School yoga trial stretches on

School yoga trial stretches on
Jennifer Brown, a yoga instructor at Capri Elementary, performs a lotus yoga pose for the courtroom. The National Center for Law and Policy sued the Encinitas Union School District over its yoga program, and the trial started May 20. Photo by Jared Whitlock

ENCINITAS — The first three days of trial for a lawsuit seeking to end a school yoga program saw plenty of twists and turns. At one point, a witness even left the stand, took off her shoes and demonstrated the lotus pose for the entire courtroom. 

“Just for the record, what I’d like you to do is the last four poses on exhibit nine…and tell us the Sanskrit name and English name as you do them,” said attorney Dean Broyles, who filed the lawsuit three months ago.

The lawsuit aims to immediately terminate the Encinitas Union School District (EUSD) yoga program on the grounds that it promotes Hinduism and other religions. On Monday, the case kicked off in a downtown San Diego courtroom.

Originally, the case was expected to last two days. But witness testimony stretched on longer than anticipated. Consequently, the case is scheduled to resume in two weeks, though a concrete date wasn’t set.

Judge John Meyer set the tone Monday morning by stating the case will hinge on whether yoga taught in EUSD is religious. Meyer followed that up by asking the attorneys to broach a difficult, broad question in their arguments.

“What is religion?” Meyer asked.

Broyles, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of two parents in the district, said he couldn’t specifically define religion. But in his opening remarks, Broyles said he’s sure of one thing: Yoga falls under the umbrella of religion. As a result, he maintained, EUSD violated the establishment clause of the constitution, more commonly known as separation of church and state, by incorporating the practice into its curriculum.

Students were made “spiritual guinea pigs” and “religious test subjects,” Broyles said.

In the fall, EUSD introduced yoga at five of its nine schools after receiving a $533,000 health and wellness grant from the Encinitas-based Jois Foundation. In January, the program debuted at the remaining schools.

Broyles maintained that the Jois Foundation promotes Ashtanga yoga — a particularly religious type of yoga. At one point, Broyles read from a Jois Foundation brochure.

“Ashtanga yoga means eight limbed; it is an ancient system that can lead to liberation and greater awareness of our spiritual potential,” Broyles said, quoting the brochure.

Broyles went on to argue that the Jois Foundation influenced much of the district’s yoga program. He pointed out that the initial agreement between the district and Jois Foundation for the grant stipulates that students learn Ashtanga yoga.

Additionally, students were encouraged to utter “Namaste” to each other, which Broyles called a “religiously-laden Hinduism greeting.” Further, he added that students colored mandalas. That kind of artwork, Broyles said, is steeped in religion.

Students at Paul Ecke Central participate in a yoga class. Photo by Jared Whitlock

Students at Paul Ecke Central participate in a yoga class. Photo by Jared Whitlock

But EUSD Superintendent Tim Baird, the first witness called to the stand by Broyles, said that the district — not the Jois Foundation — crafted the yoga program. Its only purpose is to promote health and fitness, he maintained.

“I think you could you could bring in Ashtanga experts and they would say we’re not doing Ashtanga yoga that you see in a studio,” Baird said. “We do Encinitas Union School District yoga.”

“It’s just us developing the curriculum,” Baird said later.

Baird acknowledged the grant’s memorandum of understanding initially specified Ashtanga yoga. And parents objected to cultural references associated with the yoga program this past fall. But he said there are no longer any mentions of Ashtanga yoga. Also, sensitive references in Sanskrit were removed because the curriculum “evolved,” he said.

David Peck, one of the attorneys representing the defense, echoed the statement during the preliminary remarks. Even though there might have been “missteps” in the beginning, he said the program is being judged on “what’s taking part in the classroom today.”

Further, Peck said the case centers on whether the average student could find any religious component to the program. The “fanatical” prism of extreme parents is irrelevant, he said.

Upon being asked by Broyles, Baird said that he didn’t research the origins of the Jois Foundation or Ashtanga yoga. He said EUSD is only interested in “spreading health and wellness.”

Broyles sought to further link religion and the yoga program by subpoenaing witness Jennifer Brown, who teaches yoga on a part-time basis at Capri Elementary, an EUSD school.

On Wednesday, Brown testified that she visited India to study Ashtanga yoga. She added that she doesn’t worship Hinduism.

Brown said the EUSD poses are grounded in Ashtanga yoga, but that she stripped away any spiritual references. For instance, she renamed one pose to “criss-cross applesauce.”

She also talked about yamas — ethical guidelines within Hinduism — with some of her students during the early stages of the program. Yamas include compassion and truthfulness, for example. Brown said the yamas are universal rules. Plus, they overlapped with moral lessons the district was already promoting to its students, she said.

Not long after, Broyles caused a stir in the courtroom by asking Brown to exhibit a series of poses. Upon returning to the witness stand, Broyles inquired whether the series references Hinduism. Brown answered that the order of the sequence is the best way to “warm up the body.” As taught, the series doesn’t have any spiritual or religious significance.

Brown noted one fourth grader expressed her mom’s concerns with the program.

“She shared with me that her mom asked if we were going to be talking about the Buddha,” Brown said.

“I assured her — no, we’re not going to be talking the Buddha,” Brown said. “We’re going to breathe; we’re going to move; we’re going to relax.”

On Tuesday, Candy Gunther Brown, a religious studies professor at Indiana University with no relation to Jennifer Brown, took the stand to testify on behalf of Broyles. In her written declaration, Brown said that religion can’t be untangled from yoga.

“For many Hindus and Buddhists, for instance, religious significance exists directly in the doing, rather than secondarily in believing or saying something, while performing bodily or mental practices,” Brown said in the declaration.

Another part of the declaration goes on to say that: “the terms ‘mindfulness’ and ‘balance’ allude to religious concepts important in Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism.”

There wasn’t a jury at the trial; both sides agreed that a judge should determine the legality of the yoga program. When the case resumes, EUSD will call witnesses to the stand, followed by closing arguments.

 

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