Yoga has been in the news a lot lately. From Virginia's E.W. Jackson proclaiming yoga invites Satan to possess your soul, to a Fox News guest author claiming that yoga is responsible for the "wussification of America," it seems as though the 5,000-year-old practice of yoga is stirring up quite the controversy.
In the latest installment, parents in San Diego, Calif. sued the Encinitas Union School District for incorporating yoga classes in the district's physical education program. The plaintiffs, Stephen and Jennifer Sedlock, allege that teaching yoga violates the students' First Amendment right to religious freedom by imposing Hinduism on young and impressionable students.
But these allegations could not be further from the truth. While traditional yoga has connections to Hinduism, yoga as it is practiced in the United States is simply a health and wellness exercise, just like aerobics or zumba. It is also a multi-billion-dollar industry, with over 20.4 million Americans practicing yoga and shelling out an estimated $10.3 billion dollars annually on classes, equipment, and the infamous yoga pants. According to a 2012 survey conducted by Yoga Journal, the top five reasons Americans cite for starting yoga are: improving flexibility, general conditioning, stress relief, improving overall health, and physical fitness.
With all of this in mind, the Encinitas Union School District should be commended for its effort to adopt a more well-rounded, holistic approach to physical education. If we want to teach children that exercise is a vital component in maintaining a healthy lifestyle, we must introduce a variety of physical activities at a young age in order to supplement the rope-climbing and dodgeball traditionally taught in gym classes.
The program in Encinitas began last fall when the district hired full-time yoga instructors to teach 30-minute, bi-weekly classes across the district's schools. The program was funded by a grant from the Jois Foundation, a group dedicated "educating the whole child" by promoting health, wellness, and high-achievement, primarily in under-served communities.
While the Sedlocks claim the Jois Foundation is a religious organization seeking to spread Hinduism, school district officials staunchly deny these allegations and assert that the yoga program has no religious ties. "We have not stripped religion out of it. We never put religion in it," said Encinitas Union School District Superintendent Timothy Baird. "What we took out were cultural connections, so we don't use Sanskrit words. But basically what you have kids doing is stretching, moving, breathing. That's not religious."
In fact, when the district designed the yoga curriculum, they modified the names of the yoga poses from traditional Sanskrit words to terms such as "Mountain" and "Gorilla".
Even though students are still allowed to opt-out of yoga classes, some parents are still not satisfied. Parents critical of the yoga program gathered 260 signatures in an online petition, but were met with a counter-petition with over 2,700 signatures in support of the yoga program.
One mother, Monique Cocco, represents the overwhelming majority of parents and students who support the program. She laughs at the idea of yoga serving as a form of religious indoctrination.
"What my daughter tells me is she did the 'pancake' today and she lays down and then she cracks up because it's so funny," said Cocco.
But in a nation where a new lawsuit is filed every two seconds, the Sedlocks and their lawyer Dean Broyles took the case to court where, yesterday, a San Diego Superior Court judge ruled that teaching yoga in gym class does not amount to religious instruction.
"Yoga as it has developed in the last 20 years is rooted in American culture, not Indian culture," Judge John Meyer stated in his final opinion. "It is a distinctly American cultural phenomenon. A reasonable student would not objectively perceive that Encinitas school district yoga advances or promotes religion."
In this opinion, Judge Meyer states what most of us would have assumed to be common sense: just because something has religious origins does not mean it is actively preaching religion. At my middle school, we learned Christian hymns in choir and performed Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, based on the Biblical story of Joseph. Arguably, those artistic endeavors had even greater religious ties than the yoga instruction in Encinitas, but we were open-minded enough to distinguish between the music's religious origins and the extreme notion of religious indoctrination.
In response to the judge's decision, plaintiff's lawyer Dean Broyles cited the ruling as yet another example of a national bias against Christianity.
"There is a consistent anti-Christian bias in these cases, and a pro-Eastern or strange religion bias," said Broyles.
Thanks to Broyles's brief moment of honesty, we can now finally understand what is going on here. A program is allowed to have religious origins, as long as that religion is Christianity. If the origin is Hinduism, or some other "strange" Eastern religion that we do not care to understand, then it suddenly becomes full-scale assault on our liberties.
Thanks for clearing that up, Broyles.