Now I’ve Heard Everything: Parents Sue School District Over Yoga Program

shutterstock_128655773“Religious experiences” can be extremely subjective. I’ve had a deeply religious experience watching an Alvin Ailey dance production. I’ve also had one eating a piece of Junior’s cheesecake. I have yet to have one at the gym, though. I’m aware that yoga can be a spiritual practice, but it has become a very mainstream way of exercising. Some parents in Encinitas, California didn’t get the memo. CBS8 reports that the parents are suing an Encinitas district that offers a program of yoga in schools as part of their physical fitness curriculum.

What in the hell is wrong with deep-breathing and stretching, you ask? These parents feel that teaching yoga constitutes a “breach of public trust.” Their lawyer argues that the twice-weekly classes are inherently religious in nature and a “violation of the separation between church and state.”

“EUSD’s Ashtanga yoga program represents a serious breach of the public trust,” Broyles said. “Compliance with the clear requirements of law is not optional or discretionary. This is frankly the clearest case of the state trampling on the religious freedom rights of citizens that I have personally witnessed in my 18 years of practice as a constitutional attorney.”

Really guy? Because I would say that this is clearly the biggest waste of the court’s time that I’ve heard of in my 20-plus years as a conscious adult.

Superintendent Timothy B. Baird claims that since they have started the program “teachers and parents have noticed students are calmer, using the breathing practices to release stress before tests.” God forbid we teach our kids how to breathe deeply and manage stress. The repercussions of that could be awful!

“We’re not teaching religion,” he said. “We teach a very mainstream physical fitness program that happens to incorporate yoga into it. It’s part of our overall wellness program. The vast majority of students and parents support it.”

Baird said the lawsuit would not deter the district from offering the classes.

The lawsuit claims that a Harvard-educated religious studies professor finds the program “pervasively religious, having its roots in Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist and metaphysical beliefs and practices.” If the kids were required to read Taoist texts and practice chanting along with the simple curriculum of stretching and basic yoga moves, I may agree. But they aren’t.

The parents have the right to opt their children out of the program. It seems the easy way to fix this whole problem is to offer an alternative physical fitness activity so the kids who opt out wouldn’t just be missing out on a portion of their fitness activity for the day – but would be doing some other form of exercise. You know, something more wholesome and American like touch football. That way, those parents who are offended by broadening their kid’s cultural horizons and deep breathing can sleep better at night.

Or administrators could just call the class “stretching and breathing” not “yoga.” Problem solved.

(photo: Tatyana Vychegzhanina/

You can reach this post's author, Maria Guido, on twitter.
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    • chickadee

      I have no problem with yoga as exercise, but it is rooted in Hindu religious and philosophical beliefs. That doesn’t mean I think that the parents aren’t probably fundies, but the argument regarding the separation of church and school works for everyone. I would recommend that the school adapt physical techniques from yoga and divorce them from the underlying principles.

    • Paul White

      Depends on how the yoga was presented. If the presenter made references to religious or spiritual claims while teaching yoga (ex: “This aligns your chi with the universe” or “this draws the nourishment that the universe offers us all”) then I’d say it’s a justified lawsuit. And those are both things I heard at the local yoga place when I tried it. I’m not a fundie (hell I don’t go to church) but those sorts of things make specific, spiritual claims and you can’t do that in a public school.

      • Paul White

        would whoever downvoted me say why?

        Public schools don’t get to make religious or spiritual claims–that applies to ALL such claims, not just Christian ones. I’ve heard religious/spiritual claims come from yoga instructors so I can imagine a yoga class violating that restriction…even if the chanting and Taoist text are left out.

      • chickadee

        I was downvoted too, and I imagine that it has something to do with the fact that our responses request an even-handed application of the separation between church and state. I think sometimes people consider it to apply only to Christianity.

      • Paul White

        Likely. Or someone who doesn’t consider that sort of stuff to be a spiritual or religious claim (though how you wouldn’t view statements about aligning your life force as spiritual I don’t know).
        The kicker is I’m very pro separation of church and state…but I’m consistent in my views on that regardless of what spiritual viewpoints are involved.

      • K.

        I’m not the one who down-voted you–promise!, but I wanted to point out that your examples don’t strike me as that different from the kind of language that is used when practicing a lot of martial arts. And it’s also used for taiko (Japanese drumming–my husband does it). But I’ve never heard of anyone saying that practicing tae kwon do or jujitsu is a religious practice.

        I also don’t find the phrases “aligning chi to the universe” or “draws nourishment from the universe” “specific, spiritual claims,” personally. They might fall on the side of spiritual, but they’re not specific–they’re pretty vague. For that reason, in my mind, I’m not convinced that to even say that is spouting religion in school, but I’d understand if someone else took issue with it. I’d still be surprised though, if the school program used that language. Maybe it was just my gym teachers growing up, but the image of them–they really did resemble Jane Lynch’s Sue Sylvester or like, Mr. Woodcock–talking about chi and stuff is too good to be true.

      • Paul White

        See, I purposely refused to train at martial arts places that used that sort of language. It irritates the hell out of me personally (and it’s ahistorical when most martial arts claim a direct linage going back thousands of years too–karate as we know it is a post WWI invention as is TKD).

    • Blueathena623

      I would really be interested in seeing how their yoga program works. At the private school where I used to work at, the kids would do yoga with the OTs because it really helped he kids with ADD. From what I saw, at least half the time the names they gave the poses didn’t even match the real names of poses, so instead of right angle twist or something, it was pizza slice twist.

    • chickadee

      I was downvoted too, and I imagine that it has something to do with the fact that our responses request an even-handed application of the separation between church and state. I think sometimes people consider it to apply only to Christianity.

    • K.

      Yoga in itself is not a religion. It was developed (at least this is what I’ve been told, but I’m not a yogic historian!) as a physical practice in order to facilitate meditation (it helps to open the hips, for example, which enables one to sit longer), and that is its connection to Hinduism, but the practice of yoga is not necessarily conducted as practicing religion. It can be, but there’s no pervading religious doctrine for practicing yoga (the one form that in my eyes comes closest to following a doctrine is Bikram, which is a commercial doctrine).

      I think that the problem with the suit is inherent in the lawyer’s own statement: that the yoga program is “pervasively religious, having its roots in Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist and metaphysical beliefs and practices.” First of all, Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism are distinct religions from unique cultures and to lump them all into one category is not only disrespectful, but it also kind of negates the lawyer’s argument–if yoga is a religion in itself, then it can’t be 3 different ones at once. If you want to define yoga as a religious practice, then you should be able to align it with clear doctrinal proselytizing, and I’m not sure that a tangential relationship to a bunch of disparate religions counts. The very laws under the American judicial system that the lawyer has studied and practiced are based in Judeo-Christian context but using the Judeo-Christian scriptures as point of reference doesn’t make the US an actual theocracy (although I’m sure some would disagree!); practicing a physical exercise that has a relationship to certain religions doesn’t in itself mean you are practicing that religion.

      You would have to investigate the program at the school specifically, but I doubt that the school is using overtly religious messaging in practicing yoga–it’s probably just teaching the kids breathing and meditation techniques.