A group of parents who say that yoga lessons being taught in the Encinitas Union School District are a form of religious indoctrination are considering legal action against the district if the classes don?t stop, an attorney for the group said.
In an Oct. 12 email sent to Superintendent Tim Baird, attorney Dean Broyles, called the program unconstitutional and warned that he may initiate ?a legal course of action? if the district doesn?t end it.
Broyles declined last week to discuss what the group has in mind, but said it?s considering all legal options.
?There?s a deep concern that the Encinitas Union School District is using taxpayer resources to promote Ashtanga yoga and Hinduism, a religion system of beliefs and practices,? Broyles said.
Students at half of the Encinitas district?s nine schools started the yoga program last month, and the other campuses will get the classes beginning in January. The effort is being paid for with a $533,000 grant from the Jois Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes Ashtanga yoga across the world.
Broyles is president and chief counsel for The National Center for Law & Policy, a nonprofit law firm that focuses on ?the protection and promotion of religious freedom, the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, parental rights and other civil liberties,? according to its website.
The crux of the disagreement over the program is whether the particular type of yoga being taught and the lessons themselves are inherently religious.
District officials say that they have stripped any semblance of religion from the classes, but some parents are worried that that may not be true.
?I think that they really would like to think that, but I don?t think that, in actuality, it has been done,? said Mary Eady, who has pulled her son from the classes at Park Dale Lane. ?There?s really a lot of unease among a lot of parents.?
For some of the concerned parents, the yoga poses serve as religious expression or a way to invite Hindu deities into the body.
Seven parents criticized the program at a school board meeting last week, and dozens more who were there appeared to agree with them.
Broyles said a parent contacted him asking for help. He wouldn?t say how many parents he represents, but said it?s ?a lot.?
Many parents are afraid to speak up because they have seen anger and name-calling in online comments on news stories about the controversy, said Samantha Vigil, a mother who?s against the program.
Though religion seems to be at the heart of most of the concerns, there have also been other complaints about the yoga lessons.
Parents say they?re also concerned about their children not getting enough physical activity if they opt out of the yoga classes, a lack of communication from the district about the lessons, and the information researchers are collecting as part of a study of the program.
District officials see the yoga lessons as part of a bigger push to improve health and say that all religious aspects of it have been removed, Superintendent Tim Baird said.
?Our goal is that kids get a really healthy workout, that they get a chance to relax and reduce stress,? he said, ?and yoga?s perfect for that.?
Students in all grade levels participate in the yoga classes twice a week for 30 minutes at a time.
Researchers with the University of San Diego will study the program to monitor its effects on students.
The district is in charge of writing the curriculum and hiring teachers, though the contract stipulated that the instructors must be trained by the Jois Foundation.
District officials want to do whatever possible to meet the needs of every family, Baird said. However, he said he doesn?t expect the trustees to revisit the topic or consider canceling the classes.
?Yoga is a worldwide exercise regime utilized by people of many different faiths,? he said. ?Yoga is part of our mainstream culture.?
Baird said he hopes the parents don?t file a lawsuit, because he would prefer to spend the district?s money on educating children.
Only a few parents at each school have asked to remove their children from the yoga classes, Baird said. The vast majority of people seem to support the program, he added.
The big concern for some of the parents is where the money is coming from.
?It?s not just yoga; it?s the background of who?s teaching it and how they were brought in,? said Vigil, whose daughter attends El Camino Creek.
The three-year grant is part of a partnership between the district and the Encinitas-based Jois Foundation, which some of the parents view as an overtly religious group. Broyles called it an ?evangelic yoga foundation.?
However, Eugene Ruffin, director of the foundation, said the group isn?t religious at all and has people on its board of directors from various faiths.
The purpose of the nonprofit is to promote yoga as a way to improve mental and physical health, he said.
?These therapies are headed toward trying to find solutions for some of the stress that these children find themselves in,? he said. ?We?re trying to solve problems.?
The yoga lessons can help children burn calories and improve flexibility as well as ease stress and increase concentration, Ruffin said.
The foundation promotes Ashtanga yoga, which is ?an ancient system that can lead to liberation and greater awareness of our spiritual potential,? according to the group?s website.
It focuses on breathing aligned with a series of poses designed to increase mental focus, circulation and sweating.
Broyles said he thinks there are spiritual overtones in any type of yoga, but considers Ashtanga a particularly religious type.
?Ultimately, yoga has its formation and foundation and basis in eastern mysticism and Hinduism,? he said. ?With yoga period, there?ll always be some connection with religious and spiritual beliefs.?
Yoga has ancient ties to eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, but Ruffin said he thinks it?s possible to remove religion from the poses.
?It?s pretty difficult to do anything these days that doesn?t have some relationship to some religion,? he said.
Does yoga belong in a public school or is it "religious education" as some of these parents claim? The school district says only a few parents have removed their children from the class at each school.
I've been doing yoga for many years and I believe that it absolutely can be done without any religious aspect. Yoga is in some religions, but there is no religion in yoga, no creeds, no set of beliefs, nothing to be worshipped. Yoga is about self-awareness and being in tune with your body, which is something many Eastern religions practice, but the practice of asanas (the physical exercise poses) and pranayama (the breathing techniques) themselves are centuries older than any of the religions associated with them.