EUSD and Jois Foundation Respond to Concerns About Religious Yoga

Dr. Timothy Beard, Superintendent of Encinitas Unified School District, and Eugene Ruffin, CEO of the Jois Foundation, respond to a press release distributed by National Center for Law and Policy.

Encinitas has a reputation for being a mellow beach town, but the recent kerfuffle surrounding “signgate," the sale of the Pacific View property and even the general plan update might be enough to make one second guess that. Add to the list of controversy the recent threat of a lawsuit by the Escondido-based, National Center for Law and Policy (NCLP), against the Encinitas Unified School District (EUSD) for its Ashtanga yoga program, funded by the Jois Foundation, and currently being taught in the district’s nine schools.

In a news release the NCLP alleges that “the stated goal of the Jois Foundation is to promote the ‘gospel’ of Ashtanga,” which makes it unconstitutional to teach in a public school.

EUSD Superintendent Dr. Timothy Baird said the yoga program is far from unconstitutional.

“To be unconstitutional, we would have to be promoting religion and religious instruction in our program. That just isn't happening,” Baird stated in an email to Encinitas Patch. “What we are promoting is physical activity and overall wellness. The District has selected the instructors, we are designing the curriculum, and we are training the teachers. There is no religion in this curriculum.”

The NCLP’s president and chief council, Dean Broyles, did not return calls but did email Encinitas Patch a news release, which suggests that there are approximately 60 concerned parents who think that Ashtanga Yoga is quasi-religious or downright promotes Hindu concepts, such as multiple gods, in a public school.

Ashtanga yoga’s background

According to the news release, the founder of Ashtanga Yoga, Sri Patthabi Jois [who passed away in 2009 at age 94], also known as Guru-ji, has been quoted on numerous occasions saying: “‘It is very important to understand yoga philosophy; without philosophy, yoga practice is not good, and yoga practice is the starting place for yoga philosophy.”

But Baird says that EUSD has made sure to remove cultural contexts from the yoga classes.

“In an effort to make the program more ‘kid friendly,’ and to try and avoid creating controversy with some of our parents, we have removed the Sanskrit terms for some of the poses,” stated Baird, who added that Sanskrit is merely a language and not religious.

Some of the parents have objected to the use of Sanskrit in classes, according to Baird, but he stated “that would be comparable to saying that teaching Latin is promoting Catholicism or using Hebrew is teaching Judaism.”

Balancing a fine line between Ashtanga’s roots and parent’s concerns

In an effort to further placate concerned parents, Baird stated, “We have also removed pictures or artifacts from classrooms that might represent yoga's Indian roots.”

Despite these efforts to allay fears that Ashtanga is promoting Hindu concepts, Baird thinks that these moves don’t equate the school district removing religious concepts from the program.

“I don't really believe that we have taken religion out of the program because the only way to put religion into the program is to teach a religious philosophy and then incorporate the yoga into that philosophy. We are not doing this,” Baird stated.

Ashtanga replacing other PE classes

The NCLP’s press release, in the subtitle, claims: “Encinitas adopts religious Ashtanga yoga program to replace physical education.” The NCLP, a non-profit legal defense organization that focuses on the ‘protection and promotion of religious freedom, the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, parental rights, and other civil liberties,’ according to its website, concludes in its news release:

“EUSD has not provided any physical education alternative for these students. This means that students who opt out are not currently meeting the minimum weekly PE participation mandated by California state law.”

EUSD’s Baird suggested that this allegation is simply not true. “Yoga is being offered as a part of every student's regular in-school PE program. In addition to yoga, though, students will still be required to participate in other PE activities during the week.”

Quantifying the benefits of yoga—without parents’ consent?

The NCLP and group of concerned parents, some of whom have removed their kids from the Ashtanga program, have a couple of concerns about the program—besides their belief that Ashtanga has overt religious themes.

According to the NCLP press release, the EUSD Ashtanga program is being studied jointly by the University of San Diego and the University of Virginia (UVA), “with the goal of confirming the benefits of Ashtanga yoga, a system of deeply religious Hindu beliefs and practices.”

That study is being led by John Campbell, the head of the newly formed Contemplative Sciences Center at UVA (CSC). Campbell studied under Patthabi Jois and is an Ashtanga practitioner. He also has a PhD in religious studies with a particular focus on Tibetan and Indian Buddhism and Tantric philosophy.

The news release goes on to claim that “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 release also claims that “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.”
Dr. Baird counters that argument in his email to Patch:

“Our [EUSD] staff did the height, weight, and pulse, not the USD [or UVA] students. This is data that we already have. [We supplied] a biometric release from parents to collect.  We use this data in some of our state reports regarding physical fitness. No researchers have been in classrooms taking data; that is not part of the study model.”

Mind-body-money connection

The NCLP contends that the USD/UVA study lacks transparency. According to its release, there is a “financial and spiritual connection between UVA, the Jois Foundation, and the EUSD Ashtanga Yoga program.”

Billionaire Paul Tudor Jones and his wife Sonia, who opened Jois Yoga on Coast Highway in Encinitas, are both dedicated disciples of Sri Patthabi Jois. Earlier this year, Paul Tudor Jones gave a $12 million grant to UVA, his alma mater to form the aforementioned CSC, according to the release.

The Tudor Joneses were also instrumental in the founding of the Jois Foundation and allegedly gave the Jois Foundation $533,000 to fund the 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,” claims the NCLP release.   

Misguided energy

The Jois Foundation’s CEO, Eugene Ruffin, said that he’d like to see the focus of the debate center around what can be done to improve the health and stress levels of students, teachers and administrators in schools.

“Nobody has come up to us with a list of specific questions about any of the postures or the program,” Ruffin said. “What we see is an absence of a ‘whole concept’ of health in physical education. We’re trying to provide a cost-effective option for that absence; we’re not trying to brand or push a particular type of yoga.”

When asked whether the Jois Foundation is primarily pushing Ashtanga in schools, Ruffin responded, “It doesn’t matter what type of yoga is being taught in school. We know that yoga, which is reimbursable by Medicare and leading insurance companies such as Kaiser, is offered for our returning soldiers by the federal government for PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder]… there’s a ton of positives of yoga. We know it works. But we’re not pushing a particular brand of yoga. But we’re connected to and know Ashtanga, so we use that.”

The final gospel

Ruffin refuted that Ashtanga incorporates religion, at least not in the EUSD program.

“I can’t see any credibility or any objectivity in that we are facilitating some kind of religious goal. In fact, most of the people involved in the foundation, by and large, are Judeo-Christian in background; the foundation’s primary goal is to provide solutions to health in our public schools and the health of the children, not the preaching of Hinduism.”

Superintendent Baird echoed Ruffin’s sentiment. Yoga classes, he said, are now not only found in schools, but in churches, YMCAs, and every fitness gym.

“It provides a great physical workout and reduces stress and increases focus and confidence. Yoga is the perfect exercise program for students who are faced with an increasingly stressful world, where more and more young people are less fit.”

Baird encouraged parents to attend a class so they can see for themselves that religion is not present in the Ashtanga yoga program.

“I am confident that once these parents observe a lesson they will see that there is no religious component to the program.  We are getting hundreds of letters of support from the program and less than [one percent] of our families have expressed concern.”

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Jay Berman November 01, 2012 at 04:01 PM
Encinitas November 01, 2012 at 04:08 PM
To be tolerant doesn't mean you have to agree or condone the speech or behavior. I don't know why anyone feels this issue is about tolerance. Everyone is protected by the First Amendment whether you are part of the majority or minority. It doesn't matter if it is 1 person's rights being violated, the Constitution provides protection for the separation of church and state. It won't matter if EUSD gets thousands of letters supporting the program. It may take a court ruling to determine if the program, in fact, does violate the First Amendment. It sounds like both sides have their arguments and have drawn their conclusions. It doesn't appear like there is much more that can be done outside of the court system.
Coastrunner November 01, 2012 at 05:08 PM
To start, I am a pretty darn liberal guy and a parent of children at Capri. When this issue first came up, I definitely thought that it was just a few conservative parents getting too uptight about a minor issue. As more information comes to light, I am beginning to feel that the Jois Foundation was not trying to create a completely secular program and the school district may have been misled initially that it was. When I observed my kids doing yoga at Open House last year, I was a little surprised at the use of Sanskrit to describe all the poses. That in itself is not religous but it did show that these folks were a bit more serious than the typical "Y" instructor. As I have asked more questions of my kids, it turns out that Mandalas were drawn and the mythology was discussed. Philosphy was definitely a part of the program. I fully believe that this program could be changed and can be continued in a completely secular way. There is a tendency of my fellow liberals to be very tolerant toward Eastern philosophies in ways that they would not be with Christianity. I am a very strong supporter of the concepts of freedom of and from religion and the separation of "church" and state. These concepts must be applied equally to all religions.
Kerri Boutelle November 01, 2012 at 05:18 PM
Hi. Usually (and I don't know about this partnership) the private foundation provides funding but involves the university for the ethical research practices (how to analyze data without bias, how to collect data etc). Drug companies and other private companies use this method as one way of taking the bias out of the research.
Kerri Boutelle November 01, 2012 at 05:21 PM
Hi. Overweight and obesity affects one out of every three children. I don't know the exact demographics for Encinitas but in some neighborhoods and towns in San Diego County it is up to one out of every two children. Either way, even lean children need physical activity. I like yoga because people of all body sizes can do it at their own pace.
Surfing Siren November 01, 2012 at 06:59 PM
Perhaps the complaining parents would feel more at home in let's say... Arizona? Utah? Anywhere but here please? Encinitas is about surfing, the beach, the sun, holistic health, healthy mind/body connection, which includes yoga. Find something else to complain about please. Your uptightness shouldn't take yoga away from my daughter at Paul Ecke! I bet that the parents that are complaining aren't even from San Diego or California originally!
Gretchen November 01, 2012 at 09:58 PM
Keep yoga in the schools!
Capri Mom3 November 01, 2012 at 10:00 PM
Here are some of the studies that show the value of yoga for kids: http://biodanza-online.com/yoga_for_children.pdf http://www.vivekanandayoga.com/research_papers/19930322_ismpytsc.pdf http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21647811 These you will need access to the journals: Galantino ML, et al. Therapeutic effects of yoga for children: A systematic review of the literature. Pediatric Physical Therapy. 2008;20:66. Kuttner L, et al. A randomized trial of yoga for adolescents with irritable bowel syndrome. Pain Research and Management. 2006;11:217. Carei TR, et al. Randomized controlled clinical trial of yoga in the treatment of eating disorders. Journal of Adolescent Health. 2010;46:346. Benavides S, et al. Ashtanga yoga for children and adolescents for weight management and psychological well being: An uncontrolled open pilot study. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice. 2009;15:110. I have a kindergardener learning yoga at Capri and it sounds quite non-religious to me. I'm not sure if there are different teachers for each of the classes, but it does sound like the school board has worked with the yoga teachers to create a non-religious yoga program. I agree with another poster who stated that we should go and see, if we have concerns. Then, if there are specific issues, one can bring them to light and work with the system to have them addressed rather than form a lawsuit that creates unnecessary time and monetary expenses.
Mum November 02, 2012 at 12:45 AM
"Some of the parents have objected to the use of Sanskrit in classes, according to Baird, but he stated “that would be comparable to saying that teaching Latin is promoting Catholicism or using Hebrew is teaching Judaism.” I'm fine with the yoga in class as long as parents are notified and there is an opt out. Because it may conflict with some people's genuine religious conviction. But face it. The reality of dodge ball can be jut as useful in a child's development. There should be room for both. What I do have a problem with is the statement above. 1st, Sanskrit is a spiritual language. Don't try and tell us the red apple we are looking at isn't red. It's insulting and not a little condescending. 2nd, Hebrew is a spiritual language, but I wouldn't advise trying to introduce that to the curriculum any time too soon (Ha!). And Latin....has been the language of science since the enlightenment. Yet we no longer feel the need to teach it in our public schools. Time for downward dog...I'm feeling stressed.
Sarah Riccitelli November 02, 2012 at 12:56 AM
I have to say this even though I know that everyone here will probably disagree with me. I'm actually uncomfortable with people adopting a discipline having no idea what it's actually about. Yoga is simply one aspect of a much larger religious philosophy: Hinduism. It isn't simply exercise & shouldn't be treated as such! If one wants to practice yoga, one should also take a religions course on Hinduism to learn yoga's context. To do otherwise is insulting & condescending to an ancient culture. Just as insulting as Native American mascots & Native American Halloween costumes.
Matt G. November 02, 2012 at 03:31 AM
The folks worried that yoga (ahstanga or otherwise) is a wing of Hindu, or some kind of "gateway" are sadly mistaken. While its true that many Hindus and Buddhists do yoga, AND its true that yoga can be quite meditative its important to remember two things. First: Buddhists and Hindus practice yoga because yoga originated in the same part of the world as Buddhism and Hinduism. Arguing that doing yoga makes one a Hindu is like arguing that playing football makes one a Christian. Second: Meditation isn't unique to eastern religion. No less a Christian than Thomas Aquinas stated that meditation is necessary. If your children accidentally learn to meditate and commune with God, it will be their God they are speaking with, not someone else's.
Marianne November 02, 2012 at 03:59 AM
According to the complaints, it seems that some spiritualism/mythology has been discussed with the kids at some of the schools. Probably not at all schools, but it is most likely not consistent since each site has a different teacher. It doesn't seem to jive with what Tim Baird says the program is supposed to be about. I think that if EUSD/Tim Baird can re-educate the staff that the program is exercise only and confirm that with site vists, we should be OK. By the way, I am Christian. I think we can make this work.
Matt G. November 02, 2012 at 05:02 AM
Thanks for the comment, it makes sense to me. A common ground can certainly be found.
Yoga Love November 02, 2012 at 07:38 AM
Very informative article! I hope Yoga will get popularity among many people and they will be able to maintain a healthy, happy and peaceful life. Nayeema Akter www.anamayaresort.com
Momofboys November 02, 2012 at 04:41 PM
Thank you Coastrunner for your balanced and fair response. I think each side needs to be sensitive to the other - here is a good blog post on the subject here -http://ryanrosenbaum.blogspot.com/2012/10/christians-yoga-and-schools.html
Dick hertz November 02, 2012 at 04:53 PM
Im sure the complainers are new transplants from other parts of the country and have settle in La Costa Valley. Its a shame we cant put up a fence to keep out the stupid people!...Please stay at the Valley Club and stay away from downtown Encinitas, you might have to walk by a Yoga studio....Im sure the Forum as everything you need.
Samantha B November 03, 2012 at 01:55 AM
It amazes me that "Encinitas" says the courts are the only solution. Wow. do it your way or get the lawyers. It also astounds me that people think yoga is a religion simply because it originated in India. Educate yourself before you freak out and litigate.
Yoga liker November 03, 2012 at 04:15 AM
Dr Baird- please make sure the district is not enlightening our students on religious based holidays like Halloween , Christmas, Hannukah , Valentines Day and St Patrick's day. I may be intolerant to that.
Lloyd Laperdon November 03, 2012 at 04:34 PM
so healthy for the kids, no religious conotations. only postures. geez. oh my gosh, kids may learn some sanskrit names? another language? if it was latin names i'm sure no one would be complaining . maybe we need to all look deeper and be honest with our fears and prejudices.
Encinitas mom November 03, 2012 at 08:25 PM
Yoga may be in religion, but religion is NOT automatically in yoga. This has been beyond over exaggerated by ignorance of religious people who claim to be open-minded but are clearly not. So sad. I am proud of our super-int. Tim for researching the program before implementing it and sticking to the fact that yoga is indeed a positive exercise for our children. There was no need for a lawyer to be involved at all.
DT November 03, 2012 at 08:31 PM
As a Cardif Elementary school parent, at 1st blush, the yoga program appears to be an "excercise" program, and I am ok with that. I am more disturbed about the "study" of the children seemingly without parental consent (even if they say there is no personal info supplied). Asuming the yoga class does not have religous philosophies for the children "to practice", it should be ok - even if they are taught that other people beliefs are xyz - because that would be teaching tolerance and that there are other ways that people live. But the School Board should make it transparent (to the parents) any and all information about the kids that is being trasmitted, especially for studies.
Lynn Marr November 04, 2012 at 10:03 AM
Good points, DT. I feel there is a difference between promoting or favoring any religion, and using Sanskrit terms, which have historical cultural significance in describing various Yoga positions. To me, there's a big difference between religion and philosophy, or one could say between that which is religious and that which is "of the spirit," or spiritual. From my point of view, religion, implies the institutionalization of certain practices and beliefs. Although I am no expert, my understanding is that over-all, Yoga is integral to a philosophy that offers a way to put into healthy balance one's body, mind and spirit. Concerned parents need not fear "competition" with their fundamental beliefs or corruption through indoctrination. My perspective is that Yoga being offered in classrooms focuses on the physical aspect of the discipline of Yoga. No need to fear that which is "different." True tolerance means opening ones mind and heart to other points of view, not through fear, being ignorant, ignoring various perspectives and opportunities to learn, to gain better physical and emotional health through understanding and compassion, through cooperation and sharing.
Ryan Rosenbaum November 05, 2012 at 10:43 PM
The following are two views of this issue that propose finding common ground for the religious and non-religious. http://www.ryanrosenbaum.blogspot.com/2012/10/yoga-and-school-pt-2-for-yoga-supporters.html and http://www.ryanrosenbaum.blogspot.com/2012/10/christians-yoga-and-schools.html
MollyB November 06, 2012 at 11:56 PM
"No researchers have been in classrooms taking data; that is not part of the study model.” I'm not sure if Dr. Baird is referring specifically to UVA/USD researchers in this comment; however, I volunteer in my daughter's class weekly, and each week volunteers come in to take the students' pulses and record them during instructional time. I'm curious if other schools have had this same experience.
Yogi November 10, 2012 at 04:24 PM
As a long time yoga student and teacher of ashtanga I was upset when I first read the article. After giving it more thought I don't blame the parents and support them. I don't believe the program was "optional" nor were the parents informed of the program and what was being taught. If the program was optional and they had the parents sign a waiver allowing the student to participate this would have not occured. The parents who are upset just don't have the understanding of yoga and the benefits and should not be faulted by that. It was the job of Jois yoga to educate them so they could undersand the benefits of this system. In my opinion, Jois yoga should not be in Encinitas anyhow because that is the home of another teacher and master. Some may call it karma and it's time for Jois yoga to leave Encinitas.
Lynn Marr November 10, 2012 at 09:51 PM
I also feel that Superintendent Timothy Baird was negligent in not better informing the parents, and allowing them to opt out, if desired. I recall that many years ago, when I was in elementary school, some kids would opt out of Health Ed, because they were of the Christian Science faith. While I don't feel that the physical exercise is promoting a religion, parents should be kept well informed of changes, in advance, and should always be allowed options. Baird has only been in this district since 2009. Since then he's become embroiled in controversy over wanting to sell off for short term profit the land donated to the public for Pacific View school, which has been a surplus school site since it permanently closed its doors in 2003. Baird came from the Ojai Unified School District, where he was Superintendent through 2008. There he also tried to privatize land in the public domain for a so-called strip mall styled "art center," which the community widely opposed. They had been promised they could lease the surplus school site in Ojai for a skatepark, which was built after Baird came to EUSD in 2009. Baird doesn't have deep community roots, nor does he seem to have an understanding of his accountability to the parents and to the general public.
Stacy December 02, 2012 at 11:39 PM
I agree, Marianne. Stretching, breathing and managing stress is great. There needs to be clearer communication to each instructor that the spiritual aspects need to stay out. I also am Christian, and hope we can find a win-win solution outside of the court.
Karl Priest January 10, 2013 at 08:14 PM
Yoga IS religion. See "Yoga should be left out of schools" and "Religion Established in Public Schools" at http://insectman.us/exodus-mandate-wv/my-articles-2008.htm.
Dan Ryan February 21, 2013 at 07:40 PM
Unfortunately, most of these well-intentioned folks don't see the slippery slope. It isn't that yoga isn't good for the body or that it will indoctrinate anyone into being a Hindu. The issue is that it is part of a religious practice in a public school. If these same parents were told that their children would be kneeling and bowing their heads with their hand clasped as if in prayer, but there was no praying, just because it was a good stretching exercise, they would be screaming their shallow liberal heads off. This is about the same thing as trying to classify Hare Krishna street dancing as aerobics. Wouldn’t it be nice if the kids were taught math, reading, writing and possibly critical thinking?
Om Sudrania May 19, 2013 at 06:24 AM
It may be advisable to conduct an impartial research in data base to find out, "How many Yoga practitioners out of the three million odd people practicing in USA, have changed their faith from the 'original' faith. Will it not make a sense? To me it all seems that some people using its Hinduism related faith, may be due to greed for tax exemption in USA. In India, all such practices used to be free earlier, may have changed a little now due to cost crunch. While talking of "Soul", no soul has a religious tag, it is only these organised brands of religion that maks a "Soul" portend as 'Christian', 'Hindu', 'Muslim', 'Jewish', etc. That is all a facade adorned by denominational people.


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