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Legal Battle Brews Over Yoga in Schools

A legal battle is brewing in California where an attorney representing parents of students in the Encinitas Union School District are calling upon the school to stop teaching yoga or face legal action.

The North County Times is reporting that parents are complaining about the inclusion of yoga in district schools because they fear it will indoctrinate their children into the eastern religion of Hinduism.

"There's a deep concern that the Encinitas Union School District is using taxpayer resources to promote Ashtanga yoga and Hinduism, a religion system of beliefs and practices," the parents' attorney, Dean Broyles, told the Times.

Broyles is president and chief counsel for The National Center for Law & Policy, a nonprofit law firm that focuses on “the protection and promotion of religious freedom, the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, parental rights and other civil liberties,” according to its website.

On October 12, Broyles sent district Encinitas School District Superintendent Tim Baird an e-mail calling the program unconstitutional and threatened legal action if the classes were not stopped.

Baird responded by calling yoga "a worldwide exercise regime utilized by people of many different faiths", adding that it's "part of our mainstream culture."

The lessons are funded by a $533,000 three-year grant from the Jois Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes Ashtanga yoga.

Parents have complained that the Jois Foundation is an overtly religious group, and they are correct in that this group promotes the legacy of K. Pattabhi Jois, an Indian guru and teacher of Ashtanga yoga who died in 2009.

According to this backgrounder, ashtanga yoga literally means "eight-limbed yoga" and consists of eight spiritual practices: Yama [moral codes], Niyama [self-purification and study], Asana [posture], Pranayama [breath control], Pratyahara [sense control], Dharana [concentration], Dhyana [meditation], Samadhi [absorption into the Universal].

In Ashtanga yoga, asana is considered part of an external cleansing practice designed to strengthen the body. But in order to perform the asana correctly, a person must incorporate the use of a breathing and movement system, the purpose of which is for internal cleansing. Practitioners also say that without a reverent practice of yama and niyama (moral codes, self-purification and study), "the practice of asana is of little benefit."

Although many attempt to use them as a mere exercise, yoga postures were never designed for this purpose. They serve either as a position of worship to any one of the more than three million Hindu gods, or to facilitate the flow of prana (an alleged universal life force energy) through the body.

District officials say they have stripped any semblance of religion from the class but the problem remains because regardless of how they are being used, the poses themselves were designed for a religious purpose.

“There’s really a lot of unease among a lot of parents,” said Mary Eady, who pulled her son from the classes.

At a school board meeting last week, seven parents criticized the program, and dozens more appeared to agree with them. However, some are afraid to speak up because of what is being described as "anger and name-calling" in online comments on news stories about the controversy.

That there are more than just a few parents concerned about the program has been confirmed by Broyles who declined to specify the exact number of the parents he is representing, saying only that it's "a lot."

Broyles said he thinks there are spiritual overtones in any type of yoga.

“Ultimately, yoga has its formation and foundation and basis in eastern mysticism and Hinduism,” he said. “With yoga period, there’ll always be some connection with religious and spiritual beliefs.”

Hindus are in agreement with Broyles and the parents in this dispute. In an effort to stop widespread attempts to delink yoga from its Hindu roots in the Western fitness industry. the Hindu America Foundation launched the Take Back Yoga campaign in 2010 in which they assert that yoga is an essential part of the Hindu philosophy and the two cannot be delinked, despite efforts to do so.

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