Yoga class draws religious protest

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ENCINITAS, Calif. -- By 9:30 a.m. at Paul Ecke Central Elementary School, tiny feet were shifting from downward dog pose to chair pose to warrior pose in surprisingly swift, accurate movements. A circle of 6- and 7-year-olds contorted their frames, making monkey noises and repeating confidence-boosting mantras.

Jackie Bergeron's first-grade yoga class was in full swing.

Though the yoga class had a notably calming effect on the children, things were far from placid outside the gymnasium.

A small but vocal group of parents, spurred on by the head of a local conservative advocacy group, has likened these 30-minute yoga classes to religious indoctrination.

They say the classes -- part of a comprehensive program offered to all public school students in this affluent suburb north of San Diego -- represent a violation of the First Amendment.

After the classes prompted discussion in local evangelical churches, parents said they were concerned that the exercises might nudge their children closer to ancient Hindu beliefs.

Mary Eady, the parent of a first-grader, said the classes were rooted in the deeply religious practice of Ashtanga yoga, in which physical actions are inextricable from the spiritual beliefs underlying them.

"They're not just teaching physical poses, they're teaching children how to think and how to make decisions," Ms. Eady said.

Underlying the controversy is the source of the program's financing. The pilot project is supported by the Jois Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in memory of Krishna Pattabhi Jois, who is considered the father of Ashtanga yoga.

Dean Broyles, the president and chief counsel of the National Center for Law and Policy, a nonprofit law firm that champions religious freedom and traditional marriage, according to its website, has dug up quotes from Jois Foundation leaders, who talk about the inseparability of the physical act of yoga from a broader spiritual quest.

Mr. Broyles argued that such quotes betrayed the group's broader evangelistic purpose.

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