“Too Religious” for School: Yoga Curriculum Sparks Lawsuit in Southern California

little OmToday marks the first day of trial in a lawsuit over whether yoga is a religious practice and should or should not be allowed in schools. The case of Sedlock vs. Baird, et al., has been brought by parents and guardians of children who attend an Encinitas school that includes yoga in the curriculum.

The San Diego case is generating strong opinions and emotion on both sides. It places front and center the issue of separation of church and state. While each side have their respective opinions, the trial will dig deep into the roots and origins of yoga as well as yoga as it’s practiced in the modern day. A jury of 12 citizens will decide the outcome after weighing evidence and expert testimony.

Yoga Alliance has joined YES! Yoga For Encinitas Students in preparing for and defending the case on behalf of the school district. The school district claims the yoga being taught to the students is not of a religious nature. The school’s yoga program is funded by a grant from the KP Jois Foundation. Shri K. Pattabhi Jois, also referred to as Guruji, is credited with establishing the widely practiced form of yoga known as Ashtanga.

The petitioner’s expert, a PhD and Harvard professor of religious studies, has submitted an 86-item declaration that spells out specific aspects of yoga she argues prove yoga is a religious practice.

She makes the following assertions:

  • The practices taught by the EUSD yoga curriculum promote and advance religion, including Hinduism—whether or not these practices are taught using religious or Hindu language.
  • EUSD curriculum teaches Ashtanga religious concepts of yama and niyama.
  • EUSD curriculum teaches children to play act as yogis, i.e. Hindu religious specialists.
  • EUSD curriculum teaches Sun Salutation—which represents worship of solar deity.
  • EUSD yoga includes pranayama—to prepare for samadhi (uniting with Universal).
  • EUSD curriculum includes Buddhist mindfulness meditation.
  • EUSD yoga instructors have taught children to say “Namaste” to each other while gesturing with a religiously symbolic “praying hands” position.
  • EUSD yoga instructors have taught children to sit in a “lotus” position that resembles that often used in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain meditation.
  • Hindus warn that yoga will cause Christians to adopt Hinduism. Prominent Hindu spokespersons warn that Christians who practice yoga will inevitably adopt Hindu religion.

Three experts have been retained to testify on behalf of the school district. One of the experts, a PhD and professor of Indic and comparative religion at Loyola Marymount University, submitted the following response:

  • Petitioners point to the use of “Namaste” as a religious element of the yoga program. The use of the term Namaste in the EUSD curriculum, however, would be the equivalent of greeting students in a French class by saying “Bonjour.”
  • Philosophy, mathematics, architecture, literature, the sciences: all these disciplines have their origins deep in the history of world civilizations, whether arising from the Middle East, Africa, Europe, Asia, North America, or South America. World culture has been enriched by contributions from all these cultures. Incorporating yoga movements first practiced in India into a program of physical education is appropriate, particularly where the teachers are careful not to impose religious meaning in their classes. In my opinion, this appears to be the case with the EUSD yoga program.

A second expert on behalf of the school district, a PhD and professor at St. John’s College, supports this opinion, adding the following statement:

The Dattatreyayogasastra, an earlier text teaching hatha yoga, is clear on this matter: anyone can practice this yoga, no matter what their belief. Some believe in God (brahmins); some believe there is no God (Buddhists); some practice renunciation (ascetics); and some focus on the good to be had in this world and have no belief in a hereafter (materialists). The Dattatreyayogasastra clearly conveys that yoga was for everyone, and that it did not belong to any single religion. One can reasonably claim, in fact, that versions of yoga such as these are self-consciously non-religious, in the sense that they are not partisan to a particular metaphysics, or dogma, or set of rituals.

He compares the modern practice of yoga to the game of basketball:

Similarly, modern sport and physical culture grew up in the same cultural milieu as modern yoga. But it cannot therefore be asserted that such practices are inherently religious. For example, the game of basketball was created in the context of a religious missionary organization (the YMCA) in the same decade that modern yoga began to develop in America (1891). In my opinion, to claim that the practice of yoga techniques in secular, ecumenical, or religiously plural settings in the United States today is inherently religious is akin to claiming that college basketball is inherently religious because of its missionary Christian origins.

Whatever the outcome, both sides will have the ability to appeal the decision to a higher court.

I personally find it interesting that activities related to religious-based holidays are routinely practiced in schools without much objection. Where to draw the line on what is acceptable seems to stem largely from one’s personal perspective and comfort level.

What do you think? Share your comments below.


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