Encinitas has been called the yoga mecca of America. But when yoga started in five of the city’s schools this fall, some parents believed the classes were promoting Hinduism. But heated school board meetings crowded with yoga’s supporters and detractors haven’t derailed plans to expand the classes to all nine Encinitas schools.
During the first period of each day at Olivenhain Pioneer Elementary school, Kristen McCloskey leads about two-dozen third graders through familiar yoga poses.
On one recent morning, some kids looked around the room as they moved through the sequences and others teetered as they tried to balance - but they were mostly focused and on-task. When McCloskey turned the lights off for the last relaxation pose, most of the kids lay still. She told anyone feeling fidgety to cross their arms over their chests and many did.
At the end of the half hour class, 8-year-old Jacob Hagen said he felt ready for the rest of his day.
“Because you get to stretch out," he said. "And it’s good to be the first class because it wakes you up.”
Schools across the country are focusing more on teaching students to make healthy choices. Encinitas Superintendent Tim Baird said yoga is just one part of the district’s physical education curriculum.
“We also have a nutrition program, we also have a life skills program where kids learn about perseverance and responsibility,” he said.
The whole wellness program is supported by a $500,000 grant from the K.P. Jois Foundation. The Encinitas-based group promotes a kind of yoga called Ashtanga.
But, when Mary Eady visited a yoga class at her son’s Encinitas school last year, she saw much more than a fitness program.
“They were being taught to thank the sun for their lives and the warmth that it brought, the life that it brought to the earth," she said, "and they were told to do that right before they did their sun salutation exercises."
Those looked like religious teachings to Eady, so she opted her son out of the classes. The more she reads about the Jois Foundation and its founders’ beliefs in the spiritual benefits of Ashtanga yoga, the more convinced Eady is that it can’t be separated from its Hindu roots.
“It’s stated in the curriculum that it’s meant to shape the way that they view the world, it’s meant to shape the way that they make life decisions," she said. "It’s meant to shape the way that they regulate their emotions and the way that they view themselves.”
Eady is part of a group of parents working with Dean Broyles, president and chief counsel of the Escondido-based National Center for Law and Policy.
“And then the question becomes - if it is religious, which it is, who decides when enough religion has been stripped out of the program to make it legal,” he said. “I mean that’s the problem when you introduce religion into the curriculum and actually immerse and marinate children in the program.”
Eady and the other parents want the classes made completely voluntary and moved to before or after the school day. They say school officials haven’t responded to their specific concerns.
Those concerns include the Jois Foundation’s funding for researchers at the Universities of San Diego and Virginia to study whether the yoga classes affect things like attendance, behavior and student achievement. Broyles said the research points to a broader purpose.
“It is the stated goal of both the Jois Foundation and the district itself is to prove – scientifically – that Ashtanga yoga works for kids here in the district and then export it nationally,” he said.
But studying the program is just the responsible thing to do, according to Superintendent Baird.
“As a school district we’re always looking to see, is this effective? Are we making a difference? Where are we making a difference?” he said.
If it is an effective program, Baird and P.K. Jois Foundation director Eugene Ruffin said it could be a model for other districts. And to Ruffin, that’s not sinister--what’s being taught in the yoga classes is typical of athletics programs for kids.
“They provide you with the exercise and the motivation for children and then they give you character exercises, thou shalt not steal, thou shall be honest, thou shall be respectful to adults,” he said.
He said those ideals aren’t specific to Hinduism and don’t conflict with his own Catholic upbringing.
Despite the controversy, most parents are happy with the classes. Including Monique Cocco. Waiting outside to pick her children up just before school lets out, she said they certainly aren’t learning about Hinduism.
“Absolutely not – no. What my daughter tells me is she did the pancake today and she lays down and then she cracks up because it’s so funny," she said.
Cocco hears from teachers that kids are calmer and more focused after yoga so they can spend more class time on lessons instead of settling kids down the way they sometimes have to after traditional gym classes.
When winter break ends Jan. 7, the school district is moving forward with plans to have the classes taught at all nine Encinitas schools.