Feb. 21, 2013 — -- What was intended as a fun addition to physical education in a California school district has sparked controversy among parents who feel Ashtanga yoga infringes on their religious beliefs.
The National Center for Law & Policy (NCLP) is representing a family that is suing the Encinitas Union School District for "civil rights violations resulting from its inherently and pervasively religious Ashtanga yoga program."
"If you research yoga and Hinduism, most people would say Hinduism is yoga and yoga is Hinduism," Dean Broyles, an attorney representing the family, told ABC News. "It's a situation where the state is endorsing religious beliefs and practices, which is forbidden under California and federal law."
The lawsuit was filed in San Diego Superior Court Wednesday and outlines the concerns of the plaintiffs, Stephen and Jennifer Sedlock, whose children are in the Encinitas Union School District.
According to a news release, the family is not seeking money damages, but instead is requesting to suspend the Ashtanga yoga program entirely.
"The goal would be to have a judge order the district to comply with the law," added Broyles. "If they comply with the law, they will need to suspend the yoga program and offer physical education that complies with the law to their students."
Yet, Encinitas Superintendent Timothy Baird said the yoga classes are a "typical P.E. class" that have been a successful and positive component to the district's health and wellness program without any religious implications.
"If you were to walk in there, you would feel like you're going into a gym," Baird told ABC News. "The students come in, do some warm ups, do the typical stretching and movement. There's absolutely no religious instruction that goes on, whatsoever.
"I believe what he is saying is just the motions of the yoga stretching is somehow invoking Hinduism -- and in America, where 90 to 95 percent of the practitioners are not even Hindu," Baird said.
The Jois Foundation, named after a noted pioneer of Ashtanga yoga, awarded the school district a $550,000 grant to introduce the yoga. The group said on its website that it "is working to provide schools with health, wellness, and achievement during a time of massive budget cuts."
Since the grant, Baird said, all schools within the district offer the classes to approximately 5,500 students. However, Baird added, the yoga classes are not actually Ashtanga yoga because it is too demanding for students, but rather a modified version for the K-6 students.
"We are probably using some of the poses found in Ashtanga yoga," Baird told ABC News. "But we have modified this extensively to be done by students of this particular age. And all body types can be successful [with] what we are doing in our classes."
In the news release, NLCP called the yoga "inherently and pervasively religious, having its roots firmly planted in Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist and western metaphysical religious beliefs and practices." NCLP also cited a religious studies professor's support of the claim.
Approximately up to 30 families approached the district with concerns about the classes before the lawsuit was filed, Baird said.
"We have answered questions, we have had them observe classes, and where they were still uncomfortable we had the ability for students to opt out and do other activities," he said. "We thought we addressed the parents concerns here."
Regardless of the lawsuit, the classes will still be offered in all schools within the district, Baird said.