I had a more benign headline on this post, but then as I read further and further into this interview with Candy Brown, the religion professor and expert witness in the Encinitas yoga trial, I had to change it.
She definitely takes Judge John Meyer to task for his decision to allow the Sonima (formerly Jois) Foundation-funded yoga program to continue in Encinitas schools. I think “rips” is pretty fair. (By its very nature, the interview is totally one-sided.)
The interview with the Oxford University Press went up last week. (Obviously, it publishes her scholarly work.) In it, she delves fairly far and fairly wide into the trial. Some key excerpts:
Meyer determined that “yoga,” including “Ashtanga” yoga, “is religious.” Nevertheless, he allowed EUSD’s yoga program to continue, since he did not think children would perceive the program as advancing or inhibiting religion. The judge found the Jois Foundation partnership “troublesome,” but did not rule that it excessively entangled government with religion.
Were you surprised by the decision?
I found the decision inconsistent in its internal logic, as well as with legal precedents and facts in evidence. Courts have found that practices such as prayer and Bible reading cannot be taught in public schools because they are religious. If yoga is religious, it should not be taught in schools. Courts ask whether a reasonable, informed observer would consider practices religious. Children may not have enough information to determine whether less familiar practices are religious.
How do you explain the judge’s decision?
Judge Meyer discounted everything that happened in EUSD classrooms between August 2011 and December 2012 that “could be arguably deemed religious.” He also overlooked ongoing practices such as Surya Namaskara, shavasana, anjalimudra, chanting Om, meditation, kids’ use of Sanskrit, and EUSD use of the Sanskrit term yoga, which in Ashtanga means yoking with the divine. He refused to admit into evidence a newly discovered document revealing that in March 2013 EUSD-employed “Jois Foundation teachers” took EUSD students on a field trip to demonstrate “teaching Ashtanga yoga to children both in and out of the school system” at an overtly religious Ashtanga conference (opened by a Ganesh Puja).
Meyer got basic facts wrong. He concluded that EUSD removed the appearance of religion by renaming poses, giving the example that “the so-called lotus position was renamed criss-cross applesauce.” The term “criss-cross applesauce” does not appear even once in the spring 2013 yoga curriculum; the term “lotus” appears 194 times. The 2013 EUSD promotional video records a teacher instructing: “go into lotus.” Meyer believed testimony that jnanamudra was replaced by “brain highways,” a claim contradicted by defendant declarations and the video. Indeed, Meyer ignored multiple instances where defense witnesses contradicted themselves, each other, and documents they signed.
(We covered the program’s opponents belief they’d found a “smoking gun” via the Confluence, that “overtly religious Ashtanga conference”, previously.) Now, here are a few other parts that made me go “hmmmm”:
Ashtanga emphasizes postures and breathing on the premise that these practices will “automatically” lead practitioners to experience the other limbs and “become one with God,” in the words of Jois, “whether they want it or not.”
I’m struggling to decide if that is true — “automatically?” I feel like I want to say: I wish! I suppose if one just glosses over what Guruji said, you could come to that conclusion (especially if it suited your purposes) but there’s nothing “automatic” about Ashtanga that I’ve encountered. This is the same yoga that Tim Miller, in the Vanity Fair article about Jois Yoga from a couple years ago, described as the “yoga of no.”
Although EUSD officials reacted to parent complaints by modifying some practices, EUSD classes still always begin with “Opening Sequence” (Surya Namaskara) and end with “lotuses” and “resting” (aka shavasana or “corpse”—which encourages reflection on one’s death to inspire virtuous living), and teach symbolic gestures such as “praying hands” (anjalimudra) and “wisdom gesture” (jnanamudra), which in Ashtanga yoga symbolize union with the divine and instill religious feelings.
I guess here’s the best argument I’ve seen to dispense with calling the last “pose” savasana. That aside, I don’t once remember being told that I was suppose to be reflecting on my own death. I may, in fact, be doing that if it was a particularly rough asana practice, but I’m not doing so in any directed way.
The ruling sets a precedent for public schools to offer religious yoga programs. Indeed, just last week, EUSD accepted a new $1.4 million grant from the Jois/Sonima Foundation to expand its yoga program. Scientific research shows that practicing yoga can lead to religious transformations. For example, Kristin is a Catholic who started Ashtanga for the stretching; she now prefers Ashtanga’s “eight limbs” to the “Ten Commandments.” Kids who learn yoga in public schools may also be learning religion.
And that’s how the interview ends. I’m sorry, but to claim that one essentially anonymous person is the example of the dangerous road down which students are going to go is … well, all that is is another example of the bad arguments and poor persuasion that characterized the trial. I remain amazed at how insipid the arguments against the Encinitas program were, and how ineffective they were. I’ve also noted that the pro-side didn’t particularly knock their arguments out of the park. But they didn’t have to do so.
If there’s ever an appeal, that may change.
Posted by Steve