often translated as ‘I bow to the god within you’ and represents the idea that there is divinity in everyone.”
  • “The Sun Salutation…is a sequence of worshipful poses to the Hindu solar deity Surya, [and] is being taught to the children by EUSD employed Ashtanga yoga teacher.”
  • “The Lotus position, which is often used in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain meditation, has been taught [to] children by EUSD yoga instructors.”

The next set of instances of this alleged promotion of religion relate more directly to the actual curriculum in the school district.

First, the complaint reiterates the allegedly religious significance of the different yoga poses.  In addition, the complaint alleges that other physical aspects of yoga – “pranayama” (controlled breathing) and “pratyahara” (sensory control) – are used “to prepare for ‘Samadhi,’” or “absorption/uniting with Universal/Divine.”

Essentially, what the parents suing the school district seemingly object to is the “mind” part of the promotion of “well-being of body and mind.”  In other words, to the parents, any kind of meditation as a part of yoga is religious indoctrination, pure and simple.

The real question, though, is whether these mental exercises rise to the level of a state endorsement of religion.

Luckily, we have a ruling out of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals from 1994 that provides some hints on this question.

That case, Brown v. Woodland Joint Unified School District, involved parents challenging a portion of the school curriculum under the U.S. and California Constitutions on the basis that it promoted witchcraft.

The analyses done in that case in regards to the sections of the California Constitution at issue can be readily applied to this one.  It appears that California has largely adopted its own version of the Lemon test, which holds a challenged government action as valid as long as it (1) has a legitimate secular purpose, (2) doesn’t have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion, and (3) avoids “excessive entanglement” with religion.

In short, unless the parents in this case can demonstrate that the school district’s implementation of the yoga curriculum was for the purpose of promoting or endorsing Hinduism, or that it gives the reasonable appearance that the state is endorsing Hinduism, they are likely to fail.

The biggest problem for the challengers is that the yoga that has been implemented in the school district – the same one commonly practiced nationwide – is a heavily Westernized version that sees far more use as a form of exercise or alternative medicine than as a religious practice.  So much more, in fact, that it’s unlikely that many of its practitioners in the U.S. are aware of its Hindu roots.

Thus, for the parents to argue that this form of exercise is actually an insidious plot to covertly convert our nation’s youth to Hinduism presents an awfully big pill for the court to swallow.

And I would be surprised if a court ended up swallowing this pill.