California's Encinitas Union School District has voted to approve a plan to spend $416,000 in the next school year on a health and wellness program that must include at least one day of yoga instruction per week.
The plan was a compromise with parents unhappy that district money would be spent on yoga lessons. Officials initially proposed spending $800,000 on yoga instructions, the cornerstone of the new health and wellness program. The yoga program was launched several years ago by the Sonima Foundation with a grant worth $4 million. Those grants were discontinued this year, forcing the district to rely on its own funds to support the health and wellness program.
The lone board member to oppose the proposal, as reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune, was Gregg Sonken, who said schools should have autonomy in determining what special instruction they offer. "I have to vote without the enrichment teachers," Sonken said. "I feel that each school site has to make the decisions about what enrichment teachers they want to have at their school, whether it's P.E., art, science or yoga."
According to Deborah Sullivan Brennan of The Los Angeles Times, about 75 parents and children protested the yoga program outside school board offices, demanding that the district bar all spending on the yoga program. "Where is this $800,000 coming from?" a concerned parent asked. "Why is yoga an essential part of that?"
This is not the first time the Encinitas district's yoga program has sparked controversy. In 2013, the program was challenged on religious grounds for supposedly indoctrinating children with beliefs in Hinduism. An appeals court reached a decision that rejected these allegations. Then, earlier this year, the program was accused of being a gross misuse of school funds. Nevertheless, the program did garner support from parents who have been quieter in their support than the deluge of criticism the district has received.
Other parents, however, spoke more favorably of the yoga program. "I think it's incredibly unique, courageous, to have a program like this," said a mother of a fourth-grader in the district. "I think it's forward-thinking."
Rajan Zed, the President of Universal Society of Hinduism, came out strongly in favor of including yoga in the Encinitas curriculum. According to the Punjab News Express, he urged the California Board of Education and California Governor Jerry Brown to work towards formally introducing yoga as an integral part of school curriculum in all California public schools. Yoga, Zed says, is part of the world's heritage and acts as a "liberation powerhouse." The roots of yoga trace back to around 2,000 BCE in the Indus Valley civilization.
According to US National Institutes of Health, yoga helps individuals feel more relaxed, develops flexibility, improves posture, trains breathing, and relieves stress. About 37 million Americans now actively practice yoga, which is strongly correlated with having a positive self image. Zed says that yoga acts as the repository of something basic in the human soul and psyche. Indeed, before the funding controversy, students' response to the Encinitas program had been favorable.