ENCINITAS, Calif. — Parents in this seaside town are in a twist over yoga, saying that adding the ancient practice of meditative exercise to the school curriculum is tantamount to religious indoctrination into Hinduism.
School officials never thought that yoga, practiced by roughly 22 million Americans, would be controversial when they accepted a $533,000 grant from a local yoga studio to include Ashtanga yoga in a program where students also learn about healthy eating and cultivate small gardens.
“We’ve got a ton of yoga in Encinitas," said school board member Carol Skiljan, an occasional yoga practitioner.
Encinitas has several yoga studios, particularly along the stretch of U.S. Highway 101 that runs through the retro-funky Leucadia neighborhood.
Yoga is taught at the local YMCA; at nearby Camp Pendleton, it is used to help Marines who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder after having been in combat.
But soon after yoga teachers began leading students at five elementary schools in twice-weekly sessions of stretching, breathing and relaxing, four dozen parents protested to the school board, saying yoga is a system of spiritual beliefs.
School officials quickly announced that parents could choose to have their children excused from yoga class.
But attorney Dean Broyles, representing the parents, said a lawsuit may be necessary to oust yoga from the school district.
“I think school officials are confused about Eastern mysticism," said Broyles, president and chief counsel for the Escondido-based National Center for Law & Policy, which deals with issues of religious freedom and Christian values.
“If this were a program letting children sit silently and engage in Christian prayer, the district would never allow it," Broyles said.
So far, school officials are standing firm. The yoga classes are set to expand into the district’s other four elementary schools in January, while researchers from the University of San Diego and the University of Virginia study whether yoga helps improve attendance at the schools and reduces fighting and bullying.
David Miyashiro, assistant superintendent of the Encinitas Union School District, said the K-6 district, not the yoga studio, remains in charge of the yoga program.
The yoga regimen has been tailored to children. There is no use of Sanskrit, and the names of poses have been changed to “kid-friendly" language such as “gorilla pose" and “mountain pose."