ENCINITAS, Calif. 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 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 school 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.
The district has stood firm. Tim Baird, the schools superintendent, said the notion that yoga teachers have designs on converting tender young minds to Hinduism is incorrect.
“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.”