‘Ashtanga would never be the same’

We all remember the Vanity Fair piece.

I’ve been surprised — maybe pleasantly — that Ashtanga’s role in the Encinitas yoga in schools story hasn’t led to further parachuting in by the media to figure out what it’s all about.

Finally, someone thought to jump. The San Diego Reader (understandably in Encinitas’ back yard, or vice versa) has delved into Ashtanga, and more specifically, Sonia Jones’ role with the Sonima Foundation:

Soon, Ashtanga yoga attracted young, beautiful people — movie stars, Wall Street zillionaires, and the like. In the late 1990s, Sonia Jones, a former fashion model who lived in tony Greenwich, Connecticut, with her very rich husband and their children, took up Ashtanga in New York.

Ashtanga would never be the same. Jones proselytized for it and got help from her husband, Paul Tudor Jones II, a hedge-fund operator who is worth $4.6 billion, according to Forbes magazine. Sonia Jones pledged to spread Ashtanga far and wide — particularly into schools.

And then the trouble started. In 2011, an organization named for the Ashtanga guru, the Jois Foundation, funded a yoga program at an Encinitas elementary school. Sonia Jones and San Diego’s Salima Ruffin, who is in the travel business, had set up the foundation. The person hired to teach the yoga classes had studied in Jois’s institute in Mysore, India.

After the trial in 2013, the Jois Foundation changed its name to Sonima Foundation — a combination of the names Sonia and Salima. “They changed their name to Sonima because they got beaten up at the trial,” says Broyles. After the superior-court judge determined that Ashtanga yoga was a religion, “they tried to religiously cleanse the program” so they could get it into the schools. The former Jois website said the organization was meant to “bring the philosophy, teachings, and values of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois to as many people as it is able to reach.” This included a “spiritually conscious line of clothing.” On the new website, sonimafoundation.org, such references are generally expunged.

The name change came about because the organization wanted “a broader base of health and wellness,” ripostes a Sonima spokesperson.

“They are trying to camouflage the religious nature of what they are doing,” says Broyles, who is considering an appeal to the state’s supreme court.

But Sonima is spreading fast. Its yoga program reaches 27,000 students in 55 schools, including in Encinitas and Cajon Valley. Administrators say that the yoga helps the children focus and reduces bullying, among other positive aspects.

I suspect we’d all argue with the idea that Jones’ role has fundamentally altered Ashtanga — but the piece is for the masses, not the crowds in a Mysore room.

Posted by Steve

Opponents issue terse statement on yoga trial ruling

Take this for what it is worth: At every other stage of the trial over the Encinitas public schools yoga program, the opponents’ law firm has issued a fairly lengthy press release.

Not this time.

You can find it here. But it basically amounts to this statement:

“No other court in the past 50 years has allowed public school officials to lead children in formal religious rituals like the Hindu liturgy of praying to, bowing to, and worshipping the sun god. We are disappointed with the decision and are carefully considering our options.”

It’s to be attributed to Dean Broyles, President and Chief Counsel of the National Center for Law & Policy, attorney for petitioners and appellants, the Sedlock family.

As I’d noted earlier, somehow it seems this ended up hinging on Surya Namaskara and whether that means one is worshipping the sun.

And for what it’s worth, the Universal Society of Hinduism has suggested every school in California add yoga, which it refers to as a “living fossil.”

Posted by Steve

Breaking news: Yoga can continue in Encinitas schools

It’s over. For now.

California’s 4th District Court of Appeal on Friday upheld the trial court’s ruling that rejected the anti-yoga lawsuit by parents who wanted to keep Encinitas schools from teaching yoga. It concluded the program doesn’t violate freedom of religion laws.

The full court ruling is here.

A quick rundown:

Attorney Dean Broyles, who represented the parents in the lawsuit, said he and his clients “are disappointed with the decision and we are carefully considering our options.”

“No other court in the past 50 years has allowed public schools to lead children in formal religious rituals like the Hindu liturgy of praying to, bowing to, and worshipping the sun god,” Broyles said in an email to U-T San Diego.

[snip]

Paul Carelli, an attorney with Stutz Artiano Shinoff & Holtz who represented the district pro bono in the case, said Friday he was pleased with the appeals court decision.

“We believe the school district was doing the right thing,” Carelli said. “The program is really very good for kids.”

Parents who do not want their children in the school district’s yoga program have the option of keeping them out, Carelli said.

The appeals court ruling “cements the constitutionality of the program,” Carelli said, so the district now could remove that option and make the class a requirement. However that’s unlikely, he said.

“Kids in the program love the program,” he said.

And here’s from the website of the program’s supporters. You can take this, I think, as a statement on their part:

While the yoga opponents will have an opportunity to petition the California Supreme Court for a review of today’s decision, two strong rulings in our favor make further judicial review unlikely.

We hope you and your families are enjoying spring break – your students’ yoga program will be waiting when they return to school.

Thank you, as always, for your warm wishes and continual support.  Coast Law Group has been honored to represent you in this fight.

Is it fair to say it was a good Friday? Do note the possibility of this going to yet a higher court. So stay tuned.

Posted by Steve

Does this count as an answer to the student who says yoga hurt her?

Yesterday, we passed on news that an eighth-grader in Encinitas this week went before the school board to ask that they halt the district’s Sonima Foundation-backed yoga program. As reported by the U-T San Diego:

She and her parents told the U-T that she participated in a variety of yoga warm up and stretching exercises over five months that caused the cartilage tear.

“I spent a number of nights crying,” said Katie, who played soccer and basketball and was nearly a black belt in karate before the injury.

Coincidentally enough, on Tuesday the Sonima Foundation blog highlighted what certainly seems to be an unintended counter argument:

Last week, I had a 5th grade student come up to me at the end of class and tell me how he has been using belly breathing to keep himself calm. He went on to say that when he has to pitch at an important baseball game, he gets really nervous. To help himself calm down and stay focused, he does belly breathing while he is in the dugout and even on the field before each pitch. His mother has noticed he seems calmer and more focused during the game! He also admitted to me that at first, he didn’t like yoga exercise and thought that it was a waste of his time. Now, he understands how the stretching helps him prevent injuries and the breathing helps him stay calm.

Two sides to one yoga coin, huh? As one of our readers pointed out, maybe the girl’s injuries had to do with basketball or soccer, or even karate, rather than yoga. (That’s speculation — but the story doesn’t provide an irrefutable argument about how the family knows it was yoga that caused the injuries.)

I think about the only thing sure here is that, like how the trial is pitting “expert” against “expert”, we probably could line up students who are both “for” and “against” the program.

Posted by Steve

Student says Encinitas yoga program injured her, requests it be halted

If you’ve been reading our coverage, you know that the debate about the Sonima Foundation’s yoga-in-schools program has had its highest profile in the courts.

Now there’s a new angle.

At this week’s Encinitas Union School District board meeting, an eighth-grader spoke to the board, asking them to stop the program for health and safety reasons.

Health and safety reasons, you ask. Yes. She says the yoga tore cartilage in her hips. Here’s the U-T San Diego’s coverage:

She and her parents told the U-T that she participated in a variety of yoga warm up and stretching exercises over five months that caused the cartilage tear.

“I spent a number of nights crying,” said Katie, who played soccer and basketball and was nearly a black belt in karate before the injury.

Her parents, Darryn and Karen Prince, said they didn’t actually discover the hip problems until Katie’s seventh grade year at Diegueno Middle School when she continued to complain about pain. Her diagnosis didn’t come until late 2013 following visits to a pediatrician and an orthopaedic surgeon.

“We didn’t know it was coming as a result of yoga until we were told this,” said Karen Prince.

The family was joined at Tuesday’s meeting by about 20 supporters — most of whom were wearing yellow t-shirts with “I’m for P.E.” printed on the front.

The board didn’t comment back at the meeting — but this is now something (else) to watch.

Posted by Steve

Encinitas yoga trial: ‘Tired rhetoric’ vs. ‘precedent-setting litigation’

I suppose you could call this a tale of two courtrooms.

On Wednesday, the two sides in the ongoing legal case surrounding yoga’s being taught in Encinitas public schools — by the Ashtanga-related Sonima Foundation — were back in court. Their takes on the preceding differ, as you might suspect.

Up first, the supporters of the yoga program:

Dean Broyles, the attorney for the yoga opponents, was first up.  He had the burden of showing the trial court erred in finding the yoga program Constitutional.  And the appellate justices made very clear that he was fighting an uphill battle.  Mr. Broyles offered up his tired rhetoric about the school district picking “religious winners and losers”.  The justices largely ignored such bloated proclamations and instead peppered him with pointed questions about the activity taking place in the yoga classroom.  Since his clients had never even observed, let alone participated, in the yoga classes, Mr. Broyles was left to rely upon his expert’s opinion that religion was “pervasive” in those classes based on video evidence.  The justices seemed unimpressed.

Next up was the school district’s attorney, followed by CLG partner Dave Peck on behalf of YES!.  Mr. Peck reminded the justices that the trial judge found the opinions of Mr. Broyles’ religious expert to be highly biased and “not credible.”  The trial court also found that the EUSD curriculum was completely devoid of religion and that there was absolutely no evidence of religious or spiritual instruction in the yoga classrooms.  With respect to the video evidence relied upon by the opposing expert, Mr. Peck cited the trial court’s finding that the videos simply depicted children engaged in exercise and nothing more.  Mr. Peck urged the court to reject Mr. Broyles’ conspiracy theories and to allow the highly successful yoga program to continue.

And then the formal press release from the National Center for Law & Policy:

In court today, Dean Broyles argued that “to attempt to strip religion from objectively religious rituals, to try to separate the metaphysical from the physical, is a fool’s errand.” “Take for example a catholic mass, which involves standing and kneeling, bowing in prayer, making the sign of the cross, and taking communion (Eucharist). Would the Establishment Clause allow that a catholic mass is an acceptable replacement for P.E, if given in Latin or silently, and if relabeled ‘calisthenics’ or if its communion portion is called ‘snack time,’ or if the program were relabeled ‘EUSD Mass?’ Absolutely not! Neither should yoga’s formal Hindu rituals be taught in public schools.”

“If permitted, this will open up a religious Pandora ’s Box,” declared Broyles after the hearing. If the courts allow these Hindu liturgies to continue, we will see of flood of religious organizations mimicking the Sonima Foundation’s approach, attempting to purchase access to young impressionable public school students, while at the same time deceptively concealing their religious beliefs and practices.”

The thrust of our argument today was that, because the trial court failed to find that teaching children of a young age with tender consciences formal religious rituals in school-sponsored classes violates the Establishment clause, it erred as a matter of law and the appellate court is bound by well-established legal precedents to reverse and find the District’s yoga program is unconstitutional.

Broyle also said this, according to the release: “The District completely ignores the inconvenient truth that its students are bowing to, praying to, and worshipping the Hindu sun god in yoga classes, by being led through the Surya Namaskara.”

I suppose I’d question whether the “Hindu sun god” is really worshiped anymore in the way that argument suggests. I feel like it is sort of akin to Greek or Roman gods, as opposed to Siva or Krishna, or Ganesha. Of course, it isn’t that simple. If I were trying to indoctrinate kids in a new religion, I’d probably not focus on Surya, is what I’m saying.

Wednesday’s preceding was before a three-judge panel, who will decide the appeal within the next three months.

Update: UT San Diego coverage. Short version: Sounds like the judges were skeptical.

Posted by Steve

The battle over yoga in Encinitas schools continues this week

Oral arguments will be heard on Wednesday in the ongoing legal battle about the Sonima Foundation’s yoga instruction in Encinitas public schools.

A little update is available at this local newsite (local being Encinitas):

A three-judge panel with the California Court of Appeals will listen to oral arguments and rule on the appeal. The hearing is 9 a.m. on March 11 in Division One of the Fourth District Court of Appeal, 750 B Street, Suite 300, San Diego.

Yoga was introduced in fall 2012 at five district schools. EUSD’s four remaining schools started yoga six months later. The program has been funded through grants from the Jois Foundation.

The case, which is believed to be the first challenge of a school yoga program on constitutional grounds, has attracted international attention.

I’m partial, though, to the update from the supporters of the program, YES! Yoga for Encinitas Students:

The yoga opponents are still at it.  More than two years after it began, the battle to keep yoga as part of the EUSD health and wellness program continues. The next stop is the California Court of Appeal.

On March 11, the Court will hear oral arguments in Sedlock v. Baird, the case EUSD and YES! won at the trial court in June 2013.  The parties have already submitted exhaustive legal briefs and the appellate justices will no doubt be ready to fire off questions.  YES! will be represented by Dave Peck of Coast Law Group, who litigated the case in the trial court.  M.C. Sungaila of Snell & Wilmer, who drafted our team’s brilliant brief, will also be on hand.  It promises to be a lively debate.

Although seating is limited, the public is welcome to attend.  The hearing is at 9 a.m. in Division One of the Fourth District Court of Appeal, 750 B Street, Suite 300, San Diego.  Please note: no mobile phones or recording equipment are allowed in the courtroom, but may be checked in and held at security screening.

We’ll find out Wednesday if there are any bombshells.

Posted by Steve