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Yoga in school isn't religious teaching, California court rules
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Teaching yoga as exercise doesn't stretch the Constitution, a California court ruled last week after some parents challenged the Hindu-based system's presence in an Encinitas school. - photo by Mark A. Kellner
Teaching yoga as exercise doesn't stretch the Constitution's ban on government "establishing" a particular religion, a California court ruled last week after some parents challenged the Hindu-based system's presence in an Encinitas school.

"While the practice of yoga may be religious in some contexts, yoga classes as taught in the district are, as the trial court determined, 'devoid of any religious, mystical, or spiritual trappings,'" justices of California's Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled April 3.

The decision means students in kindergarten through sixth grade will continue to receive twice-weekly yoga classes of 30 minutes each week, media reports indicate.

The ruling caps a two-year court battle by parents Stephen and Jennifer Sedlock claiming the Encinitas Union School District, in offering an Ashtanga yoga program as a component of its physical education curriculum, was in violation of "various religious freedom provisions of the California Constitution."

According to The Times of India, the dissenting parents had some concerns about the program.

"Parents of some children had sued to stop the school district from teaching yoga, maintaining it is a religious practice that surreptitiously promoted Hinduism and Buddhism," the newspaper reported. "Funded with $533,000 from the K. Pattabhi Jois Foundation, which is backed by Jois acolytes, hedge-fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones II and his wife Sonia, the school district had introduced a three-year pilot yoga program in 2011, with twice-a-week classes in addition to regular physical education."

But evidence promoted by advocates of the yoga instruction insisted the Encinitas curriculum had been denuded of any references to Hindu practice. The court ruled, "there is no evidence of any religious indoctrination in any of the written curriculum or in the evidence related to the teaching methods employed in actual District yoga classes."

The ruling brought a sharp rebuke from the National Center for Law & Policy, a religious freedom and civil liberties law organization based in San Diego.

"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," NCLP President Dean Broyles said in a statement. "We are disappointed with the decision and are carefully considering our options."

Attorney Alan Reinach with the Church State Council, a California group that also participated in the Encinitas appeal, told the Deseret News in a telephone interview, "The court doesn't understand what yoga is. Yoga is a belief system (in which) spirituality is awakened through physical movement. The court is looking at it from a Western perspective that sees physical movement as secular and spirituality as teaching and content."

According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, school district superintendent Tim Baird, who had been named in the lawsuit, said he was surprised over the lawsuit and resulting publicity.

"Yoga has become ubiquitous in the United States," Baird said. "The argument that it turns somebody into a Hindu is a stretch."
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