Claim: Encinitas yoga program promotes and advances religion

Throughout the now months-long battle between parents upset about the Jois Yoga-funded program in the Encinitas schools and supporters, I’ve continually returned to two fundamental questions:

  1. Is yoga inherently religious, as the opponents (who have now filed a lawsuit to stop the program) suggest?
  2. What is it about this Jois Yoga-backed program that caused such a stir when there are numerous other yoga-in-schools programs, including ones with at least loose ties to Ashtanga?

That yoga is inherently religious seems to be the key point in the lawsuit filed on Wednesday by the National Center for Law & Policy. The suit claims that due to this the yoga program violates the “California constitution’s religious freedom provisions.” The suit includes expert testimony from Indiana University professor Candy Gunther Brown.

So just who is Dr. Brown? Here’s a link to her bio page at IU. As I looked into more background, what popped up — and what I remembered — was her lead involvement in a study that determined that praying for another person’s healing can help, especially if that prayer happens physically near the person for whom it is being said.

If you have an image of Evangelical Christians laying on hands, by my impression, you’ve got it pretty close. One of Brown’s specialties is Evangelical Christianity, including Pentecostals and Charismatics. How, you might then wonder, is she an expert on whether yoga is religious?

As best as I can tell — other than from her own claims to her expertise in the suit — it is because she wrote a book, The Healing Gods of Christian America: Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the Mainstream. Here’s a little from her bio about the book:

American interest in divine healing peaked twice in the late nineteenth and late twentieth centuries, in parallel (and intersecting in surprising ways) with twin peaks in interest in various “natural,” “holistic” therapies (such as yoga, chiropractic, acupuncture, Reiki, Therapeutic Touch, mindfulness and Transcendental Meditation, martial arts, homeopathy, and anti-cancer alternatives) that are similarly envisioned as offering something more than biomedicine.

In her declaration for the lawsuit, she writes: “In particular, I have conducted extensive research on yoga and meditation—including school yoga and meditation programs. … I regularly draw upon my research in my teaching, including my research on yoga, meditation, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and metaphysics.”

I know I’m not exactly unbiased here, but I don’t think that makes her the most solid expert. But I’m not going to be the judge or jury in this case. (I will note that she seems to have won a few teaching awards at IU.)

The other thing I checked out: What’s her rationale for getting involved? Nothing has jumped out at me. I’ve looked around to see if she is often an expert witness in lawsuits, and that doesn’t seem to be the case. I assume from her writings and research, which I take to be trying to prove the value of prayer (and its value in being studied) that she’s a Christian, and perhaps Evangelical. But I don’t know. I’m guessing that will be the conclusion a lot of people jump to when they see she is part of the suit. But I haven’t found a string of instances where she’s crusading against the spread of yoga or anything like that.

Her statement is 31 pages long, so I’m just going to take the meat from is:

11. My opinion regarding whether the Ashtanga yoga program in the Encinitas Union
School District (EUSD) promotes or advances religion is as follows:
12. Ashtanga yoga, as endorsed by the EUSD yoga curriculum, in my expert
opinion, promotes and advances religion, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and
Western metaphysics.
13. Documents and statements by EUSD representatives, the Jois Foundation, the
Jois Foundation Encinitas Yoga Shala, the University of Virginia Contemplative Sciences
Center (CSC), the Carlsbad Ashtanga Yoga Center, and other members of the Ashtanga
yoga community include religious and specifically Hindu content.
14. The practices taught by the EUSD yoga curriculum promote and advance
religion, including Hinduism—whether or not these practices are taught using religious or
Hindu language.


17. The EUSD yoga program fits a definition of “religion” informed by
scholarship in religious studies and comparative religion.


21. Historically, yoga has been closely associated with religious traditions of India
that are today identified as Hindu, Buddhist, or Jain.


28. Historically, the type of meditation promoted by UVA’s CSC has been
associated with Hindu and Buddhist religious traditions.


31. The EUSD yoga curriculum incorporates and endorses religious concepts.


42. Parents who observed EUSD yoga classes, and/or whose children participated
in these classes, attest to the inclusion and endorsement of religious elements.


49. The Jois Foundation website includes Hindu religious content.


54. Leaders of the University of Virginia Contemplative Sciences Center (CSC)
affirm that Ashtanga yoga and mindfulness meditation promote religion.


57. Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and his son Manju Jois describe Ashtanga yoga as
promoting Hinduism, even when presented as a purely physical practice stripped of religious
language and instruction.


59. Manju Jois says doing asanas automatically draws practitioners into Hindu
spiritual path. According to Manju Jois, son of Pattabhi Jois, when teaching “Western students,”
his father did not discuss the “spiritual aspect” of yoga because “Hinduism is very, very hard to
understand.” That is why “the yoga asanas are important – you just do. Don’t talk about the
philosophy – 99% practice and 1% philosophy that’s what he meant. You just keep doing it,
keep doing it, keep doing it then slowly it will start opening up inside of you,” to
“automatically . . . draw you into the spiritual path.”


60. The Carlsbad Ashtanga Yoga Center (AYC) website promotes Hindu religious

61. AYC observes “moon days” for Hindu religious reasons. The website for the
Ashtanga Yoga Center (AYC) in Carlsbad, California (directed by Tim Miller, “the first American
certified to teach by Pattabhi Jois”) explains that the “Ashtanga Yoga tradition” observes “full and
new moon days” because “full moon energy corresponds” to “prana” force and “new moon
energy” to apana force,” as described in the “Upanishads.”


68. Just because the EUSD denies that its yoga program is religious does not, in
itself, mean that the program has been stripped of religious content, nor that it is necessarily
possible to separate a yoga program from religious content.


72. There is evidence that promoters of yoga and mindfulness meditation
commonly engage in “self-censorship” or “camouflage” to make practices seem less religious
and thus more palatable to secular or Christian audiences.


75. EUSD’s denial that its yoga curriculum is religious resembles similar denials
made by other programs and individuals who have brought what they understand as
religious yoga into public education.


79. 13. There is evidence that many yoga promoters believe that practicing
“secularized” yoga will lead practitioners to embrace yoga’s religious concepts.


82. There is evidence that even “secularized” yoga promotes Hinduism and
related religions, as participants in “secularized” yoga do come to embrace religious yoga.

I suppose I should note that there’s a fairly substantial reference to the Ashtanga Yoga Center, most likely because it is local. And in between all the parts printed above are the rationales behind them. (I’m trying to figure out a way to get this online or find it online for those interested in it all.)

All that is in answer to my first question. As for the second question, I think it is a bit funny given Brown’s work with Evangelicalism that it seems to come down to the Jois Foundation’s perceived “evangelicalism” about Ashtanga.

The suit also includes a story in c-ville mag about the University of Virginia’s Contemplative Sciences Center, which Paul Tudor Jones and his wife Sonia funded. (Our coverage of it here.)

The story includes mentions of the work with the Encinitas School District, but my guess is there are two key parts of the story for the yoga program’s opponents:

As Vanity Fair tells it, Sonia’s single-minded devotion to the practice—along with her husband’s money—has also led to ambitious plans to spread the gospel of Ashtanga throughout the country and even internationally. In partnership with Pattabhi Jois’ daughter and his grandson Sharat (who has taken over his grandfather’s practice), she’s started three Ashtanga shalas—in Encinitas, California; Sydney, Australia; and most recently in Greenwich, Connecticut —and has also set up charities to bring yoga worldwide, from charter schools in Florida to villages in Africa, earning her the tag of the “Mother Teresa of yoga.”


The CSC is designed to effect that reunion, linking the practical approach to yoga and meditation employed in the medical sciences to the cultural traditions that created them. Much of that work will happen in the religious studies department. Campbell is on tap to teach a class this fall called Yogic Traditions of South Asia, which is listed in the online syllabus as “an exploration of concepts and practices associated with the Indic categories of yoga and tantra in major religious traditions of South and Himalayan Asia.”

Of course, I haven’t seen anything to suggest that a similar effort to re-link yoga and its cultural traditions is happening in Encinitas; the district’s superintendent and others involved have said, repeatedly, that is isn’t. (You’ll note, though, that such arguments are targeted in the expert testimony above.)

But if someone were looking for a fire, I guess I can see where they might have thought they spotted some distant smoke here. But it feels like it is taking a lot of looking.


The expert testimony is online now, right here.

Hey! The Catholic Church may be embracing yoga a little, teensy bit.

Are yoga balls in elementary school OK?

Posted by Steve

Published by


Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

25 thoughts on “Claim: Encinitas yoga program promotes and advances religion”

  1. Yoga is as much a part of Hinduism as Christmas is a part of christianity and Chanukah is a part of Judaism. Just because most asana practitioners don’t believe in god does not mean that ashtanga yoga is not part of the hindu vedic traditions. Sri Krishna Patthabi Jois is constantly talking about taking ashtanga practice and getting closer to god, I mean please, really, c’mon………………….

  2. This argument shouldn’t be happening it’s a waste of money and court time that could be used for justice. All religions should be kept out of school including Christmas, Chanukah, Ramadan, everything. I don’t use the word stupid much but this argument that Yoga is not based on ancient Vedic, Hindu texts etc is nothing short of ignorant. Yoga is beautiful and so is the religion and traditions it sprouted from but to say it isn’t religious. If you don’t believe it is religious then don’t study Patthabi Jois’s Ashtanga Yoga because this was Gurji’s entire life and goal to get closer to god through the practice.

  3. Taken from

    Conference Notes with Sharath Jois: KPJAYI, 21 October 2012

    Sharath began with reaffirming, “Yoga is not new.” He cited that there are so many ‘manuscripts’ that describe the yoga experience and that explain how to practice yoga. There is the Bhagavad Gītā, the Upaniṣads, and the Vedas. The Ṛṣis of long ago practiced yoga to develop mind control too, so that they could then attain higher states of consciousness.

    In the Bhagavad Gītā the original teaching of yoga is said to have come from Kṛṣṇa and through a direct descent (paraṁparā) from his first student, Īśavān, who then taught it to Manu, and continuing down in this way from generation to generation. Although, through the ages, this knowledge gets distorted and lost, and so Kṛṣṇa takes birth again to teach it. It is in this context that Kṛṣṇa is teaching Arjuna. That is, during that time, Truth or Dharma had become too oppressed and obscured due to the rise of Adharma or unrighteousness.

    Arjuna was confused by the pending war wherein he was to battle against his own grandfather and so many other of his relatives and friends. So Kṛṣṇa had to help restore Arjuna’s mental clarity. Because of this confusion, Arjuna was not able to understand clearly what his duty was. We too have to realize our own duty (karma/dharma) and to do that. We are born with a purpose that we must accomplish.

    Sharath recounted that 100 years ago – when Krishnamacharya was wanting to learn yoga – it was very difficult to find a good yoga teacher. People were mistakenly afraid that yoga would make you leave your life, families and friends behind – i.e. become a saṁnyāsin, a renunciate – so there weren’t many people practicing yoga. Krishnamacharya wanted someone who could teach him the practical experience of yoga – beyond the theory he had already learned from his previous extensive studies. It was not easy back then; he had to travel all the way to Nepal, and then he spent several days persuading his teacher to be, Ramamohan Brahmachari, that he was worthy. Ramamohan wouldn’t even address Krishnamacharya himself; he instead sent his son outside to give him a couple of rotis, and to tell him to eat and go. But Krishnamacharya was stubborn – he wouldn’t go – and he eventually gained Ramamohan as his teacher through discussions spoken in Sanskrit which convinced him that he was not an ordinary person, that he was fit for learning real yoga. Krishnamacharya stayed with his teacher for 7-8 years and learned many yoga Śāstras. He learned the Yoga Korunta – composed by Vāmana Ṛṣi – which is the text from which this practice is based.

    Sharath recalled that even as recently as 20 years ago – here in India – the misconception that yoga was only for saṁnyāsins was still prevalent. Back when Krishnamacharya was learning & teaching yoga, the intention was purely for self-transformation (anuṣṭhāna), to elevate the consciousness. Guruji was among only a few students who studied for a long time (more than 20 years) with Krishnamacharya. The others were Keshu Murthy (apparently he is the really bendy person in Krishnamacharya’s book Yogāsanagaḷu) and Mahadeva Bhatt. So intense was Guruji’s desire for developing the inner yogic experience that he lived a very disciplined life. He would wake very very early and begin his chanting and yoga practices, then he would teach yoga for several hours, then again he would resume his chanting. Now a days, yoga has become more like exercise. Even the martial arts were originally practiced for this same reason: self transformation. We should have this same original goal of self transformation, of elevating our consciousness too – and not just while we’re practicing āsanas on the yoga mat, but in our whole life as well! (More about this later.) We should not just approach yoga to learn āsanas so that we can teach yoga. That is limited. If we approach yoga for higher, more spiritual goals, the journey is endless. “Yoga is bigger than everyone…Yoga is what happens within you…You can experience, but can’t own it.” It’s like the Sun. Through the Sun, we can take energy, get Solar Power, and health, but we can’t ever own the Sun. “We don’t even own this body. It goes back to Nature. One day you have to give it back.” This led Sharath to begin talking about the larger picture again, and he told us a short story which I’ll paraphrase:

    It used to be common in villages that there would be a large tree where people would gather – usually in the evenings – to relax, catch up with one another, and generally enjoy the company of the community where they live. There would be a platform built around the base of the tree for the people, and it was called a “People Tree.” Now a days though, people watch soap operas on the TV, and tend to only talk about those fictitious stories rather than connecting with their own families, neighbors and friends. But it happened once that a young man was wondering about this tree. “What use is this tree?” he asked. “It doesn’t give fruits or fire wood or anything. It is completely useless. Why do we have it? We should get rid of it!” An older man of the village said, “Boy, it is because of this tree that we have such good clean air, and a nice place to gather. This tree cleans the air. It is very important.”

    Sharath reminded us that a clean and healthy environment is important. The yogī needs a pure place to support having good thoughts; clean air is also very important. This supports both our physical and mental health. We can’t just do āsanas on the yoga mat. We must take care of all living beings. Every living being has the same right to live a clean and healthy life. [Sharath tooks this opportunity to let us know that the windows in your practice space should be alpa-dvāra, open a little bit to allow fresh air to circulate through the room – especially when you’re practicing with a lot of other people, because what one person is exhaling, another person is inhaling!]

    All Yoga Śāstras describe yoga as withdrawing the senses ((sp?) avaṭa-cakṣu) and realizing the purity inside. These texts describe the inner purity as covered by six enemies or shells. Like when we dive into the ocean to get the pearl, we have to remove the shell. But our inner purity is covered by six shells (Ari Ṣaḍ Vargas): Kāma (lust, desire), Krodha (Anger), Mohā (Delusion), Lobha (Greed), Māda (Pride), and Mātsarya (Jelousy). If we allow these to develop inside of us, they will destroy us! If we want to gain proper knowledge of the divine – which has no form – we have to develop certain qualities within ourselves. Then those six shells will break open and we see the inner purity. This is for everyone. Everyone is capable of doing this! Everyone can walk from Mysore to Bangalore, but most will doubt, or make excuses: “Oh my legs hurt,” “I’m tired,” etc. We have to apply effort in a proper way. Our work should be to understand how to get rid of these six spiritual enemies.

    Āsana practice comes first. The Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā doesn’t list the yamas and the niyamas because you can’t really follow those. They have to be developed inside. But we can’t just show people on the outside. People wear Saffron Robes (sign of a Saṁnyāsin) or carry their yoga mat over their shoulder, but that doesn’t mean they’re spiritual. How we are inside doesn’t show on the outside. Doing handstands doesn’t mean you’re a big yogī. Even Sambhav (Sharath’s son) can do a handstand.

    Sharath tells another story:

    In a village there are two very big scholars, Shastri and Sharma (two family names that mean they are supposedly scholars, like Jois means astrologer). These two were always discussing and reciting the Śāstras, Upaniṣads and the Vedas. One day a young man was walking through their village, and he sat down under the big People Tree. He sat silently in meditation. After a while, so many of the villagers came and sat there with him. They too sat quietly in meditation. No one was saying anything – just meditating. After some time passed, Shastri and Sharma noticed this, and Shastri said to Sharma, “What is this none sense? Why are all of those people gathered around this young man. He probably doesn’t even know anything of the Śāstras, Upaniṣads or Vedas.” Sharma replied, “Let us go over there and we’ll quiz him. Let’s ask him questions to show in front of everyone that he doesn’t know anything.” So they went over there, and immediately as they sat near the young man, they forgot all about their questions – instead they too began to sit in meditation.

    It’s like that when someone really knows the Inner Truth, they have this type of effect on others. They can teach it to others just from their own presence. So much has been written about the famous defining Sūtra on Yoga: yogaḥ cittavṛttinirodhaḥ. Four pages, ten pages have been discussed about this, but we can’t understand this without practicing. Guruji put it so simply, “Practice, all is coming.”

    One other story-joke was told earlier during conference:

    In India, usually the man’s family seeks a bride for their son. It’s like that (or used to be) the two families get together and decide if they’ll get married or not. Usually the bride moves in with the groom so the groom has to first have a good job; otherwise, why would anyone want to marry him. In the Star of Mysore (a local paper), you’ll see ads for this. But once there was a man who had no job. He wanted to get married, but had no job. He saw an ad in the paper that a family wanted a man to marry their daughter and live with them (this is the other way around from normal). This unemployed person was very excited. He thought, “I won’t have to work – except to help around the house – and this family will provide for and take care of me.” So he called them up and arranged an interview. The only thing was the ad had not stated anything about which cast or sect the family belonged to. So the man, not knowing which marks to wear on his forehead, wore every manner of cast marking on his forehead. When he arrived at the interview and they say him, they immediately asked him, “Why are you wearing so many marks?” “Oh, I really want this job. So whichever marks you wear in this family, I’ll keep only those.”

    1. “Yoga is at the core of all religions” ~Guy Donahue I am only an armchair competitive religious scholar and can’t claim enlightenment or expertise in any one religion. I have deep respect for Guy Donahue and his knowledge but I find the above blog post subjective. All the terminology is sanskrit, vedic, hindu based so to say yoga isn’t religious then say yoga is at the core of all religions is contradictory. I agree that the yogic principles can be used in many different ways to deepen ones life experience, religious experience and spiritual experience no matter what it is. But, as Guy mentions in the above article himself is that Yoga is at the core of all religions. The argument is to keep religion out of the schools and so to be fair to all faiths including atheism yoga is religious and should not be included.

    1. That is a powerful article and I completely agree….lol.

      “Of course Guruji taught Ashtanga Yoga as a complete system but today there are few teachers who are able to adequately do this, nor is there so much interest in learning the complete yoga system. There is much more interest in learning how to do a handstand or an advanced asana.’ ~ Guy Donahue

      I have to say that lately my practice has turned far more towards sitting, meditating, japa mala. I do ashtanga yoga every day but sometimes 2 short form practices, sometimes 1 short form practice and most days the whole practice. I often do asana on saturday also but I experiment with other systems or a variation of ashtanga. I try and focus on all the other limbs and asana vs. asana and all the other limbs.

      1. I wonder if it would be possible to put different yoga (and specifically Ashtanga) teachers into camps on this issue, and what they share background-wise that would put them there.

        Pretty obviously your basic “flow” teachers probably would have arguments about yoga’s not being religious. I wonder what else might be the divide, as obviously there is no consensus.


      2. I don’t think it would matter what other yoga teacher’s thought. It would be like asking a non religious person why they take part in events like Hanukah, Christmas or Ramadan as a cultural event vs. religiously. It amazes me how many people participate in Christmas but don’t see it as taking part in a religious ceremony but they are but they’ll argue to the end that they aren’t. It’s the same with yoga. In fact many of the people that practice yoga sans religious also practice Easter and Christmas Sans Religious.

      3. Personally I think schools need to re instate full on physical education like when us 50 year olds were kids. We had PE classes every day. This argument about religious freedom and equality wouldn’t even be taking place if PE was put back in the schools as part of the curriculum.

  4. I’m sorry but I think the Jois Foundation has really overstepped the mark in their curriculum design. I don’t see any way for them to argue otherwise, having read Brown’s testimony.

  5. Pingback: Alexandra O'Hara

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