Yoga poses no risk to church-state separation, says judge

A San Diego judge ruled Monday that yoga poses like downward dog and “criss-cross applesauce” are not religious, allowing a yoga program to continue in a Southern California school district.

Parents of two children in the Encinitas Union School district in San Diego County sued the district because they claim the Ashtanga yoga classes being offered in place of more traditional physical education instruction indoctrinate the children. But on Monday afternoon, Judge John S. Meyer ruled in favor of the school district.

The couple’s lawyer, Attorney Dean Broyles, told NBC News 7 in San Diego that the practice is inherently religious and is a violation of church and state.

All nine schools in the district participate in the yoga program, which launched last fall, during gym class. The program is funded completely by a $500,000 grant from the K.P. Jois Foundation.

The foundation’s website says it is looking to promote wellness, health and achievement for youth, especially those in under-served communities.

“We want them to feel that they don’t need sugar and video games to fill some kind of vacancy that they might feel,” said Russell Case, who helped recruit yoga instructors for the program and works for the Jois Foundation. “We want them to feel that they can get that from exercise.”

As a 501(c)3 non-profit company, Case said the foundation cannot promote any sort of religious affiliation.

“The plantiffs don’t want religion in schools and neither do we,” Case said.

The school’s defense, led by attorney Jack Sleeth, followed the foundation’s sentiment, and said the program was put in place to promote a healthy lifestyle that helps students reduce stress and align their bodies.

Encinitas Union School District Superintendent Timothy Baird testified in court May 20 that he met with the yoga instructors and changed some of the names of the poses prior to the program starting.

“Initially, we made a conscious decision to remove some cultural context,” Baird said.

Yoga instructor Jennifer Nicole Brown, who demonstrated some of the yoga positions in court, said when parents complained about their children chanting, she removed it from the lesson. Brown was the first yoga instructor hired by the district, which now has 10 yoga teachers.

According to Case, the school district has received more than 5,000 emails and letters from parents asking it to continue the yoga progam. He said the foundation aims to start similar programs in other communities, citing the program's success in Encinitas.