Encinitas classroom yoga conflict a precursor to litigation? (U-T San Diego)

By Matthew Hall
December 5, 2012
U-T San Diego

The school board meeting began with the Pledge of Allegiance and more than 100 people stood as one, placed their hands over their hearts and proclaimed “Under God.”

Indivisible, though? That’s another story.

The Encinitas Union School District has been divided for months over yoga classes for its students, but you wouldn’t have known which side anyone was on — Yoga is relaxing exercise! No, it’s Hindu religious indoctrination! — until 23 speakers addressed the crowd Tuesday night.

In a world infused with religion and relaxation, not even anyone’s yoga pants or the crosses around the necks of disapproving parent Sian Welch and yoga instructor Kristen Enyedi offered a clue.

Every parent in the room — those who want to maintain a grant-funded yoga program and those who want it removed from their schools — showed up for one reason: They want what’s best for their children.

But would that be enough to stave off a lawsuit?

Not even the board of trustees knew that on Tuesday — or now. Not the two members who praised the yoga program. Not the two others who raised questions about this particular kind of yoga in a public school. And not President Emily Andrade, who had Tuesday’s last word.

Andrade is a Christian who has never done yoga. So is public-school yoga religious to her, or is that characterization a stretch? And what could she possibly say that hasn’t been said to bridge this divide?

I first wrote about this flap in October, suggesting that everyone just relax and calling the program, which eventually will offer twice-weekly, 30-minute yoga sessions to 5,500 students, outstanding instead of outrageous.

Since then, Escondido lawyer Dean Broyles has threatened to sue over what he considers a constitutional violation, and the Encinitas-based Coast Law Group has said it will defend the district at no cost.

Broyles and Coast Law Group partner David Peck, who has a second-grader in the district, both spoke at Tuesday’s meeting. The mood in the room was alternately heavy and ebullient as people on either side of the issue clapped for speakers on both sides. The only exception was when a bell signaled that Broyles’ speaking time was up and the crowd hissed him to his seat, jeering, “See ya later,” “Thanks for coming,” and “You’re done!”

“I know, love and respect people on both sides of this issue,” Encinitas parent Delores Loedel told the board. “This just breaks my heart.”

Broyles was the only speaker who didn’t live in Encinitas, a town that residents joke has a yoga studio on every block. The district provides the schooltime classes to elementary students thanks to a $533,000 grant from the K.P. Jois USA Foundation, which promotes Ashtanga yoga and was founded by an Encinitas kindergarten teacher’s family.

The controversy has led to a pair of petitions. At Tuesday’s meeting, yoga supporters said they had collected 2,600 signatures while opponents had gathered far fewer — 240, including about one-fifth that were anonymous.

District officials have a mantra that they modified the yoga so it’s not mystical, spiritual or religious. But a group of parents, grandparents and Christians mindful of incursions like schools changing “Christmas vacation” to “winter break” are adamantly opposed.

James Lawrence, for one, has removed his children from the program, as the district allows. While he would prefer that his kids get an alternative form of physical education, the school has no second option. So he picks up his first-grader during the yoga sessions and his fourth-grader does math homework.

When critic Stephanie Peña came up to speak Tuesday night, she read some verses from the Bible. The passage from Corinthians starts: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.”

It’s a point we’d all want our children to grasp, whether they learn it in school, at home or on the playground. Yet reading that in a classroom would violate the U.S. Constitution, she said.

“Whether scripture succeeds in converting someone to Christ or whether yoga succeeds in making a union with the divine does not negate the fact that the intent, the purpose, the design of both of these is to put one on a spiritual path toward God,” Peña said.

How, Broyles asked later, is a sun salutation or a lotus position not a worshipful pose?

“It is as obvious as the sun, the moon and the stars that Ashtanga yoga is religious,” he said.

In all, six yoga program critics spoke out, while 17 supporters did.

Enyedi, the yoga instructor, echoed some other parents when she said her daughter loves the program.

“The only thing I want to do is help these children succeed,” Enyedi said. “The Asthanga yoga sequence helps me as an athlete. I’m not a Hindu. I don’t read anything about the Hindu religion. I’m a Christian.”

And yoga is more than exercise, fourth-grade teacher Sallie Obilnicky added.

“All it does is help our students,” she said. “I cannot tell you the degree of focus that occurs with those students as a result of having done that physical activity, that physical stretching.”

Peck, the attorney, might have earned the night’s biggest applause when he read a few lines in an article called “The Trouble With Yoga” from Catholic Answers magazine. “Let’s be clear,” he read. “The body postures of yoga are in themselves neutral. Moving the body into a certain position does not necessarily engage the person in any particular spiritual activity.”

He was stopped short by the bell as well. Had he continued, he might have read a section from the article that said, “Merely lowering the body to the knees does not engage a person in the act of worshipping God.”

It’s a great example and as good a sign as any that the spiritual and physical acts of yoga can be separated — as they are here.

So there Andrade was at this emotional meeting, last to speak, with fellow board members wanting the program to remain in place and better options for children who don’t participate.

“As you know, I am a Christian,” she began. “And if I thought that in any way we were teaching religion in this district, there is no way I would stand for it. I’m sorry people are getting led to believe that, somehow. It’s not happening, I know it’s not happening, and if I ever, ever thought it would, I’d be up here saying we need to get rid of it.”

Andrade made her point and settled the issue short of a lawsuit. Then she added: “I have not ever done yoga, but I’m thinking of taking it up.”

Then this roomful of people rose again as one, and stretched.