SAN DIEGO — An attorney representing a family bent out of shape over a public school yoga program in the beach city of Encinitas filed a lawsuit Wednesday to stop the district-wide classes.
In the lawsuit filed in San Diego Superior Court, attorney Dean Broyles argued that the twice weekly, 30-minute classes are inherently religious, in violation of the separation between church and state.
The plaintiffs are Stephen and Jennifer Sedlock and their children, who are students in the Encinitas Union School District.
“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.”
Superintendent Timothy B. Baird said he had not seen the lawsuit and could not directly comment on it, but he defended the district’s decision to integrate yoga into its curriculum this year.
The district is believed to be the first in the country to have full-time yoga teachers at every one of its schools. The lessons are funded by a $533,000, three-year grant from the Jois Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes Asthanga yoga. Since the district started the classes at its nine schools in January, Baird said teachers and parents have noticed students are calmer, using the breathing practices to release stress before tests.
“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.
Broyles said his clients took legal action after the district refused to take their complaints into account. He said the Sedlocks are not seeking monetary damages but are asking the court to intervene and suspend the program.
The lawsuit notes Harvard-educated religious studies professor Candy Gunther Brown found the district’s program is pervasively religious, having its roots in Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist and metaphysical beliefs and practices.
While the lawsuit names only one family, dozens of parents feel the same way and oppose the program, Broyles said.
Children who have opted out of the program have been harassed and bullied, the plaintiffs allege. The children who opt out also are missing out on 60 of the 100 weekly minutes of physical activity required by the state, since they usually sit and read during the yoga lessons, the plaintiffs say.
Yoga is now taught at public schools from the rural mountains of West Virginia to the bustling streets of Brooklyn as a way to ease stress in today’s pressure-packed world where even kindergartners say they feel tense about keeping up with their busy schedules. But most classes are part of an after-school program, or are offered only at a few schools or by some teachers in a district.
The Jois Foundation says it believes the program will become a national model to help schools teach students life skills.
Enraged Christian parents in Southern California are suing their local school district for offering free voluntary yoga classes. This reminds me a lot of Pat Robertson’s famous video telling Christians to fear yoga because it’s praying to Hindu gods. I imagine it’s all tied in somehow. The Vatican itself has even declared yoga, along with Zen and Transcendental Meditation as potentially degenerating into a “cult of the body.”
People in America are very committed to their religion. Perhaps, religion to some is like a wife/husband or girl/boyfriend. You can only have one of them! If you are a Christian and you do yoga, you are cheating on God!
The Japanese, on the other hand, are very religiously promiscuous. They’re like Polyamorists when it comes to belief. Lots of people in Japan go to Buddhist temples on Buddhist holidays, Shinto shrines on the Shinto holidays and maybe even occasionally to Christian churches on the Christian holidays like Christmas or Easter. Lots of non-Christian Japanese people have church weddings, often with foreigners pretending to be preachers. It’s no big deal.
Having been steeped in Japanese culture for so long it’s sometimes hard for me to quite get a grip on how some of my fellow Americans feel about this kind of stuff. But I get a lot of Christians asking if they can do Zen practice without giving up their Christian faith. I always say yes. There’s no conflict I can see between believing in Jesus and your Lord the Savior and doing Zazen (seated meditation) Lots of Christians do Zazen, just like Thomas Merton did. There are no matters of required belief involved in Zen practice. So there is no conflict. There are many Christian forms of silent meditation practice that are remarkably similar to Zazen, although these aren’t practiced widely in contemporary American churches.
The Christians in San Diego are saying that yoga is a form of Hinduism. One could make that argument, however, the word “yoga” means “yoke” and comes from a Hindu concept regarding yoking oneself to God. By God, they mean Vishnu or Brahman or some of the many other names they have for God and not necessarily Jehovah. On the other hand, the word yoga has a huge number of meanings. It’s even used in the Buddhist tradition as in Yogacara, the “way of yoga,” which isn’t Hindu at all. Nor does it involve doing downward “facing dog” or the “gorilla pose” that the above article mentions.
This brings up a whole other point. What we call yoga in the West generally means the stretches and poses of the Hatha Yoga system rather than the more religious types of yoga. A case can be made that what we now know as Hatha Yoga is really an Indian version of some of the gymnastic poses and stretches they received when they were a British colony. Most yoga taught in the West is extremely secularized. Often the teachers don’t know or care much about the supposed spiritual aspects of the practice.
I think the issue of whether or not meditation is a religious practice is actually a hotter matter than yoga’s supposed Hindu origins. Nobody’s really worried about stretches. Though I have seen some argue that yoga poses are actually forms of worship, which seems to be an opinion
of a very small percentage of people. Where folks really get their panties in a bunch is when it comes to meditating.
When I first got into Zen, I was dating a girl whose mom was a fundamentalist Christian. She was concerned that by opening up my mind in meditation that I might allow demons to enter my soul and control me. It was kind of funny because Zazen was usually so boring that I kind of wished demons would have temporarily tried to take control of my mind. Anything to relieve the tedium!
Lots of meditation teachers these days try to secularize things and much of what I’ve seen promoted as secular mindfulness practice is really just straight-up Buddhism. I’ve toyed with the idea of presenting things that way myself. In the earliest drafts of my forthcoming book, I attempted to eliminate the words “Zen” and “Buddhist” as well as their various derivatives. But it felt deceptive to do so. I’d be lying if I tried to say I didn’t get these ideas from my Buddhist teachers and my Buddhist training. So I went ahead and said I was a Zen Buddhist, even though I think the term is a bit of a misnomer.
I think a lot of the concern Americans express over matters like this is based on that idea I mentioned earlier, that one must be true to one’s religion. We’re really scared of mixing things up. But that kind of purity never really existed. What we know now as Christianity is basically a Jewish messianic cult mixed up with a lot of Greek philosophy. Contemporary Buddhism is certainly not pure either. It has dashes of Hinduism, the Bon religion of Tibet, Taoism and these days even some Christian notions thrown into the mix.
Having said this, I do get the idea of being wary of mixing things up. For instance, I am not a fan of the way Zen is often seen as a kind of Japanese form of psychotherapy by many Americans. I think we have to be careful about this.
But perhaps the difference for me is that I see no need to go from being careful to being actually fearful of it.
So chill out down there in San Diego! Worry about ComicCon instead! That’s where the real devil worshipers hang out!