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Judge rules yoga not a threat to separation of church and state

posted by Claire Ma

Is the practice of yoga inherently religious or can it be a form of secular exercise? A judge in California ruled on Monday that teaching yoga in public schools does not violate the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state. The ruling came as a response to a lawsuit brought forth by parents in the Encinitas school district in California, where parents argued that teaching yoga in public schools was a form of indoctrination.

San Diego Superior Court Judge John S. Meyer recognized yoga as a religious practice but argued that its modern practice has become a “distinctly American cultural phenomenon.” Encinitas school superintendent Tim Baird echoed, “We are not instructing anyone in religious dogma…Yoga is very mainstream.”

The yoga classes, taught at nine campuses in the school district, are funded by the K.P. Jois Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes Ashtanga yoga. While Meyer noted that the Foundation’s sponsorship is problematic—though as a 501(c)3 non-profit company, it cannot promote a religious affiliation—he emphasized that the school’s yoga program has removed all cultural references and usage of its liturgical language, Sanskrit.

Candy Gunther Brown, a professor of religious studies at Indiana University, provided much of the testimony for the plaintiffs—her response to the trial can be read here. The plaintiff’s lawyer, Dean Broyles, said that they would likely appeal the ruling, arguing, “There is a consistent anti-Christian bias in these cases and a pro-Eastern or strange religion bias.”

This case is just the latest in a wider national debate over religion’s place in public education. It is also not the first time that modern yoga’s religious or secular nature has come into question in the context of the law. To explore this issue further, please see our previous postings on state regulations of yoga and on yoga’s spirituality and tax exemption.

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2 Responses to “Judge rules yoga not a threat to separation of church and state”

  1. avatar Anna Cadwallader says:

    I agree with Judge John S. Meyer in his ruling that “teaching yoga in public schools does not violate the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state” because yoga has become a “distinctly American cultural phenomenon” in response to a lawsuit brought forth by parents in the Encinitas school district. Although yoga has religious origins, it has been adapted to fit the secular public norms of American society, which is why yoga classes in public schools are not a threat to the separation of church and state. I would argue this is very similar to Christmas, which has become disassociated from religion and adopted as an American holiday linked with charity, family, and commercialization. Throughout my secondary education in public schools, I had Christmas parties in my classrooms; however, these were never seen as religious activities. Rather, these celebrations were something of a community event of merriment and good cheer. Similarly, yoga is viewed as a secular experience practiced by people from all religious backgrounds. Yoga is viewed as a gym class available in local gyms and studios across the nation. If anything, yoga is now more about personal spirituality and fitness. I would argue that most Americans simply find yoga to be a relaxing daily activity of stretching, stress-relief, and calm. Yoga now serves as a respite from the hectic American lifestyle and as an excuse to dress in the latest Lululemon styles. Although most yoga classes end by saying “Namaste,” I don’t think that many people would view this as imposing religion on those who attend yoga classes. I think that because yoga and its traditions have become so deeply engrained in secular American culture, the remnants of its religious aspects are not even recognized by the average American. I find the grounds for this lawsuit somewhat circumspect because there are so many benefits from yoga, even for kids, as yoga fosters body awareness, flexibility, strength, and coordination.

  2. avatar Allie Santis says:

    I must admit I was a bit surprised to see that a lawsuit was even brought forth regarding the practice of yoga in public schools. This immediate reaction speaks to my understanding of yoga, which conceives of it as having no immediate religious connection. Though I have certainly learned about yoga in the context of its religious origins and significance, it has become such a commonplace activity that religion never comes to mind when I hear about it. An incredibly diverse group of people try out or regularly practice yoga, and it is a very accessible and widespread form of exercise and relaxation today. In spite of its origin as a religious practice, I would therefore argue in accordance with the ruling of Judge John S. Meyer, that yoga has become a secular practice. It need not be viewed as a threat to secularism or a separation of church and state. Having witnessed yoga taught in a kindergarten classroom, and having also taken a yoga class myself as a before school activity, I believe that it can be a positive experience for children. From my observations, it helped young students be aware of their own bodies, which can actually be important in a classroom setting, among others. Yoga instruction does not conflict with the notion of a secular education, nor should it be shied away from because certain people fear it will give an appearance of endorsement. Permitting instruction to enter the public school sphere will only allow more opportunities for people to experience this “distinctly American cultural phenomenon” and all of the physical and mental benefits that may come with it.

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