Lawsuit filed against Jois-funded yoga program in Encinitas schools

Just when you thought the brouhaha over the Jois Foundation’s yoga program in Encinitas schools was gone …

The opponents in this whole deal, the National Center for Law & Policy, announced Wednesday that they have filed a lawsuit against the Encinitas Union School District seeking an end to the yoga program.

Here are the key parts of the news release:

SAN DIEGO, CA — Attorneys for the National Center For Law & Policy (NCLP) filed a civil rights lawsuit in San Diego Superior Court today against the Encinitas Union School District (EUSD). The lawsuit seeks a writ of mandate and injunctive relief to order EUSD to comply with the California constitution’s religious freedom provisions and a state education statue requiring EUSD to provide a mandatory minimum number of physical education minutes. The NCLP represents petitioners and plaintiffs Stephen and Jennifer Sedlock and their minor children, who are students in the district. The lawsuit is the result of EUSD’s decision to accept $533,000 from the Jois Foundation in exchange for providing the religiously-based organization access to its young and impressible students to test and prove the feasibility of Jois’ “health and wellness” Ashtanga yoga curriculum. According to Harvard educated religious studies Professor Candy Gunther Brown, Ph.D., who wrote a declaration supporting the complaint, EUSD’s Ashtanga yoga program is inherently and pervasively religious, having its roots firmly planted in Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, and Western Metaphysical religious beliefs and practices. As such, the program violates California constitutional provisions prohibiting government religious preference and religious discrimination (article I, § 4), prohibiting use of state resources to support religion (article XVI, § 5), and forbidding employing government resources to promote religion in public schools (article IX, § 8).

“EUSD’s Ashtanga yoga program represents a serious breach of the public trust,” declared attorney Dean Broyles. “Compliance with the clear requirements of law is not optional or discretionary. This is frankly the clearest case of the state trampling on the religious freedom rights of citizens that I have personally witnessed in my 18 years of practice as a constitutional attorney. The program is extremely divisive and has unfortunately led to the harassment, discrimination, bullying, and segregation of children who, for good reasons, opt out of the program. EUSD’s Ashtanga yoga program represents a prime example of precisely why in America we wisely forbid the government from picking religious winners and losers, especially when you have a captive audience of very young and impressionable children as we do in our public schools.”“EUSD’s ‘model’ yoga program sets a very dangerous precedent. No matter how starved our school districts are for money, we must not allow our public servants to ‘sell’ our precious children to the highest bidder to be used as religious ‘guinea pigs’ to fulfill the self-serving marketing purposes of a religiously motivated organization. Religious freedom is not for sale. EUSD’s improperly cozy relationship with the Jois Foundation has entangled the district in an unnecessary and avoidable religious controversy and has caused considerable damage and negative fallout in the community. EUSD had more than three months of warnings to make the right call and suspend the illegal program voluntarily, yet has negligently failed to act. The EUSD Trustees have persistently closed their eyes to the transparently religious nature of the program, determining to take the money and run with it. They have shown little concern or respect for families who were religiously burdened by the program and appropriately objected to religious beliefs and practices being illegally promoted in the public schools. And the EUSD Trustees and Superintendent have done nothing to solve the major problem that Children who opt out of Ashtanga yoga for religious and other reasons and who are not receiving the state mandated 200 minutes of PE every 10 days. Sadly after learning that the program violated the law, rather than doing the right thing and immediately suspending the program, EUSD’s Superintendent and Trustees engaged in months of delay and inaction. Meanwhile, Superintendent Baird repeated the misleading ‘mantra’ to the public and the press that EUSD had “stripped” the program of religion or that it was not “religious.”

The lawsuit does not seek money damages; but rather seeks to immediately suspend EUSD’s divisive Ashtanga yoga program and restore traditional physical education to the district.

Both KPBC in San Diego and the U-T also are reporting the news.

The issue for the opponents of the program seems to boil down to their belief that it “violates California laws protecting religious freedom and prevents students who opt out from meeting the mandatory number of physical education minutes required under the state education code.” This has been the fundamental sticking point the whole time.

Keep in mind, the Jois folks will be speaking at the Confluence next week on the topic of teaching yoga to kids. Will this affect their participation or alter what they might be able to say? Who knows.

Check out our background on this story right here.

Posted by Steve

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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