"Bending" the Law? A Family Is Suing a California District for Offering Yoga, an Ancient Hindu Philosophy Meant to Strengthen Physical, Mental, and Spiritual Acuity

Article excerpt

"Do a triangle pose," a teacher says to her third-grade students during one of their bi-weekly yoga classes. "Good. Now a gorilla pose. Now you're a mountain."

This is yoga at Encinitas USD's nine K6 schools. The poses' names have been changed. They are part of a physical education program designed to help students stay calm, focused and physically active throughout their day, says Encinitas USD Superintendent Timothy Baird. The effort is not only providing valuable exercise, but is increasing students' academic scores by keeping their minds fresh and sharp, Baird says. The yoga class includes breathing, stretching, and bending techniques that let the children take a break from their desks and move around.

However, not everyone sees the benefits. In February, the National Center for Law & Policy, on behalf of William Frederick Bentz, guardian of students Stephen and Jennifer Sedlock, filed a lawsuit against Baird and the district's board members citing a civil rights violation. Ashtanga yoga, after which the class is modeled, comes from the Hindu religion, which Bentz feels violates the family's religious beliefs. The suit asks defendants to comply with religious freedoms under the state constitution and comply with mandatory minimum PE requirements of the California Education Code for public schools. The trial to consider whether yoga is a secular exercise or a form of religion that's inappropriate for public schools started in late May in San Diego Superior Court.

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The lawsuit filed against the Encinitas Union School District by the Escondido-based, nonprofit National Center for Law & Policy may be the first of its kind in the United States and has gained international attention.

"We believe there is no legal basis for the lawsuit," Baird says. "We are confident we will prevail in the case after judicial review."

Until a ruling is made, Baird plans to continue the class. "We're not teaching religion, we're teaching a health and wellness program," he says. "Yoga is very mainstream. It looks like stretching; it improves their strength, their balance, their stamina. That's what we're looking for--the physical outcomes."

Encinitas is not the only school using yoga to exercise students' minds. In the Norris (Neb.) School District, Ashley Schlake and Shelly Coe have been teaching yoga as part of their seventh-grade "Mind and Body" exploratory class for three years. The purpose of the program is to teach activities that students can carry throughout their lives, says Schrake, adding that, "We use yoga to teach stress reduction, relaxation techniques, strength building and stretching." She notes that, to date, the feedback has been positive.

Encouraging beginnings

The yoga program was offered to the Encinitas district in 2011 by the K.P. Jois Foundation, which funded the pilot for the 2011-2012 school year at Capri Elementary School, a dual-language instruction school that teaches immersive English and Spanish. According to the foundation's website, K.P. Jois uses Ashtanga yoga, meditation, and proper nutrition to "create a positive lifestyle change." The program was rolled out to the rest of the district for the 2012-2013 school year after seeing worthwhile results.

"If you were to walk in there, you would feel like you're going into a gym," Baird says. "The students basically do some warm-ups and stretches. And we don't use any cultural references. It doesn't look like your mother's yoga class because it's designed for kids. With the fun names, it looks more like a PE classroom."

Parents were allowed to observe the classes, and could opt out and have their children receive math tutoring during that time slot. Just 30 families in the district (out of 5,465) opted out.

More engagement

Following the pilot at Capri Elementary School, Baird says, students there were more engaged in their studies, and their academic test scores have increased 11 points, according to Baird. …