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Encinitas (Calif.) schools go to court to defend yoga classes

Superintendent says yoga provides valuable exercise and has even improved students' academic performance
Encinitas school district is being sued for offering yoga, an ancient Hindu philosophy meant to strengthen physical, mental, and spiritual acuity.

Updated July 1, 2013:

“Do a triangle pose,” a teacher says to her third-grade students during one of their bi-weekly yoga classes. “Good. Now a gorilla pose. Now you’re a mountain.”

This is yoga at Encinitas USD’s nine K6 schools. The poses’ names have been changed to be less religious. They are part of a complete physical education program designed to help students stay calm, focused and physically active throughout their day, says Encinitas USD Superintendent Timothy Baird.

The effort is not only providing valuable exercise, but is increasing students’ academic scores by keeping their minds fresh and sharp, Baird says. The yoga class includes breathing, stretching and bending techniques that let the children take a break from their desks and move around.

However, not everyone sees the benefits. In February, the National Center for Law & Policy, on behalf of William Frederick Bentz, guardian of students Stephen and Jennifer Sedlock, filed a lawsuit against Baird and the district’s board members citing a civil rights violation. Ashtanga yoga, after which the class is modeled, comes from the Hindu religion, which they feel violates their religious beliefs.

The suit asks defendants to comply with religious freedoms under the state constitution and comply with mandatory minimum PE requirements of the California Education Code for public schools. The trial to consider whether yoga is a secular exercise or a form of religion that’s inappropriate for public schools ended July 1 in San Diego Superior Court.

A San Diego Superior Court judge rejected a claim by parents in the Encinitas elementary school system that teaching yoga in the schools is an improper attempt at religious indoctrination. The ruling by Judge John Meyer, who heard the case without a jury, means that the Encinitas Union School District can continue to teach yoga as part of its health and exercise curriculum.

The lawsuit filed against the Encinitas Union School District by the Escondido-based, nonprofit National Center for Law & Policy may be the first of its kind in the United States and has gained international attention.

Encinitas (Calif.) Union School District

      • Schools: 9, K6
      • Students: 5,500
      • Staff and faculty: 500
      • Per child expenditure: $8,814
      • Students receiving free or reduced-price lunch: 14%
      • Website:

The center filed the suit on behalf of plaintiffs Stephen and Jennifer Sedlock and William Bentz, parents and guardian of students in the district.“We believe there is no legal basis for the lawsuit,” Baird said before the trial. “We are confident we will prevail in the case after judicial review.

“We’re not teaching religion, we’re teaching a health and wellness program,” he says. “Yoga is very mainstream. It looks like stretching; it improves their strength, their balance, their stamina. That’s what we’re looking for—the physical outcomes.”

Encinitas is not the only school using yoga to exercise students’ minds. In the Norris (Neb.) School District, Ashley Schlake and Shelly Coe have been teaching yoga as part of their seventh-grade “Mind and Body” exploratory class for three years. The purpose of the program is to teach activities that students can carry throughout their lives, says Schrake, adding that “We use yoga to teach stress reduction, relaxation techniques, strength building and stretching.” She notes that, to date, the feedback has been positive.

Encouraging beginnings

The yoga program was offered to the Encinitas district in 2011 by the K.P. Jois Foundation, which funded the pilot for the 2011-2012 school year at Capri Elementary School, a dual-language instruction school that teaches immersive English and Spanish. According to the foundation’s website, K.P. Jois uses Ashtanga yoga, meditation, and proper nutrition to “create a positive lifestyle change.” The program was rolled out to the rest of the district for the 2012-2013 school year after seeing worthwhile results.

“If you were to walk in there, you would feel like you’re going into a gym,” Baird says. “The students basically do some warm-ups and stretches. And we don’t use any cultural references. It doesn’t look like your mother’s yoga class because it’s designed for kids. With the fun names, it looks more like a PE classroom.”

Parents were allowed to observe the classes, and those who still had concerns could opt out and have their children receive math tutoring during that time slot. Just 30 families from Capri Elementary (out of 5,465) opted out.

More engagement

Following the pilot, Baird says, students at Capri Elementary were more engaged in their studies, and their academic test scores have increased 11 points according to Baird. In addition, he says, “The students have said that when they come back to the classroom, they feel energized and ready to learn. We’ve seen reductions in playground behavior incidents, as well as some students transferring that ability to calm themselves into the classroom and be more focused on their work.”

It has also helped reduce stress levels. “Some kids will practice their breathing during a test,” Baird says. “We even had a ‘duck and cover’ practice drill after a lockdown situation and one boy told his classmates, ‘it’s just like yoga everyone, breathe’.”

While some parents and staff are concerned about the lawsuit and negative publicity, most parents and the community support the program, Baird says. “We get letters weekly. I have letters from students saying it’s a great program and they love what we’re doing. And parents are telling us this is the right thing for their kids and they want to see it continue.”

Moving yoga forward

Encinitas is working with the University of San Diego and the University of Virginia to analyze the potential outcomes from the yoga program over one year. Initial data was submitted in February by the Educational Services staff, and will be updated as needed. A three-year study will look at larger health issues, such as ADD.

The overall purpose of the study is to measure the efficacy of the health and wellness curriculum. All schools in the district participate in the free study. “We’re looking at weight loss, body mass index, strength and flexibility,” says Baird. “And we’re hoping to see some other elements related to engagement in the classroom, as well as attending more frequently and having fewer behavioral issues.”

Naturally progressive

Baird, who has been superintendent at Encinitas for four years, says the district is somewhat of a trailblazer in other areas, as well. “We have a 1:1 iPad program in place and the National School Boards Association sent a group to see our program in action when they had their conference out here in April because we were out in front of it before many others,” he says.

The district’s health and wellness program has garnered a lot of attention, All nine schools have gardens, where students grow fruits and vegetables that are served at the cafeteria salad bars.

Ocean Knoll Elementary School, for instance, has a nutritional science lab in which the students learn how to prepare lettuce, kale, summer squash, and other food grown in the garden and on a one-acre farm. At Ocean Knoll and Paul Ecke Central, students make salads and other meals in the cafeteria kitchen from food they have harvested from theirl garden. Encinitas is preparing another 10 acres of land on an abandoned school property that will be used for organic farming, with a portion of the crops used for the district’s school lunch program.

And in the near future, the district is planning a fully integrated agro-ecology learning center on the 10-acre farm. Teachers and children would be bused in for week-long educational programs where they would learn what it means to be organic, the science of aquaponics, how to determine the nutritional value of produce, composting and worm farming.

The schools are also green in other ways. They have replaced drinking fountains with “dehydration stations,” a filtered water system from which students fill their canteens. They installed high-efficiency hand dryers in all the bathrooms and waterless urinals in the boys’ bathrooms. Classroom lighting has been replaced with solar tubes to promote better use of daylight. A skylight that reflects additional sunlight into classrooms is being piloted at Park Dale Lane school and will be rolled out to the remaining eight schools over the next two years. All schools have photovoltaic panels on the roofs to heat water, while rain harvesting stations that are being installed underground and on roofs will be used for gardens and landscaping.

This year, Encinitas rolled out a recycling program districtwide to encourage recycling of five materials: fruit/vegetable peelings, returnable bottles, cans, paper and plastic. “We’re now diverting 83 percent of our waste from the landfill,” says Baird.

Overall, Baird says, “I believe that what we’re doing is good for kids. I don’t believe that we’re indoctrinating children into any religious belief.”