‘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

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

‘The wealthiest yoga booster that we’ve come across yet’

Inside Philanthropy — an extremely mainstream and respected publication focused on I’ll let you guess what — has a piece up on the Sonima Foundation and the prana (instead of power) couple behind it: Paul Tudor and Sonia Jones:

Sonia also has a deep history with this yoga method and teamed up with the heirs of an Ashtanga yoga master to open studios, called “shalas,” in order to continue teaching Ashtanga. Sonia helped finance some of these studios, one of which operated for a while in Greenwich, Connecticut, where the Jones family lives. In the Jones’ residence—which, by the way, resembles Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello (only with a 25-car underground garage)—Sonia, Jones, and all their children have practiced Ashtanga as well.

OK, so Sonia is all about yoga.

But the interesting thing about the Sonima Foundation is its focus on children and youth, particularly those who are at risk. No, this isn’t about introducing yet more privileged thirty-something yuppies to the power of yoga. Sonima wants to empower the most vulnerable using yoga and other wellness strategies.


Another component of this new partnership is research and a research team at Stanford University will be tracking the progress of these students for the next several years. Dr. Victor Carrion, Head of Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University and a Sonima Foundation Advisory Board Member, will helm this research project.

In Carrion’s words: “We’re really looking forward to a year from now, when I tell you this is effective, for you not to only take it on my word, but for you to also have data.”

All told, it’s a pretty positive piece. And the type that might get others in the philanthropy community to go, “Huh, if they are investing in yoga and meditation, is there a reason we should look at that, too?” Because that’s how those things work.

Posted by Steve

Benefits of yoga in school: ‘higher attendance, less bullying and violence’

The onward march of yoga in schools continues, this time in a low-income part of California’s Bay Area. (For those wondering, yes, there are low-income and underserved areas in a part of the state best known for San Francisco and Silicon Valley.)

Behind this latest is our Ashtanga-related Sonima Foundation:

Thanks to a partnership with the Sonima Foundation, which is based in Southern California, 3,400 students from five schools in East Palo Alto and two in Menlo Park will join more than 24,000 boys and girls across San Diego County, New York, Houston and Florida in a yoga-based health and wellness program aimed at improving their mindfulness and nutrition.

“We’re thinking that we will see results within the first two months,” said Superintendent Dr. Gloria M. Hernandez-Goff, who expects immediate improvements in attendance and office referrals. “That’s how much impact this program has. And then, of course, there is the long term, which has a lot to do with building those resiliency skills, learning how to cope with issues and problems and self regulation when things don’t go well.”

The Sonima Foundation curriculum, which is funded for three years, aims to provide children — in this case transitional kindergarten through eighth grade — with the skills to handle stressful situations, curtail bullying and violence, prevent obesity, and improve their ability to absorb information in the classroom.

“Success is synergistic with environment,” said Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who praised the district for not dismissing the importance of mindfulness. “Create the right conditions, create the right climate, success becomes irresistible. So as we try to struggle to address the issue of academic achievement, we have to be cognizant of the conditions to which we are trying to advance that principle.”

Hedge fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones, chairman of the Sonima Foundation Board, added: “If we could have the kids in Ravenswood achieve in mind, body, soul and spirit the level of health and wellness that out lieutenant governor’s hair exemplifies, this will be the greatest success in the history all projects.”

There’s also coverage here.

It’s worth noting that I haven’t seen any recent updates about the lawsuit against the yoga-in-school program.

A key piece to the Sonima program — as with its others — is a research component, in part through Stanford University. One reason these studies are important is because public policy changes don’t happen — or at least happen a lot less frequently and with a lot more effort — without data-driven evidence. So if you want to see a yoga/wellness program like Sonima’s be made a part of the K-12 school system’s health/physical education program — in other words be OKd as something that fulfills the definition/requirement for those programs — there has to be some facts to back up your case.

Sonima seems intent on building up a body of evidence.

Posted by Steve

Houston, we have no problem: Sonima Foundation expands yoga program

Continuing to broaden its yoga in schools program, the Sonima Foundation has added a dozen campuses in Houston, Texas this fall.

Coverage from one of the local TV stations is right here (there’s video, which you may have guessed):

In a window-lit classroom at Crockett Elementary School, 21 third-graders sat cross-legged on purple mats and put their hands over their hearts.

“How does exhaling feel?” their teacher, Morgan Camp, asked.

“Relaxing,” said one boy.

“Like bubbles going in and then they’re popping by themselves,” said another.


As trendy and pricey yoga studios have popped up around the country, nonprofits like the Sonima Foundation and New York’s Bent on Learning have brought the mind-body practice to public schools. Still, special yoga courses in schools aren’t widespread as administrators balance academic requirements with electives.

“Lots of physical education teachers do incorporate some yoga into their classes,” said Dolly Lambdin, president of the Society of Health and Physical Educators and a clinical professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s a great activity for people. But it’s only one piece of what a quality physical education program should be.”

In HISD, the yoga wellness classes come in addition to regular P.E. classes in some cases, and replace them in others. Ten elementary schools, one middle and one high school are participating in the program.

There’s also coverage — but behind a subscription wall — at the Houston Chronicle.

Posted by Steve

Eddie Stern: William Broad, you’ve been served

In just the past couple of days, Eddie Stern has tossed a lot up on his AYNY blog (and re-designed it again). We’ll to everything, if you’ve missed it, but we’ll begin with his (self-admittedly delayed) response to a William Broad article in the New York Times last fall:

As Broad’s by-line lists him as a ‘science reporter for the NYT’, there are, at the least, three characteristics to his writing that undermine his mission by negating scientific rigor, and also seem to be a catalyst of annoyance for many readers.

1. His research methods: “…in late summer, I got around to making some calls.”

2. The types of supporting evidence he cites: “I found that hundreds of orthopedic surgeons in the Mediterranean region heard a conference presentation in 2010 that linked FAI to middle-aged women who do yoga.”

3. His needlessly sensationalist tone: “To my astonishment, some of the nation’s top surgeons declared the trouble to be real—so real that hundreds of women who did yoga were showing up in their offices with unbearable pain and undergoing costly operations to mend or even replace their hips.”

The takeaway? Mr. Broad made some phone calls; surgeons (as they are prone to do) heard a paper read; and other surgeons, whose bread and butter depends on performing said surgeries, performed surgeries. This does not add up to a very deep investigation of the syndrome, or its true relation to yoga. The one yoga teacher referenced in his article, Michelle Edwards, is authenticated because she posted an article on the yoga website Elephant Journal—hardly a peer-reviewed portal of scientific rigor.

Now, there’s much more worth reading about the supposed injury that is at the center of Broad’s article. The above is just a wonderful takedown of Broad, who — in my opinion (fairly learned in this case) — seems to share an illness peculiar to New York Times reporters: a tendency to make illogical leaps when they go from writing articles to longer forms (mostly books). (For the latest example, Google “Jo Becker.”) I think there’s a certain, well, certainty in the NYT’s reporters that perhaps serves them well within the confines of a newspaper article, gives them the authority to package up an issue into its “first line of history” moment, but when tasked with more thoroughly examining an issue, that same certainty blinds them to their own mistakes, biases and blinders.

Eddie also provides some helpful exercises, complete with photos that “make me look as silly as possible.” For example:

Via AYNY.org

Check out the piece for more, written from Eddie’s wise and learned perspective.

Eddie also has up two more posts, one another story from Robbie Norris’ prisoner yoga students:


I was heading 2 lunch at Richmond Jail when a clear & simple though hit me: “Da purpose of Life is 2 find something good 2 do wit’ one’s self… and in dat one find da will of God and happineness… since all dat iz good is from God.”

And most recently, he shares the story of a Sonima Foundation teacher:

This afternoon I was leaving the building and walked by the security desk, where three security guards were standing around one of my students. (I actually failed this student last semester—she was hardly ever in class and when she did attend, she was exceptionally disruptive. But I’ve been working extra hard to connect with her this semester, and things have improved.)
I said hello to her and she looked at me and said, “I need yoga right now.” I said okay, let’s do it. I asked the security guards if she and I could go sit outside the auditorium, where there is a table and some chairs.

Read on for what this yoga did and how it did it.

Posted by Steve

Sonima Foundation reportedly to announce expansion of school yoga program

If you are on the Jois Yoga email list, you know that on Wednesday night, the Sonima Foundation — the charitable arm of Jois Yoga — is having an open house at the Encinitas studio.

It looked pretty straight-forward: a kids yoga demo, Q&A with Sonima’s president, Eugene Ruffin, etc. But apparently there’s a little more:

Officials from the Sonima Foundation – formerly the Jois Foundation – are scheduled to speak about how yoga, already part of the health and wellness programs in Encinitas elementary schools, will be expanded to other districts.

The foundation gave more than $500,000 to the Encinitas Union School District to create a yoga program in 2012. Last summer, the foundation gave the district another $1.4 million grant to expand the program.

Sonima already has moved beyond the Encinitas district, and it has programs back in New York and has folks touring the country, per its Tumblr. The question will be: How big is this expansion (both in terms of size/number of students and money) and where — multiple states, many districts?

Posted by Steve