Saturday, June 1, 2013

Yoga Train Wreck in Encinitas: Or, What's Up with the Jois Foundation??

Please bear with me for a few caveats and disclaimers before I begin my rant. 

1. Although I don't practice Ashtanga, I'm attracted to the culture it generates insofar as I know it. I tend to connect intellectually with Ashtangis more than any other identifiable group of practitioners. I feel that the method attracts a relatively high percentage of smart, independently-minded people. From my outsider's perspective, it seems that the Ashtanga community has an exceptionally interesting, serious, engaged culture. I like that. 

2. I'm strongly in favor of making yoga more available in institutions such as schools, hospitals, and prisons, as well as in underserved and socially marginalized communities. As a teacher, I find yoga outreach meaningful and regenerating. I'm an unashamed booster of the not particularly popular notion of socially engaged yoga

Soooooo . . . you'd think I'd not only be super-supportive of the fact that the Jois Foundation gave a $500,000 grant to the Encinitas schools to fund a district-wide yoga program, but also stand staunchly by them as the maddening lawsuit that grant generated drags on. And this would be true, except for the fact that . . .

3. I believe strongly not only in the values of multiculturalism, but in the need to actively engage them in practice if we're to have any hope at all of healing some of the divisions in our frighteningly polarized society.

Although multiculturalism is rightfully associated with left-of-center political values, I've always believed that it's got to be applied evenly across the board. And when it comes to the current lawsuit over the constitutionality of teaching yoga in public schools, that means treating the conservative Christians involved with equal consideration and respect, whether one agrees with them or not.

And that's why - despite being being strongly opposed to the conservative Christian political agenda - I'm nonetheless moved to say that I think the plaintiffs in Encinitas have raised some legitimate questions about the Jois Foundation grant. 

In fact, the more that I read through the Jois Yoga website, and search in vain for some sort of statement they may have made about the many important issues raised in this case, the more frustrated I feel. At this point, I'm simply wondering: 

What the hell is up with the Jois Foundation??

"Inherently Religious"? 

Let me explain. The Encinitas lawsuit boils down to an argument over whether yoga is "inherently religious" or not. Framed in such broad terms, it's easy to refute the claim that it is. After all, how could anyone seriously think that the practice that produced this video qualifies as having religious stature? 

But this litigation is much more tricky than that. Because the case was not, of course, filed to judge  "yoga" in the abstract: it was filed against the Encinitas program in particular. But now that it's up and running, there's a (most likely calculated) slipperiness between the attack on "yoga" writ large and the specific program in Encinitas.

And that slipperiness bodes ill both for the reputation of yoga in more religiously conservative communities (which, after all, is a good bit of the U.S.) as well as its status in publicly funded institutions such as schools, hospitals, prisons and so on. 

When I first researched the Encinitas case I was not surprised to learn that the plaintiffs were associated with a conservative Christian activist group and represented by a conservative Christian legal advocacy group. I've studied the American conservative movement in depth, and have a good understanding of how its interlinked network of right-wing think tanks, foundations, law firms, and activist groups operates - and how powerful it is. 

Though expected, this discovery revved up my righteous indignation. I'm profoundly dismayed and certainly somewhat alarmed to see yoga dragged into the juggernaut of litigious culture wars that's been churning on now for decades.

Yoga teacher Jennifer Brown demonstrating Lotus at the Encinitas trial

Still, ever the obsessive researcher, I started looking for information on the Jois Foundation online. I expected to find material explaining precisely how and why the Foundation's grant-making program differed from Jois Yoga's overall commitment to Ashtanga. After all, I understood the argument being made in court was that the Encinitas program doesn't represent Ashtanga per se. Instead, it's an exercise-oriented program developed under the authority of the school district to support children's health and well-being. 

I believe this to be the case. I certainly don't think that the Encinitas program is really designed to indoctrinate kids into Hinduism. On many levels, I find that claim completely absurd. 


The fact of the matter is that if you read the Jois Yoga website, it's full of what can only be described as religiously-inflected spiritual language. And of course, that would be fine, except for the fact that there's virtually nothing on the Jois Foundation side of fence to balance it out. 

"Our Website is Underway"

While the plaintiffs are being ridiculed in court and across the internet as irrational fanatics who refuse to accept the obvious fact that yoga is exercise, the Jois Yoga website describes the Ashtanga method as “an ancient system that can lead to liberation and greater awareness of our spiritual potential.”
While I'd quibble with the "ancient system" claim, that's fine as far as it goes within its appropriate context. But it does raise some legitimate questions regarding precisely how this understanding of yoga is being translated into a program that's appropriate for children from diverse backgrounds attending a public school.

These questions intensify dramatically once you start perusing the "Philosophy" page of the website, which presents a series of "Conference Notes with Sharath Jois" from 2011-12. These notes not only contains a lot of religious-sounding language, but buttress some of the plaintiff’s more seemingly outlandish claims as well.

For example, many commentators have derided the plaintiffs as idiots for charging that Sun Salutations could be in any way connected to worshiping a “sun god.” Yet, the Jois Yoga website explains that Ashtanga founder Pattahbi Jois taught Sun Salutations “for two reasons”:

To pray to the sun god each morning would insure good health . . . Also, the Sūrya Namaskāra is used in our practice . . . to create heat in the body and help us do other postures.
Now, this is the first time in 15 years of practice that I’ve ever heard of “praying to the sun god” in any context connected with yoga. Regardless of this statement, I don't believe that 99.9% of American yoga practitioners have any clue that such a linkage has ever been made - and if they did, they'd either dismiss it as fanciful metaphor, or disapprove. Nonetheless, the fact that it’s stated on the Jois Yoga website is obviously relevant to the Encinitas case.

Again, this wouldn't be so bad if there was robust and compelling information available explaining precisely how the Foundation's grant-making program differentiates itself in terms of both philosophy and practice. Unfortunately, I've looked a good bit for such information, and as far as I can tell, it isn't there. 

Instead, there is a single web page on the Jois Yoga site that only explains the Foundation's program very briefly and vaguely: 
Our Health and Wellness Program for Children . . . uses the techniques of yoga, meditation, and proper nutrition to create a positive lifestyle change.
There's a bit more, but not much. Most of the font on the page is too small and hard to read. One sentence stands out in bolded caps at the bottom, however:


Whaaaaaaatttt??? The Jois Foundation has given over half a million in funding to the Encinitas school district, produced a slick promo video, sparked a lawsuit that could have a seriously negative impact on the evolution of yoga in American society and . . . their website is underway??


To be sure, the fact that the Jois Foundation funded the Encinitas program isn’t by itself enough to discredit it. The EUSD insists that it had complete control over the curriculum, and no interest in or knowledge of yoga as anything other than exercise. To bar the program simply because of the beliefs of its funders would be discriminatory. That said, one really has to wonder just what the Jois Foundation was thinking when it launched this initiative without more adequately addressing the obvious legal, educational, cultural, and religious issues involved. 

Our website is underway?! How about a robust website that explains the philosophy behind the yoga in public schools grant-making program in depth? How about some appropriately useful resources, such as a study of best practices in that field? How about consultations with experts who have been successfully implementing yoga in schools programs for years? How about a resource page of studies assessing the positive benefits of yoga for kids? How about a stated commitment to respecting the diverse religious commitments of a multicultural society, along with a detailed account of why yoga is well-suited to being adapted to all faith traditions - and none? 

If the Jois Foundation were a strapped, struggling effort of politically naive, but well-meaning yoga aficionados who had no way of putting all that together, that would be one thing. But that's not the case. Jois Yoga has a lot of money. If they didn't, you can bet that the National Center for Law and Policy wouldn't have bothered to take on the case. 

Contemplative Sciences Center website:

What's even more galling to me is that beyond their financial resources, Jois Yoga is already connected with an academic research center, the Contemplative Sciences Center at the University of Virginia. This Center was established in 2012 thanks to a $12 million grant from "billionaire alum Paul Tudor Jones and his wife Sonia," the same couple that funded and created Jois Yoga.

The mission of the Center sounds wonderfully multidisciplinary and innovative: 
to foster dynamic partnerships of unusual depth and breadth towards exploring the transformative impact of contemplation in a variety of social sectors. Binding together the humanities and sciences, we are pursuing serious programs of learning, research, and engagement across the liberal arts, sciences, health sciences, medicine and nursing, education, architecture, business research, policy making, contemplative practice, and more.
A quick glance through the website confirms that there's a lot of interesting work going on there. Yet . . . when you search "Encinitas" on the site, nothing comes up. Search "yoga" and six listings come up. Further fueling my frustration with the entire situation is the fact that one of them is titled, "Gurus on Grounds" ("Please join an extraordinary opportunity for contemplative experience and learning under expert guidance as world-renowned master teachers Sharath and Saraswathi Jois teach Ashtanga Yoga practice to a large public gathering.") Arrrrgghhhh.

What. The.

On the one hand, I really do feel rather churlish complaining about the Tudor Jones charitable work. After all, they've contributed millions of dollars to visionary endeavors I strongly support, such as furthering contemplative studies and bringing yoga into the public schools. Such public-minded use of private wealth is all too rare today, and (political concerns about the destructively unequal distribution of wealth in the U.S. aside), I certainly appreciate it.  

On the other hand, I feel enormously frustrated that with all these resources, the Encinitas case seems to have been handled in an embarrassingly inept and potentially destructive way. The level of disconnect between the reality of the culture wars on the ground in American society and the lofty vision of expanding the reach of yoga and contemplative practices in the U.S. strikes me as stunning - not to mention discouraging. 

Threading through the Encinitas case is a vagueness about the relationship between Ashtanga yoga (as understood and promulgated by Jois Yoga) and American yoga as a much bigger, and highly diversified phenomenon. The Jois Foundation has simply not, as far as I can see, drawn a bright line between their school-based yoga programs and their commitment to the Ashtanga method. 

This fuzziness raises legitimate concerns among conservative Christian parents who are sincerely concerned about the spiritual development of their children. Honestly, I were a conservative Christian who knew nothing about yoga other than what was happening in Encinitas, it would be entirely possible to read the Jois Yoga website and freak out about a possible “Hindu invasion.”

Potentially, some of these unnecessary concerns could have been alleviated with better program development and implementation procedures. For starters, a clear and thorough separation between the Ashtanga and school-based methods needed to be made internally, and stated publicly. Then, community outreach and parent-teacher conversations could have built bridges between the yoga program and worried parents. 

Of course, some of the opposition would never have been won over regardless. I wouldn't expect the Encinitas parent on the staff of truthXchange (a very strange-sounding conservative Christian activist group committed to combating the supposedly rising tide of global paganism) to accept yoga (in schools or otherwise) as OK no matter what. 

In my experience, however, most conservative-leaning Christians who are not hardcore activists are very open to accepting yoga if they felt that their concerns are heard and addressed. Given yoga is not inherently religious, and is in fact intended to be open to supporting all faith traditions (or none), this is not difficult to do. 

If we keep steamrolling forward as we have been, however, we'll never have the chance to find out. The lack of clarity about the Jois Foundation's grant-making program has provided a prime opportunity for zealous conservative Christian activists to reframe the understanding of yoga in schools, both culturally, politically, and legally. And with some smart, seasoned, and committed leadership in place, they know how to leverage the opening that Encinitas has provided. 

It wasn't an accident that the first lawsuit to challenge yoga in the public schools didn't involve on of the many school yoga nonprofits run by experienced educators who understand the school system from the inside out. No, this case was selected for solid political reasons. And it frustrates me no end that the side I'm backing seems to be ignoring the mountains of evidence showing that we have a problem here, Houston. Instead, they keep insisting over and over that anyone with any intelligence understands that "yoga is exercise." 


Hopefully the judge will render a smart, incisive, balanced, and original position that reframes the many important issues involved in this case in more constructive ways. Because right now, I'm not liking the direction it's going, at all.

Please also check out my recent post on Yoga U Online: "Yoga on Trial: Encinitas and the Need for a New Paradigm."


  1. this is a fantastic post- i agree with you 100%. I believe this is a common issue for many yoga-cross over institutions, including wanting to move into the health professional field without properly considering the reality of how the health industry currently works and what Yoga would need to do.

    how frustrating.

  2. 55 + years ago I went to an LA school where we did surya namaskara every morning and recited the salutation to the dawn. Despite the supposed seditious nature of this early childhood indoctrination I never was and currently am not religious. However, as a reasonable adult I confess to finding the Jois Yoga website an embarrassment. It is a silly boutique with page after page of new age jargon designed around selling stuff.

    Does the passage below seem like a dangerous morning recitation for a 6 year old?

    Listen to the Exhortation of the Dawn:

    Look to this Day!
    For it is life, the very life of life.
    In its brief course lie all the verities
    And realities of your existence:

    The glory of action,
    The bliss of growth,
    The splendor of beauty.

    For yesterday is but a dream,
    And tomorrow is only a vision.

    But today, well lived, makes
    Every yesterday a dream of happiness
    And every tomorrow a vision of hope.

    Look well, therefore, to this Day!
    Such is the Salutation of the Dawn.

  3. Great work as always Carol.

    The reason I was so impressed with Candy Brown's brief was that she nailed the religiosity of the Jois discourse in a way that I think most irreligious or post-religious western practitioners would rather ignore. This misprision, I think, stems from a general ignorance of Indian culture and recent political history. Most advocates for yoga in modern India find support from or coherence with a political landscape in which the separation of religious and political objectives is as blurred as it is for many Americans on the Christian right. Having spent some time in India and having hung around expat Indians and many Indophiles, it would never occur to me to look to an organization like the Jois foundation for a nuanced view on the Establishment clause. For the most part the Indian elision of religion and politics has thrived during the groundswell of Hindutva sentiment, which promotes the proselytizing (and often appropriating) view of Sanatana (universal) Dharma.

    Nor would I expect from the Jois foundation a savvy website -- such is the oral and personal-contact nature of the discourse, especially when the guru himself is not online (whether disinterested or deceased), or doesn't consider the online world as part of his sphere. I've often wondered whether the poor quality of the web presence of most Indian yoga and ayurveda schools is an expression of disdain or distrust for the medium itself, or an extension of the belief of non-representability, i.e., of course a website couldn't capture the essence of what we do -- you have to come and see for yourself! (While from the perspective with which we are more familiar, it is precisely the website that opens the door of legitimacy.)

    While I agree with Cathy Keer that the Jois foundation has been unprepared for the vetting of modern secularism, the fact that in 15 years you have never heard of or considered the sun salutation as a form of solar worship expresses a huge disconnect going in the other direction. "Surya" was a central god within the Vedic pantheon, and to prostrate before his rising is a key ritual of dinacharya - "follower of the sun". The practitioner is encouraged to begin during brahma muhurta (prior to dawn), to face east, and to feel tapas (the internal form of the vedic fire ritual) rise as the god makes his daily entrance. We have little way of knowing the balance of literalism to metaphor with which practitioners through the ages have understood this rite, although it is probably safe to say that consideration has moved from the former to the latter.

    For the Jois foundation to issue a statement about surya namaskar that captures this subtlety, it would have to be driven by a much more modern epistemology, and demonstrate a capacity to view its religious roots in a new way. I've seen little impetus for this so far, but this very case could change that.

  4. Hi Matthew - Thanks for reading and your very illuminating comments! It is true that I knew nothing about the history of "Surya" worship that you reference. It would be interesting to know whether I'm correct in my assumption that most other American practitioners (and particularly Ashtangis) don't either, or if I'm unusual in this regard.

    Re the Jois Foundation, however, I think that their problems can't be pinned on Indian culture, as Jois Yoga was funded and founded by billionaire Paul Tudor Jones's wife, Sonia Jones. He is a hedge fund trader and she is an Ashtanga enthusiast. You may remember the Vanity Fair profile on their yoga philanthropy awhile back:

    Also interesting to note is that Mr. Tudor Jones just in the last day stirred up political controversy for stating publicly at an investment symposium that "there will never be “as many great women investors or traders as men — period, end of story” because so many women have babies and bond with their children in an emotional and focus-consuming way that men cannot understand."

    And isn't this an interesting twist (from the WA Post): "So far, there has been no university-wide statement addressing Jones’s comments at the symposium hosted by the U-Va. McIntire School of Commerce and the Contemplative Sciences Center, which was started last year with a $12 million gift from Jones."

    So, I think that there's good evidence that the lack of political astuteness and cultural sensitivity displayed on the Jois Yoga website may have more to do with the culture of America 1% than with India :)

    1. O I don't think you're alone about the surya thing...

      That Paul Jones! Okaaaaay. Not a great mind to have in one's corner, I think. Sheesh. Perhaps the American 1% has a particular affinity for the teleological business mindset that we see in the Hindutva 1%. Manifest destiny keeps coming around, doesn't it?

  5. As a yogi who's resolutely non-religious(to the point, in fact, that many yogis would say I'm not one, since my practice has nothing to do with the god(s) they see as the entire point of yoga), my naturally affinity in a battle between the religious right and yoga is with yoga. My opinion began to change, however, when I read a piece on Encinitas in Elephant Journal a few months ago which argued that Christians shouldn't object to yoga because yogis believe in the same god as Christians and that, anyway, that whole separation-of-church-and-state thing is silly. And, certainly, maintaining cool and quiet while yoga teachers preach about reincarnation, "the universe" (i.e. the new age word for "God") has long been a part of my practice. Significantly, the most preachy yogis tend to insist that they're not, in fact, religious, but just talking about the truth, and will, often, site such dubious sources as The Secret and that What the Bleep movie to make the point that what they're talking about is actually scientific. What this indicates is that the real difference between eastern and western yogis may be that western yogis don't KNOW that they're religious, and so really can't be expected to know when they're cross the church and state lines.

    1. Excellent point. I agree that there is often not enough serious self-reflection in the yoga community to ascertain whether views held are in fact religious or not.

      Of course, it gets tricky because if you don't believe in God or anything like that but are convinced that "the Universe" guides all and that this is proved by quantum physics - and that's basically it - does that really qualify as "religion" in any meaningful sense? Traditionally, religions required much more elaboration than that - they had doctrines, organizations, hierarchies, initiations, etc.

      We are in strange new cultural territory here and don't really know how to map it - and even those of us who want to try are unlikely to get a lot of buy-in to our particular POV.

      Bottom line, however, is that if you want to teach yoga in a public school, you should be willing and able to reflect seriously on what you are communicating and why. And, if you can't commit to teaching in a way that is truly respectful of cultural and religious difference - don't teach there.

      In the studio, you can do whatever you like as long as paying students keep coming :)

  6. When teaching in schools and prisons one has to be very careful to just focus on the physical aspect of yoga and leave the spirituality out of it. Not just Christians, but atheists also object to the spiritual side being taught in these places.

    Hinduism is not a religion to begin with, though there are plenty of religions within Hinduism. People are confused about this and think Hinduism itself is a religion.

    1. Thanks for your comment. Re teaching yoga in schools, it gets more complex in that people want to teach and learn the basic meditative aspects of the practice as well, as it help so much with stress reduction, etc. For some Christians, this is in and of itself overly spiritual, in that it is affecting one's state of consciousness much more so than standard "exercise" (and indeed, this is the point). Do you think that there is a place for simple meditative practice in such venues regardless? I would definitely say "yes" - but, it is an admittedly more complex issue.

      Re Hinduism, I agree, there is much confusion on this score, and it is not easy for those of us who are not very familiar with it to straighten it out in easily understandable ways, which is what we need for an American audience.

  7. "Do you think that there is a place for simple meditative practice in such venues regardless?"

    Yes and I teach that too. I leave "god" "divine source" "higher power" and "the universe" out of it and basically just teach a sort of mindful awareness in combination with pranayama.

    People enjoy and benefit from it but for me personally it is a bit dry and boring. I am much more inspired by the actual spiritual teachings of the ancient yogis and rishis of India.

  8. Way to take on what seems an obvious situation to one side or another and dismantle it with precision. What you've come to in this last reflection is exactly so. Though my brain is more prone to induction than deductive reasoning, I am in complete agreeance with the reasoning behind your conclusion and in fact I cannot see that this is not obvious to anyone who has paid attention to our life in this country.I am absolutely in love with your logical and objective mind. Carol you are Spock. :)

    But there is more and this is the gray area.People have fought to keep prayer out of schools and often these are the same people that would think yoga is appropriate. Shall we describe them as liberals? We who do yoga know that yoga can by taught as a physical experience that has a beneficial effect on all systems of the body but we also know or should know that included in the systems of the body is the subconscious or spirit or nameless thing that could be seen as soul and the soul is at the center of this argument. Who will control the soul will control the person: this is the great fear.So maybe liberals are worried about the control of a Christian nation or afraid that someone else's religion won't have an equal voice. And maybe other folks feel that way about yoga.

    Who is afraid of what and why? The big answer is WHY. There is where the light begins to shine.

    As a Jewish person I was present for Christian prayers during most of my developing years in public and private schools but it did not change my faith. However, it did please my spirit. I have no problem putting my hand to my heart and saluting the flag as one nation under God. I like it. And though I'm not a Hindu and do not aspire toward a change of faith at all, I embrace the spirit of Hinduism present in yoga music and philosophy. Reminders of the powerful and unseen and magical is essential to my peace of mind and any form of it pleases me as it all translates to the same thing.I think many of us are that way and would be that way if not for fear of being taken over by something dangerous.

    The Jois foundation went wrong in not being clear about yoga in public schools in their mission statement.That was either stupid or stubborn. We will offer you yoga as exercise because that's how you need to see it but we don't really believe that.

    The biggest picture is that the Jois foundation and many yoga enthusiasts do see yoga as an interrelated system that cannot be dissected as just physical exercise even if it is offered as physical exercise with breath awareness. The key word is awareness. Yoga is about awareness and the exercise is the avenue.

    Rather than pretend that yoga is something that it is not, the honest discussion is how important is it for us to understand ourselves and to determine if yoga is an appropriate avenue for that in the public eye.

    That is not an easy argument but it is the interesting one. Even if the majority conclude that this is useful for people and life on the planet it will not be unanimous. So be it. But it's time to face reality that we need to become more compassionate, more aware, more in tune with ourselves and each other to survive.

    That's a trial I would happily attend and defend.

    1. I agree! as usual. Clearly, however, we're not there yet - in fact, we're far, far from it.

      Nonetheless, outside of the courts, people are steaming ahead. Over time, the institutional culture will perhaps catch up. Hard to imagine at the moment, but, who knows.

      It will be interesting to read the opinion the judge in this case writes - he really is in a position to have an influence here.

    2. Even as I make a case for enlightenment I know too that it is not the immediate work and for that we need people like you who are tireless and will hit the pavement as some of us wax poetic and dream. Yes, brass tacks and one step at a time is called for as is patience and due diligence. I am there though I'm looking out the window. Just give me a shake and I'll do my part. :) And by the way, I was bumped from this site again and saw a link from IAYB. Been quiet on the yoga blogosphere. I thought maybe everyone had called it quits and gone on to the local and present and away from the machine. Seems it's just my computer. Big love and admiration to you.

    3. Aw shucks. You are sweet. But never underestimate the importance of the poets and the dreamers. They breathe inspiration back into our psyches. Too much rational analysis always hit an emotional dead end, I've found, because logically, there's often no hope until some crazy poet or dreamer runs off the rails and creates something really new.

  9. Interesting related article:

    Bob W.

  10. What a mess. People need to start over. Real Yoga is Hinduism; taught by Hindus and not for a fee.

  11. I don't have time to read all of these words!!! What's the point? It's all semantics.... and simple. This country was founded on the princple of religious freedom. No difference whether or not you are left or right of center. Wasted time while real people in real countries are REALLY SUFFERING.

  12. What I don't understand is the religious right and Christianity is evident in a "good bit" of the schools in the country, and we see crosses spoiling the views of most hills around here and no one seems to have a problem with that. I can fume but I can't do anything about it, yet bring in a skill that could potentially help kids deal with stress and feel good about fitness and it is in court. This country was founded on religious freedom so why aren't we free?

  13. Wow. I stumbled across this article somehow, and I'm grateful for the clarity and freedom of the thinking here, as well as the great discourse in the comments. I am myself nonreligious, and a regular practitioner of yoga, and I am uncomfortable with the Encinitas school district's position and, obviously, Jois' language and absence of clarity on the subject. I am also moved to wonder, would I feel comfortable about my child being required to adopt a kneeling, hands together in a prayer posture before a meditation period, so long as nobody said the word 'god'? I would not. Anyway, wonderful analysis. Thank you.