Originally published in India-West newspaper. Republished in New America Media March 11, 2013.
By Monica Luhar
A civil lawsuit was filed Feb. 15 against the Encinitas Union School District in San Diego County alleging that the district, by providing instruction in Ashtanga yoga, is thereby “promoting religious beliefs.”
The action was filed by The National Center for Law & Policy, an Escondido, Calif.-based nonprofit “legal defense organization” focusing on “protection and promotion of religious freedom, the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, parental rights and other civil liberties.”
NCLP attorney Dean R. Broyles filed the lawsuit on behalf of plaintiffs Stephen and Jennifer Sedlock, parents whose children attend schools in the district.
“EUSD’s Ashtanga yoga program represents a serious breach of the public trust,” Broyles said in a press release.
“The program is extremely divisive and has unfortunately led to the harassment, discrimination, bullying and segregation of children who, for good reasons, opt out of the program,” he added.
The complaint alleges that the school district used state resources to endorse Ashtanga yoga thereby “unlawfully” promoting religious beliefs, and “failed to suspend the Ashtanga yoga program.”
The lawsuit points out that in September 2012, EUSD gave parents the option to opt out of the program, which provides 60 minutes of weekly yoga instruction. Students who dropped the class were placed in “non physical education classes or independent study.”
Ashtanga is a yoga technique developed by K. Pattabhi Jois. It employs yoga breathing techniques to alleviate stress and increase body circulation.
Some parents in the district strongly opposed yoga inclusion in EUSD’s health and wellness program. EUSD received a $533,720 grant from the KP Jois Foundation to fund the programs for students K-6 for the 2012-2013 school year (I-W, Jan. 11, 2013).
According to the NCLP press release, the lawsuit doesn’t seek monetary damages, but wants EUSD to suspend the “Ashtanga yoga program and restore traditional physical education to the district.”
EUSD superintendent Timothy Baird told India-West in a phone interview Feb. 22 that he is disappointed by the lawsuit and that EUSD stands behind the program and will continue to offer it to students because of its health benefits and support from parents, students and teachers.
“This program is not religious. There is no religious instruction whatsoever that goes on with the program,” he said. “We’re focused on providing a foundation of physical fitness. There is a component where students learn stress reducing and relaxation techniques, but we offer a very mainstream yoga program that you will find in any gym and many schools throughout the nation.”
Ashwini Surpur, a representative of Yoga Bharati in the San Francisco Bay area, said it is unfortunate EUSD is being sued for introducing yoga into the physical education curriculum.
“At a time when modern society is facing unprecedented stress and its association with non-communicable diseases including heart disease, diabetes and a host of other serious ailments, yoga comes in as a great complementary and alternative therapy modality,” Surpur told India-West.
The Indian American said yoga helps children become confident, well-rounded persons and addresses problems kids face, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other conditions that “may cause them to be violent or opt for horrible acts such as drug abuse and crime.”
“With yoga in schools, we will begin to see reduced incidences of children attempting to harm themselves and others in society,” Surpur said.
The KP Jois Foundation Web site said the group is working to create an effective health and wellness program for kids, particularly in underserved communities. “As part of the school curriculum, this program uses the techniques of yoga, meditation, and proper nutrition to create a positive lifestyle change,” the foundation said.
Anupreet Sandhu Bhamra, a Canada-based blogger and journalist, told India-West that yoga — which she asserted is often grossly misunderstood” in the West — is a holistic approach to life validated in numerous studies.
“Either it is practiced as a fancy, hip exercise regime or understood to be a secret religious cult. Neither is true. Yoga does not mean bending backwards, doing a downward dog or (being) able to stand on your head. The poses are just a part of the approach, which in itself is vast, philosophical and includes a complete way of life,” she said.
Bhamra, who recently launched the SandhuBhamra.com blog to help people “dispel myths surrounding yoga,” and is teacher certified in yoga, said the lawsuit shows ignorance of yoga and draws incorrect assumptions.
“Yoga is neither religious nor an exercise mechanism,” she said. “Yoga is a way of life, an approach to a healthy body and mind.”
Bhamra has conducted workshops with people of different faiths and no one yet has expressed the opinion that the practice is an “infringement on their religious freedom,” she added.
“You can be a practicing Catholic, Jew, Hindu, Sikh or a Muslim and learn to breathe correctly, stretch your body to activate certain glands, strengthen the core muscles and raise the energy levels of your body by deep concentration and correct diet.”
Chinmay Surpur, a 15-year-old high school sophomore in Cupertino Calif., said he has been practicing yoga for several years and is now a certified yoga instructor through Yoga Bharati.
“I believe that the only religiousness to (yoga) is the fact that it comes from India’s ancient teachings and hence has a little bit of connection to India’s culture,” he told India-West. “It isn’t necessarily religious.”
The Indian American teen lauded the effort of EUSD to provide yoga instruction to students.
“I can say with certainty,” he said, “that yoga has changed my life. It has improved my focus and concentration greatly, which helps me a lot in my studies as well as my daily life. I believe that everyone should have access to the knowledge of yoga.”