Our principal is demonstrating “Downward Facing Dog.” Is this OK in a public school? Isn’t yoga a religious practice?
You won’t be surprised to hear that it happened in California. The Encinitas Union School District, which serves only K-6 students, implemented an Ashtanga Yoga program as a component of its P.E. offerings. The program was funded in part by the KP Jois Foundation, whose mission is to “establish and teach Ashtanga yoga in the community.”
The district hired a yoga instructor who was certified by a yoga institute in India. The classes taught children a series of poses, some Sanskrit words. The teacher also read “Myth of the Asanas” which contains numerous references to Hindu deities. However, being in a public school, she omitted the parts about the deities. She did, however, instruct the children to use the word “Namaste,” which she interpreted to mean “respect.”
After using yoga at one school in 2011-12, the district expanded the program to all nine of its schools the following year. This was again funded, in part, by a grant from the Jois Foundation. The proposal called for a “partnership” between the Foundation and the school district “to deliver a world class mind/body wellness program” and to provide “students, staff and families access to Ashtanga Yoga on a regular basis throughout the year.”
Not everyone in the community greeted this by chanting “Om” while in the lotus position. Stephen and Jennifer Sedlock sued the district, its superintendent and all five school board members. The suit alleged that the district was promoting the Hindu religion, in violation of the U.S. and California constitutions.
The California Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the school district. In its critical ruling, the court observed that “it is clear that while yoga may be practiced for religious reasons, it cannot be said to be inherently religious or overtly sectarian.”
Here are some of the factors that persuaded the court to rule for the school district:
- Although the Foundation provided some money, the district maintained complete control over the curriculum, and made sure that it was stripped of anything that even hinted at, or sounded religious. For example, the “lotus position” was renamed “criss-cross applesauce.” The district even dropped the Sanskrit.
- Yoga may have religious roots, but that does not mean that its current practice in the district is religious.
- The court noted evidence in the record showing that “contemporary yoga is commonly practiced in the United States for reasons that are entirely distinct from religious ideology.” Surveys showed that people practiced yoga primarily for 1) increased flexibility; 2) stress relief; and 3) improvement in physical health.
Yoga is very popular. It makes sense that some schools might want to teach this to kids, as it is a physical activity that can be practiced for a lifetime. So we are wondering: is anyone in Texas doing this? Let me know at email@example.com.
The case is Sedlock v. Baird, decided by the Court of Appeals, 4th Appellate District, in California on April 3, 2015.
DAWG BONE: IF YOU OFFER YOGA, TAKE OUT ANY RELIGIOUS CONTENT. THEN ASSUME “CRISS-CROSS APPLESAUCE!”