Christians Protest Yoga in Schools -- But Welcome Bible Study
When is touching your toes just touching your toes, and when is it an effort to indoctrinate small children in Hinduism?
That is the question that emerged from reporting in the New York Times, Fox News, and the Guardian on the threat of a lawsuit by a group of public school parents in Encinitas, Calif., over a yoga class in a public elementary school.
But the most compelling aspect of the controversy has nothing to do with the religious nature of yoga, or with the fears of parents. Rather, the case raises serious questions about the separation of church and school, and about the many religiously-driven programs that are already active in public education, even in Encinitas. As it turns out, there is so much religion in public education today that the fuss over yoga is like worrying about a stain on your blouse when your trousers are covered in mud.
There are two important ways to think about the issue of yoga -- or other potentially religiously-inspired content in public schools. The first test has to do with the content of the program; the second has to do with the connection of the sponsoring organization to the curriculum being presented.
Mary Eady, one of the parents organizing against Encinitas’ yoga program, described to a Times reporter what she sees as religious content: “They’re teaching children how to meditate, how to look for peace and for comfort… It’s meant to shape the way they regulate their emotions.” She characterized the “Sun Salutation,” a basic series of yoga poses in which the student stretches his or her hands to the ceiling, as “a movement sequence that worships the sun god Surya,” and claimed that “yoga, including its physical practice, is very religious indeed.” Her legal representative, Dean Broyles, chief counsel for the Escondido-based National Center for Law & Policy, is even more adamant, asserting that the Sun Salutation constitutes sun-worship.
Eady works at a Christian organization called Truthxchange, whose chief mission is to “respond to the rising tide of neopaganism.” Her lawyer’s organization, NCPL, is an affiliate of the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF, formerly the Alliance Defense Fund), a conservative Christian legal advocacy group that has litigated on behalf of evangelical activity in schools and the broader public square. As might be imagined, the ADF takes a dim view of “neopaganism,” whatever that means to them.
However, if Eady’s and the ADF’s views are correct -- that the Sun Salutation and other yoga moves are indeed intrinsically religious -- perhaps they have a point.
I put these challenges to the school administrator who runs the program, Assistant Superintendent of the Encinitas Union School District David Miyashiro, who dismissed the idea. “The exercises are not in any way religious,” he told me flatly. “I oversee the development of the curriculum, and I make sure that it is designed to conform with the Presidential Physical Fitness Standards. There is nothing religious about that.”
A problem with the NCPL position might be that they are challenging a practice (a hands-over-head stretch) that isn’t religious in and of itself. The hands-over-head stretch only becomes religious in the context of a larger tradition. In this sense, stopping kids from yoga stretching because it is religious in some contexts makes about as much sense as banning kids from shaving their heads simply because it reminds you of Buddhism.
However, the organizational test raises more serious concerns in this case. Encinitas’ yoga program is partially funded by a grant from the Jois Foundation, which is contributing to teachers’ salaries, curriculum development, and even yoga mats. The Foundation is associated with the family of the late Shri K. Pattabhi Jois, a yoga teacher who popularized a form of yoga called Ashtanga. Mary Eady and the ADF claim that the Jois Foundation is a religious organization. The director of the Jois Foundation, Eugene Ruffin, says it is not.