WASHINGTON: Yoga enthusiasts in the US got a big boost this week when a California judge ruled that the practice which originated in India is now a ''distinctly American cultural phenomenon,'' while dismissing complaints from some parents that teaching it to school children amounted to ''an unconstitutional promotion of Eastern religions.''
Weeks of testimony from yoga practitioners and opponents, including live demonstration in courtroom of poses taught to children, came to a convoluted finale on Monday when Judge John Mayer agreed that yoga ''at its roots is religious,'' but pronounced that the kind introduced by a school district near San Diego, which was the subject of the litigation, passed the test of secularism. "A reasonable student would not objectively perceive that Encinitas School District yoga does advance or promote religion," he said.
Parents of some children had sued to stop the school district from teaching yoga maintaining it is a religious practice that surreptitiously promoted Hinduism. Funded with $533,000 from the K.Pattabhi Jois Foundation, which is backed by Jois acolytes, hedge-fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones II and his wife Sonia, the school district introduced a three-year pilot yoga program in 2011, with twice a week classes in addition to regular physical education.
While some 30 families pulled their children out of the classes, saying teaching of yoga in schools blurred the line between church and state and "represents a serious breach of the public trust," many parents backed the program, which the school said was also aimed at curbing aggressive behavior and bullying. School authorities said in court that they had removed all religious elements from what was taught to the students, including the use of the word Namaste and substituting Sanskrit name of asanas with English ones. For instance, Padmasana, usually called lotus pose in English, became ''criss cross apple sauce'' in Americanese to appeal to children.
In fact, Judge Meyer, who had told the court early in the case that he himself had taken Bikram yoga classes, went so far as to observe that the yoga taught in Encinitas schools was no different from exercise programs like dodgeball. He was also irritated that some of the plaintiffs were not really informed about yoga as taught in the Encinitas schools and had simply got their information from dubious sources on the internet. ''It's almost like a trial by Wikipedia, which isn't what this court does,'' he observed.
The petitioners have said they will appeal against the court's ruling, but for now, yoga enthusiasts are celebrating the victory because it sets an important legal precedent for expanding yoga in school programs. In fact, some observers seemed pleased at the judge's seeming cultural appropriation of yoga while observing that it was as American as apple pie, noting that yoga came to the US more than a century ago with the arrival of the first Indian mystics and spiritual figures.