Parents in a southern California community are considering legal action over the constitutionality of a form of yoga being taught to their children, which they claim is introducing religion into public schools.
Last month, half of the students attending classes in the Encinitas Union School District K-6 elementary schools in San Diego North County began taking Ashtanga (Sanskrit for "eight-limbed") yoga for 30 minutes twice per week. In January, the other half will begin the lessons.
Concerned parents have now retained constitutional first amendment attorney Dean Broyles, who says that Ashtanga yoga is a religious form of yoga, and that religious aspects have been introduced into the schools.
"The poses and positions are acknowledged by Ashtanga and Hindi yoga as forms of worship and prayers to Hindu deities," he told ABC News. "They have a spiritual and religious meaning behind them."
Broyles said that although he was at first skeptical that there were truly religious belief and practices being taught to kids, the more he investigated and spoke with parents, the more he realized it was a constitutional issue.
Broyles says that he brought up the matter at a Encinitas Union School District (EUSD) trustees meeting, along with 60 concerned parents, on October 9. Now the EUSD trustees will be reviewing whether the grant money violates the religious freedom of students and parents.
The yoga, which is being taught in all nine of the schools in the district, is being funded by a $533,000 grant from the Jois Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes Ashtanga yoga across the world. All of the instructors teaching the students are certified and trained by the Jois Foundation in Ashtanga yoga.
Broyles points to hedge-fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones and his wife Sonia Jones, who is a known dedicated disciple of Sri Pattabhi Jois, the recently deceased master of Ashtanga yoga, as the money behind the EUSD yoga program. The district's program will be studied by the University of Virginia and University of San Diego to look at benefits of Ashtanga yoga, as outlined in a letter sent to parents by EUSD Superintendent Tim Baird.
"The study will look at the way that public school systems can impact student learning, health, positive relationships, and overall wellness through the implementation of a holistic approach to student wellness," Baird said in the letter.
The Tudor Joneses, Broyles says, were instrumental in the founding of the Jois Foundation and put up the money for the EUSD Ashtanga yoga grant. He says that parents are now not only questioning Hindu religion entering their schools, but the validity if this study being undertaken.
"We think that children are being used as guinea pigs," he said. "Following the money, you see what's going on … It would be like a charismatic Christian organization funding classes in worship and praise, and also funding a research center at a public university that is studying whether this is an effective form of exercise."
Baird told ABC News that he completely disagree that the school district is teaching religion.
"Yoga is a physical activity that's completely mainstream," Baird told ABC News. "It's done in universities and churches around the world. I understand it has a cultural heritage coming from India, and there are people that use yoga in their religious practices … We are creating lesson plans in kid-friendly language that is really redesigning the program. We are not using cultural references. We are not using Sanskrit. We've changed the names to gorilla pose, and mountain pose."
Broyles says that though it has been argued that the in-school yoga programs have been stripped of their spirituality, he thinks that kids in EUSD are being exposed to Hindu thought and belief within the school.
"On the wall there was a poster that showed the Ashtanga. There are words showing what the limbs are," he said. "The ultimate goal is to be absorbed into the universe, which is called Samadhi. They had a poster depicting that. Fundamentally it is a Hindu religion being taught through Ashtanga yoga."
Baird told ABC News that there are no Hindu figures on the wall.
Children are also being taught eastern meditation techniques to calm themselves, where one clears the mind of all thoughts, poses that were imparted by Hindu deities, and in one class were trained in drawing mandalas, according to Broyles.
Parents also raised specific concerns about the program aside from the religious aspects, saying that the fact that kids are taking 60 minutes of the 100 minutes per week allotted for physical education to do yoga is inappropriate. Broyles said that for 40 minutes per week the kids are not getting PE, and that they're not offering anything for kids that are opting out of the program.
Baird told ABC News that only 3 to 4 families at each school have opted their child out of the program, and that those students are using the time for a variety of other activities that differs from school to school.
Broyles says that there are some yoga enthusiasts in favor of the program; he says that people in the district don't really understand eastern mysticism, yoga's roots in Hinduism, and what's being taught.
"If we were introducing Christian worship of bowing, there would be outcry in the community," he said. "Allowing our public schools to actively promote the beliefs and practices of one religion over others to young impressionable children sets a dangerous precedent."