Yoga teacher Jackie Bergeron works with students at Paul Ecke Central Elementary… (Eduardo Contreras / San…)
ENCINITAS, Calif. — Parents in this seaside town are in a twist over yoga, saying that adding the ancient practice of meditative exercise to the school curriculum is tantamount to religious indoctrination into Hinduism.
School officials never thought that yoga, practiced by roughly 22 million Americans, would be controversial when they accepted a $533,000 grant from a local yoga studio to include Ashtanga yoga in a program where students also learn about healthy eating and cultivate small gardens.
"We've got a ton of yoga in Encinitas," said school board member Carol Skiljan, an occasional yoga practitioner.
Encinitas has several yoga studios, particularly along the stretch of Coast Highway 101 that runs through the retro-funky Leucadia neighborhood. Yoga is taught at the local YMCA; at nearby Camp Pendleton, it is used to help Marines who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder after having been in combat.
But soon after yoga teachers began leading students at five elementary schools in twice-weekly sessions of stretching, breathing and relaxing, four dozen parents protested to the school board, saying yoga is a system of spiritual beliefs.
School officials quickly announced that parents could choose to have their children excused from yoga class.
But attorney Dean Broyles, representing the parents, said a lawsuit may be necessary to oust yoga from the school district.
"I think school officials are confused about Eastern mysticism," said Broyles, president and chief counsel for the Escondido-based National Center for Law & Policy, which deals with issues of religious freedom and Christian values.
"If this were a program letting children sit silently and engage in Christian prayer, the district would never allow it," Broyles said.
So far, school officials are standing firm. The yoga classes are set to expand into the district's other four elementary schools in January, while researchers from the University of San Diego and the University of Virginia study whether yoga helps improve attendance at the schools and reduces fighting and bullying.
David Miyashiro, assistant superintendent of the Encinitas Union School District, said the K-6 district, not the yoga studio, remains in charge of the yoga program.
The yoga regimen has been tailored to children. There is no use of Sanskrit, and the names of poses have been changed to "kid-friendly" language such as "gorilla pose" and "mountain pose."
Miyashiro likens yoga to exercises that athletes perform before a game so that from their perspective, the action on the field seems to slow down, and they can hit a curveball or catch a pass.
"I think that the lessons 'slow down' the game of school," Miyashiro said. "Kids have more time to think, they're less reactive, more responsive, both academically and socially."
Anecdotal evidence from principals, he said, suggests a decrease of playground problems and fewer suspensions for unruly behavior.
The grant comes from the Jois Foundation. Yoga teacher Krishna Pattabhi Jois, whose followers included Madonna and Sting, lived in Encinitas before returning to his native India, where he died in 2009 at age 93. Many consider Jois' stay in Encinitas to be the beginning in the U.S. of Ashtanga yoga, which emphasizes vigorous exertion.
The foundation is supported by hedge-fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones II and his wife, Sonia, who were followers of Jois.
Eugene Ruffin, chief executive of Jois Yoga Corp. in Encinitas, said he hopes the program in the Encinitas schools becomes a model for schools throughout California once officials see "the good benefits both for kids and the school system."
Ruffin said he is flummoxed by the criticism and the threat of a lawsuit.
"It's hard to know how to respond to someone who says if you touch your toes, you're inviting the devil into your soul," Ruffin said. People who go to his yoga studio on Coast Highway 101 are predominantly Christians and Jews, and none have felt their religious faith shaken, said Ruffin, a self-identified Catholic.
Under the grant, the district has hired 11 yoga teachers at $35 an hour; students get two 40-minute sessions per week. "This is not five-day-a-week yoga," Ruffin said.
Broyles accuses officials of "circling the wagons" to protect a generous financial grant. He said the yoga poses that the teachers are now leading the children in performing are, at their base, prayers to Hindu deities, which makes them an inappropriate addition to the curriculum.
The issue may return to the school board in January, when some preliminary data from the researchers may be available on the effects of yoga on behavior and attendance. Officials also promised to review the concerns brought by Broyles and the parents.
"Our only objective is to increase the wellness of our students," Skiljan said.