Here’s what the opponents to the Encinitas Jois yoga grant sent us

We have heard back from the National Center for Law and Policy, which is the legal firm advising the parents who are opposing the Encinitas Union School District’s yoga program.

I’d hoped they’d answer five questions we sent — the main one being what religious aspects are they worried about — but instead we received their press release; a copy of the memorandum of understanding between the district and the Jois Foundation; a copy of the Jois grant proposal; a copy of an MOU between the district and Regur Development Group (RDG), which is the organization running the yoga program; and a few newsletters/emails from the district to parents.

Collectively, these pieces reinforce what we know: the group believes that the Jois Foundation is actively pushing Ashtanga, “a deeply religious form of yoga.” They cite a number of things Pattabhi Jois said over the years as evidence, including: “Yoga is one. God is one. Yoga means knowing God inside you. But using it only for physical practice is no good, of no use. The spiritual aspect, which is beyond the physical, is the purpose of yoga,” and “Spirituality means energy and to meditate on that energy is spirituality. So developing and having faith in this energy is spirituality. The sacred scriptures are the whole foundation of our spiritual tradition.”

The group also points out that John Campbell, who is running the Center for Contemplative Sciences at the University of Virginia (which is helping with the research on the Encinitas program) and Sonia Jones are both “disciples” of Guruji’s. (They use that word specifically only to describe Jones, but it’s pretty much the same idea with Campbell.)

As for the study, the press release adds: “The Tudor Joneses were also instrumental in the founding of the Jois Foundation and allegedly gave the Jois Foundation the monies to fund the $533,000 EUSD Ashtanga yoga grant. EUSD concerned parents are naturally questioning the validity of an alleged “study” so fraught with obvious religious and financial conflicts of interest.” The fact that data on the students is being gathered is one source of concern.

The MOI with the Jois Foundation they provided is highlighted. I’ll admit, not much in it — even what’s highlighted — jumps out at me. It does talk about a curriculum with “life skills built around key themes of yoga instruction such as self-discipline, balance, and responsibility.” (Those life skills are highlighed in the group’s press release.) The MOU also talks about the program being “scalable” — i.e. that they can expand it to more schools and more districts.

The one piece that does jump out at me is in the MOU between the district and RDG. It includes this: “This MOU is offered with the best of intentions to clarify and manage expectations for the effective implementation of the grant provided by the Jois Foundation to support the implementation of Self­‐Mastery education in EUSD.” “Self-Mastery” is repeated throughout, but I don’t see a clear definition of what that means in anything they sent. (Perhaps it is in other material I don’t have.)

I can see how that phrase might raise eyebrows in a town with the Self-Realization Fellowship there on the cliffs. It isn’t hard to draw a line to Hindu teachings that involve ideas that we translate into English as “self-actualization,” “self-realization” or, perhaps, “self-mastery.”

Unless that term is defined clearly, I think it’s a potential problem for a program being put on in a public school.

Beyond that, though, I don’t feel like there’s a “smoking gun” that makes me think, “Oh, I see what these parents were upset about.” Of course, I know I’m biased toward thinking there isn’t anything untoward here. I’m doing my best to look at this information with as fresh an eye as possible.

With that in mind, I think turning back toward the law group’s press release is our best option for seeing what’s what. Here are a few of their concerns (these are all direct quotes):

  • The curriculum being developed not only includes physical yoga components, but also the development of a “life skills curriculum” which includes “key yoga life concepts” and “life skills built around key themes of yoga instruction.”
  • The stated goal of the Jois Foundation is to promote the “gospel” of Ashtanga (Hindu beliefs and practices), a deeply religious form of yoga, worldwide.
  • The CSC has expressed a desire to re-merge the practice of yoga and meditation with its spiritual roots. It is the UVA CSC which is “studying” the EUSD students and the results of regularly practiced Ashtanga yoga on children. The goal of the study appears to be to confirm and promote the “benefits” of Ashtanga yoga for children in public schools nationwide.
  • Many students have already been reporting training and instruction that goes well beyond mere yoga poses, which are themselves understood to be a form of Hindu religious worship. For example, children in one class were trained in drawing mandalas, students on another campus were told that certain poses were imparted by Hindu deities; students on at least two campuses have done their yoga practices with pictures on the wall of the Eight-Limbed Spiritual Path (which has recently been removed) whose ultimate goal is absorption into the Universal; students even in kindergarten are being trained in the Primary Series of Ashtanga which is a series of poses called the Sun Salutation and was specified by Jois to begin all Ashtanga practice as a required form of worship.
  • Personal data is being collected regarding EUSD students participating in Ashtanga yoga in the form of measurements and questionnaires. Many parents were not initially aware of the study and did not provide informed consent for their children to participate as test subjects. Nor has there been the requisite transparency on the part of the district about the relationship between the JOIS Foundation, the UVA’s study, the EUSD, and Paul and Sonia Tudor Jones. Nor have parents have been fully informed of the entire purpose of the study, how the data will be used, or given an explanation of USD’s involvement and funding source.

The group further claims that the school district has limited parent access to the yoga classes.

A few thoughts on the above points — and more thoughts from you are welcomed:

  • As with much of this conflict (and probably most conflicts), it’s the gray area that is such a problem. Does the addition of “life skills” mean that this yoga class is more than just exercise? I can absolutely see how someone could take it that way. At the same time, if the skills involve breathing to help keep you calm and other meditative practices, then I also see where they slide into the realm of the physical yoga practice. Or, to put it another way, are lessons about team work, determination, good sportsmanship, etc. a legitimate part of a schoolyard P.E. class?
  • I’ll admit: I can’t find anything about the Jois Foundation online, so I don’t know what that “gospel” language is all about. However, I do note that the “About Jois” page is currently being re-written. Was some of the offending language there? I don’t know.
  • If the school district (and by the district, I guess I mean the Jois Foundation, too) didn’t adequately alert parents that their kids would be part of a study, that was a mistake.
  • Regarding the mandalas and other things that go “beyond mere yoga poses,” I again default to the (perhaps too easy) perspective of the difficulty of this gray area. A mandala doesn’t strike me as very threatening — more akin to having students draw pictures of nature. The eight limbs are another question mark. First off, I’m not sure how one would teach Ashtanga without mentioning them. (To an extent, it feels like it is the specific teaching of Ashtanga that is the issue, but perhaps a more general yoga class would have raised the same concerns among the teachers.) Secondly, these limbs don’t strike me — again — as a threat. But they are rooted in a non-Christian tradition, no doubt. I wonder whether these students have been taught life skills and ways of acting that are rooted in Christian values — and whether anyone raised any concerns.
  • Again, if student data is being collected, parents need to know, no question.

Looking through the material (and I’m sorry I am not sure what process on WordPress would allow me to upload them, if that would be of interest to anyone), what I take away is this: It feels like some basic outreach ahead of time was flubbed — although that is mitigated by the fact that this program has been going on at a few district schools for years. But the expansion of the program — under the $533,000 Jois grant — and the inclusion of a study probably did demand a bit more communication from the district. I think this is especially true because, as we’ve noted, northern San Diego County is home to a lot of traditional Christian families. I’m not sure that this opposition should have come as a surprise.

I think, in the end, that someone at the district or at the Jois Foundation should have anticipated that what they were doing could be controversial and that they needed to proceed a bit more carefully. That might be a lesson the Jois Foundation, if it really does intend to spread Ashtanga more widely, would do well to learn.

Posted by Steve

Published by


Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

10 thoughts on “Here’s what the opponents to the Encinitas Jois yoga grant sent us”

  1. What is the intention of the Jois Foundation? Are they interested in spreading Yoga – in terms of breathing exercises and poses specifically, or are they interested in spreading Ashtanga? $500k is a drop in the bucket for Sonia Jones, but an excellent experiment in attempting to get more bodies into the failing Jois Studios and future generations to Mysore. Neither one of us truly know because we are not the decision makers for the foundation.

    I think the program is great if it sticks to the physical aspect. Yes, it is much more than that, but we start getting into gray area, and crossing the comfort boundary of parents, when an attempt is made to get into the spiritual side of the practice. There is even a difference of opinion within the Yoga community in terms of which lineage is better, traditional vs. non-traditional, chanting or no chanting, etc.. There are Yoga practitioners that feel absolutely comfortable with simply the westernized and physical aspect of Yoga. If that had been the approach, this would probably had never made it in the paper.

  2. My three children attended Catholic School for several years, and, at one point, I proposed to the former nun who was the Principal in their K-8 school that I would be happy to voluntarily teach Yoga to the children in all the grades. When the Principal, who was initially cautious about my offer, asked what I would be teaching, I told her my focus would be mainly on postures to promote health, fitness and wellbeing, plus I would teach simple breathing techniques to help students learn how to relax, reduce stress and increase their capacity to focus and concentrate. I specifically told her I would NOT share any of the spiritual aspects of the practice with the children. I am not a Catholic, but I was respectful and sensitive to the fact that I was sharing a potentially spiritual practice, one that arose through Hindu spiritual and philosophical belief systems and that these elements of Yoga most definitely had to remain out of the classroom.

    My respectful attitude and my guarantee that I was not there to proselytize, but merely to share the benefits of yoga practice, won her over, and she gave me permission to teach the kids, with an admonition – “Remember – no OM’ing or chanting!” I was known as the “Yoga Lady” to the kids, and taught Hatha Yoga to the younger grades, and basic Ashtanga to the 7th and 8th graders, each Spring for three years, before we moved out of the district. I also taught Yoga in an urban public grammar school as well on a volunteer basis for two years at this time. Again, the “no OM’ing or chanting” rule was in effect, as per the wishes of the public school’s administration.

    Now, I love the spiritual side of the practice. I love the Hindu religious stories. I share the ones I know with my students, I give them the names of the postures in Sanskrit, and we learn Sutras every week, too. We chant the invocation and sing OM every day. I present these aspects of the practice because that’s the yoga for me – that’s what I love to share. I don’t dilute it and I don’t need to: because I’m presenting it to paying adults who know what they are signing up for – and who can leave if they wish (if it the idea of doing yoga with the ultimate goal of working towards union with the universal consciousness bothers them or makes them feel uncomfortable.)

    So, as much as it saddened me, at first, that some parents would be so adamantly against yoga for their children, after reading the responses to your questions, and hearing that the Jois Foundation were promoting more than just teaching Yoga for its health and fitness benefits – that there was a bit of proselytizing going on – I can very much understand where these parents are coming from. If the public schools cannot teach children about the Golden Rule, or Jesus, or Muhammed, then why is it OK if they teach children about Ganesha or Hanuman or the Eight Limbs of Patanjali’s Yoga? Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems that this is a separation of church and state issue – and it also seems the Jois Foundation flubbed it. It could have been handled a bit better, with a little less tone-deafness.

    While the ideals and goals of the Jois Foundation are commendable and laudable, their methods seem to follow a pattern of obliviousness, or, dare I say it, a blatant disregard for the sentiments of others, that continues to undermine these efforts. It’s too bad.

    1. Beautifully said Michelle. I have nothing to add except to say how important hearing about your own experiences teaching yoga to children is to this discussion. Thank you!

  3. The question at the heart of this really is: is it possible to strip the spiritual aspects away from the asana practice? If you assume that by doing asana alone you are extracting only the health benefits away from the spiritual aspects of this practice you are effectively asserting that there is nothing innately spiritual in the asana itself.

    Students of Pattabhi Jois and Sharath know too well that their teachers often have reaffirmed that all the limbs of Yoga are contained within the asana alone. Asana is good for health- we know that- but good health is not what Ashtanga Yoga is for. Good health is merely a bi-product of a daily practice that is intrinsically spiritual regardless of what one’s prior statements of intent. There is therefore another assumption involved- that the individual practitioner (or teacher) determines via their own intent, what Ashtanga Yoga is or will be…i.e. “If I say it is spiritual, it is spiritual. If I say it is not, then it is not.” Again this assumes that there is no innate spiritual power in the asana itself and that ‘the individual’ has all power over that of the practice to determine what it will or will not do. This assumption, for anybody who has practiced for any considerable amount of time is clearly a mistake, and sadly, it is a mistake which devalues the traditions that have been generously shared with us by those who trusted us to value their full worth. For these reasons, despite the numerous health benefits of asana practice, the parents’ complaints are valid.

    It will be a sad day when these children grow into adults to reflect on what they were made to do at school…Making yoga available is one thing, making it part of the curriculum is another. If our education system, despite the efforts of great teachers, can take the poetry out of poetry, it can certainly take the Yoga out of Yoga.

  4. The presupposition, (and also perhaps the “prescription”) here is that yoga can and perhaps even should be taught as part of a state educational system. A comparative examination of how a large, complex nationalized educational system works, (and also possibly how it doesn’t) and, (in this case) Ashtanga Yoga – which is just one iteration from a much wider, complex and transnational set of concepts, cultures, beliefs and methodologies will uncover the spectacular and abitrary nature of this type of inititiative. Everyone involved in the setting up of this sort of initiative should take steps to counter the prevalence of willful naivety from the outset, exercise better judgement and take more care in enframing content which might be ordinarily be expected to be perceived as “spiritual”. Such as it was – and such is the lacking in sensitivity, awareness, knowledge and skill in yoga teacher training generally it was a course destined to create the sorts of divisions that it did. Such enthusiasm to teach yoga is, I am afraid somewhat of a contagion in many teacher training organisations, and so not without its own risks – regardless of the quality of the overall program devised, the teachers or the curriculum that is actually delivered.

  5. I work at one of the EUSD schools and have 2 children attending them. My problem with the yoga class is that every time I look through the window I only see about 5 kids concentrating and listening to the teacher and the rest of the kids are not listening. About half the kids are wriggling and actively goofing off.

    I feel sorry, I wish I could enter the room and say “hey kids who’d like to go outside and kick a ball?”. My hunch is every little yogi would abandon his mat and rush outside with glee.

    The religious argument is acting as a smokescreen to the real issue which is whether yoga is a helpful activity for elementary school kids.

    By the evidence of my own eyes in observing the classes on a weekly basis it is quite obvious that it is not.

    As can easily happen, I see that the teacher ONLY pays attention to the kids who have the concentration span to follow what she is saying. While the front row of the class is compliant, the rest of the class eventually switches off. These kids are getting utterly no benefit from the yoga at all. Indeed they are simply having their time wasted while they stare at the ceiling or giggle with their friends.

    These kids *would* be better off outside kicking a ball to each other (rather than lolling around being bored by the yoga teachers monolog). This simple act would also foster social interaction, dexterity, balance, proprioception, cardiac fitness, good sportsmanship and would actually be fun.

    I do not understand why an adult activity which was not developed for children is being forced on children. As an adult I can go to a yoga class and choose to submit to a teacher. As an adult I am able to submit to the long, detailed and subtle instructions. The didactic atmosphere does not bother me because I am mature enough not to be bored by this kind of instruction. School kids on the other hand do not have that choice.

    I fail to see how school yoga as it is currently taught is developmentally appropriate for children. . Indeed I think it’s unfair, because if the kids were offered an activity that was more developmentally attuned to them, they wouldn’t be goofing off.

    I am extremely cynical that the research into school yoga is being paid for by the Jois Foundation who’s prime motive appears to be to marketing their brand. Sonia Jones does appear to be extremely dogmatic (a rich zealot who thinks she knows what’s best for everyone?). Also if the Jois Foundation was so keen on “underserved children” as they claim on their website, then why have they chosen some of the richest schools in the county for their experiment?

    I do not agree with the hyper christian parents who are opposed to yoga on religious grounds. I think they are loons, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of us should uncritically embrace what appears to be a well meaning waste of school kids’ precious PE time.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s