Encinitas schools have scrubbed their yoga programs clean

Is yoga a religion? Courts say it is.

There are several kinds of yoga
  • There are several kinds of yoga

Since 2012, the Encinitas-based Sonima Foundation has given $3.3 million to the Encinitas Union School District so that students can practice yoga. Sonima is spreading money around elsewhere — for example, it is giving $400,000 to Houston schools for the same purpose: to teach yoga.

Broadly, there are two definitions of yoga: (1) an ascetic Hindu discipline leading to spiritual insight, and (2) a system of stretching exercises that promotes good health and control of the mind. The first definition ties yoga to religion; the second does not.

San Diego Superior Court and the fourth appellate district have united those disparate definitions: ruling on a lawsuit, both courts said that one kind of yoga, called Ashtanga, is a religion, but what is taught in the Encinitas schools is not religion-based. The trial court decision was in July of 2013, and the affirmation by the appellate court was in early April of 2015.

There are several kinds of yoga, and the Sonima Foundation is tied to Ashtanga, a so-called path to purification involving synchronized breathing and posture techniques. While yoga itself was practiced 5000 years ago, Ashtanga was introduced to the modern world by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, who was born in 1915, and taught the techniques originally in India. In 1975, he traveled for the first time to the United States. He came to Encinitas and taught a small group of students in a local church. Ashtanga, said Jois, was based on a series of Hindu texts.

Sonia Jones

Sonia Jones

Soon, Ashtanga yoga attracted young, beautiful people — movie stars, Wall Street zillionaires, and the like. In the late 1990s, Sonia Jones, a former fashion model who lived in tony Greenwich, Connecticut, with her very rich husband and their children, took up Ashtanga in New York.

Ashtanga would never be the same. Jones proselytized for it and got help from her husband, Paul Tudor Jones II, a hedge-fund operator who is worth $4.6 billion, according to Forbes magazine. Sonia Jones pledged to spread Ashtanga far and wide — particularly into schools.

And then the trouble started. In 2011, an organization named for the Ashtanga guru, the Jois Foundation, funded a yoga program at an Encinitas elementary school. Sonia Jones and San Diego’s Salima Ruffin, who is in the travel business, had set up the foundation. The person hired to teach the yoga classes had studied in Jois’s institute in Mysore, India.

The next year, the Encinitas school district got a grant from the foundation for $533,720 — a down payment on the fat payments to come later.

Some parents pulled their children out of the classes, complaining that religion was illegally being taught in schools. Two parents filed a lawsuit against the school district, stating that its yoga program amounted to an establishment of religion in violation of the California Constitution.

Dean Broyles of Escondido’s National Center for Law & Policy handled the plaintiffs’ case. Candy Gunther Brown, who got her doctorate at Harvard and specializes in religious studies, was a plaintiff witness, concluding, “Ashtanga yoga, as endorsed by the [Encinitas Union School District]… promotes and advances religion, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Western metaphysics.”

Judge John Meyer of superior court could not disagree, and neither could the appellate court. The appellate panel noted that since one part of Ashtanga promotes “union with the universal or the divine,” Ashtanga “is a religion for purposes of the establishment clause of the California Constitution.”

Paul Tudor Jones

Paul Tudor Jones

But both courts said that yoga, as taught by the Encinitas schools, does not defy the California Constitution. Encinitas had taken the religious references out of its yoga classes, ruled the courts.

In 2012, Sonia and Paul Tudor Jones gave $12 million to the University of Virginia for a new Contemplative Sciences Center. Purpose: teach meditation, yoga, and mindfulness training to students. The gift — which raised some eyebrows in academia — was announced at the Tibetan Medicine and Meditation Symposium at the university. The school noted in a news release, “The Joneses’ initial inspiration for funding the center came as a result of their devotion to their Ashtanga yoga teacher, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.”

After the trial in 2013, the Jois Foundation changed its name to Sonima Foundation — a combination of the names Sonia and Salima. “They changed their name to Sonima because they got beaten up at the trial,” says Broyles. After the superior-court judge determined that Ashtanga yoga was a religion, “they tried to religiously cleanse the program” so they could get it into the schools. The former Jois website said the organization was meant to “bring the philosophy, teachings, and values of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois to as many people as it is able to reach.” This included a “spiritually conscious line of clothing.” On the new website, sonimafoundation.org, such references are generally expunged.

The name change came about because the organization wanted “a broader base of health and wellness,” ripostes a Sonima spokesperson.

Stedman Graham

Stedman Graham

“They are trying to camouflage the religious nature of what they are doing,” says Broyles, who is considering an appeal to the state’s supreme court.

But Sonima is spreading fast. Its yoga program reaches 27,000 students in 55 schools, including in Encinitas and Cajon Valley. Administrators say that the yoga helps the children focus and reduces bullying, among other positive aspects.

Deepak Chopra

Deepak Chopra

Sonima.com, a wellness website, was recently set up. Jois Activewear, which features a photo of Sonia Jones on its website, peddles yoga clothing. There is a Sonima Wellness Center. The Sonima Wellness Corporation sponsors the Live Sonima Tour, which features Caroline Jones, daughter of Sonia and Paul Tudor Jones, singing and playing various instruments, and Stedman Graham, motivational speaker and life partner of Oprah Winfrey, giving pep talks on identity development. It reached 60,000 schools last year. This year, students at San Dieguito, Encinitas, and San Marcos schools attended the so-called leadership meetings.

Timothy Baird

Timothy Baird

Snorted one student: “It was a hippie songfest.”

On the board of the Sonima Foundation are some well-known characters, including Graham and San Diego author and public speaker Deepak Chopra, a champion of alternative medicine and the holistic health movement. The New York Times dubs him the “controversial New Age guru.”

And guess who is on the advisory board: Timothy Baird, Encinitas superintendent of schools, whose district got $3.3 million from the foundation. He was a defendant in the lawsuit.

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader


If yoga is a religion, then so is the Chargers. Look how the fans dress up, worship and prioritize the game of football.

Ponzi: I can think of a number of metro areas in which the local pro team is, basically, more a religion than a sport. I would name Green Bay, Seattle, Denver, Dallas, and Kansas City, to start. Best, Don Bauder

Like many things, this story is a bit more complicated and convoluted than it seems. Yoga purports to be from an ancient lineage in India but most likely some of its roots spring from 19th Century Europe.


metapunk: Every resource I consulted said yoga originated in India 5000 years ago. Best, Don Bauder

don bauder, If someone wants yoga to be a religion, they can practice it that way. If they don't think of it as a religion, then it isn't. Depends on the teacher and the student. One can make anything into a religion if they so choose; you can make bacon a religion. But someone gaining spiritual insight or enlightenment doesn't have to mean religion. My wife practiced yoga. She started back in the seventies when we moved to San Diego, when she started going with her aunt. It was definitely not about religion. I read once that images were once found of a meditating yogi, thought to be 7-8 thousand years old, from the Indus Valley civilization during the bronze age.

danfogel: I think that is a fair statement: yoga can be a religion for those who think of it that way, or a non-religion for others. Best, Don Bauder

"Is yoga a religion?" only if you want it to be.

Murphyjunk: That is a percipient statement that applies to more things than yoga. Best, Don Bauder

yes we are all witness to that every day, but some don't know what they are witnessing :)

Murphyjunk: Where does "obsession" stop and "religion" begin? Best, Don Bauder

A famous yogi had this to say about mind and body: "Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical." --Yogi Berra

dwbat: Maybe that is why football passed baseball as the national pastime. Football is 90 percent physical. Incidentally, be sure to see the article on an athlete's suicide on the sports page of yesterday's (April 28) New York Times. The paper thought the article was so good that it was the only thing on the page; the rest was blank. Best, Don Bauder

Well, Yogi's old statement is FUNNY, one of his regular malapropisms. That's why I posted it. I NEVER read the sports pages.

dwbat: I have often wondered if Berra has a ghost writer who comes up with his twisted statements. Isn't "deja vu all over again" attributed to Berra?

One of the owners of an original Hollywood studio would come up with some good ones, like "Anybody who would see a psychiatrist should have his head examined." Was it Goldwyn? Mayer? I think he had a writer to pen these, but I don't know. Best, Don Bauder

dwbat: Many thanks. Did Goldwyn have a ghost writer? Best, Don Bauder

I don't know about that. Reportedly he didn't say or write all of those funny sentences, just like Berra. And Obama didn't write his killer zingers that he delivered at the WH Correspondents Dinner.

dwbat: Obama doesn't write many if not all of his eloquent speeches, too. But you have to admit this: when he is talking off the cuff, he can be eloquent, too. Best, Don Bauder

From our March 2013 trial brief, filed on behalf of hundreds of Encinitas families who support the yoga program in their schools:

"Because yoga has roots in India and Hinduism, plaintiffs would have it forever banned from schools, regardless of the context.

Following plaintiffs’ logic, schools would have to ban: basketball because of its origins in the Y.M.C.A.; the drinking of grape juice because it is used as a substitute for wine during communion; and the celebration of Valentine’s Day and Halloween because of their religious origins. To be secular, however, yoga need not be completely stripped of its historic roots."


YogaforEncinitasStudents: Both the trial court and the appellate court sided with Encinitas schools. Yoga as taught in your schools is apparently satisfactorily cleansed of religion and having positive effects on children. There is no argument there. Best, Don Bauder

Dear Don. Everything you ever read on the subject is not a great argument, and if you read the link I included then your statement would not be true anyway.

metapunk: I haven't read the link you sent -- I confess. There is one reason: it is long, and other hot stories, such as CPUC/Edison, were breaking. Best, Don Bauder

And here is another link on the subject if you do not want to read this one either. If you're more of a seeing it is believing it guy, you might consider watching the movie, which makes the same point.


metapunk: I will read your links, but right now some more pressing matters are taking my time. But I appreciate your sending these items. Best, Don Bauder

Steve Bennett: I did not see that comment in a U-T story. The U-T has covered the lawsuit and the religion controversy. Best, Don Bauder

I worked, back in the day, for a resort that was owned by a religious nutcase family. They banned Yoga classes but allowed exercise classes. The Yoga teacher taught the exercise class which was the same but she didn't call it Yoga. Just about everything we do has some historical beginnings in one religion or another. Geeze.

AlexClarke: "Just about everything we do has some historical beginnings in one religion or another." That is a profound thought that I will have to ponder.

Consider this possibility: Many of the things we do routinely these days were at some point BANNED by some religion or another. Best, Don Bauder

Thus far, nobody has raised the issue of the funding being provided to a small K-6 school district. $3.3 million, even today, is a breathtakingly large sum, and I cannot fathom how the district needed that much to implement this program. Well, it didn't need that much, but it took what is actually a bribe to put it in place. This billionaire and wife are buying their way into the classroom, or rather gym, and trying to make their beliefs look mainstream and secular. I'd say that at this time, neither of those things is true.

The U-T and notably Logan Jenkins have covered this controversy, and yet I have no recollection of such a whopping sum of money being provided. The notion of following the money and seeing its corrupting influence is never truer than in a case like this one. In case I didn't make the point clear, the fact that they're willing to spend tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to put this program into schools for little kids makes me very, very suspicious.

Visduh: I got the $3.3 million figure from Sonima itself. Like you, I cocked an eyebrow at such a sum. That is why I put it in the lead. I guess I can see $400,000 going to Houston schools, but $3.3 million to Encinitas schools? It's a puzzle.

I do not know if Sonia and her multi-billionaire husband Paul Tudor Jones are out to proselytize for Jois's teachings, which are related to religion. But I can understand anyone who thinks so -- especially with the kind of money Sonima is throwing around.

Another factor: after answering a few questions, Sonima did not respond to queries. That generally makes me suspicious. I always try to follow the money. The questions to which I could not get answers revolved around the for-profit businesses -- sales of yoga clothing, etc. Will profits from sale of such items reduce the $3.3 million payoff? Best, Don Bauder

Maybe to you/us, but $3.3 million is a drop in the basket, tax-write-off, public relations strategy for many in the 1 percent group like with the Bill & Melinda Gate Foundation.

The word Yoga, refers to any path to enlightenment, could be of different faiths. Here in the U.S. Yoga refers to a few of those paths as imported from India. My Religious Studies teacher joked that disciplines designed to help Indians find God, help Americans find the patience to wait in line. This is the sort of Yoga taught to schoolchildren no doubt.

Frozen yoga is a nice treat, especially on a hot day!

I like frozen yoga too. I'll bet school children like frozen yoga also!

AlexClarke: If I were an administrator in Encinitas schools, I would prefer $3.3 million to frozen yoga. Best, Don Bauder

dwbat: I prefer I scream to frozen yoga. Best, Don Bauder

Psycholizard: The yoga backers in Encinitas say it helps people relax, be content, etc. Therefore it should enhance patience while standing in line. Best, Don Bauder

The U-T should offer free yoga with subscriptions. Then readers could calm down after reading their editorials!

dwbat: Ever try reading a newspaper when your legs are wrapped around your head? Best, Don Bauder

Rodney Noland: I am not the one to answer your question. But I will say this: many publishers put out publications that are vastly different. I would not be surprised if there is a publisher somewhere who puts out Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim publications. Best, Don Bauder

There are many custom publishers in the U.S. that create magazines for companies, associations, nonprofit organizations, airlines, religious groups, etc. on a "pay for play" basis. So yes, one such publisher could certainly create publications for all three religions. The owner of San Diego Magazine does custom publishing.

dwbat: You stated it more articulately and thoroughly than I did. Best, Don Bauder

William White: Devout Christians, or devout Zoroastrians or devout Pagans, can do yoga and practice any religion they like. Even Devil Worshippers are welcome. Best, Don Bauder

Celia Bartholomew: A 99 percent approval rating is something no politician ever achieves. Best, Don Bauder

Like most everything else in America, so-called yoga is quite often nothing more than spiritual materialism, IE. a way to make money & to be "successful". Plus it's like other worldly pursuits, it's not 100% pure of anything & comes with ego enhancements & a clique culture of us & them - but not always so. I've know lots of people who've tried yoga & invariably they love it. Why, because it works & is fruitful. Nothing wrong with controversy & dissent. (And isn't that what "the good book" says about so-called Christians - that you'll know them by their fruits? The naysayers don't know their religion, don't practice it, & are more anti-Christian (anti-Christ) than anybody is willing to say so. And I love them all who walk the real talk.)

Oh yeah? Every man's got to have a belief! And I believe I'll...have another beer! If it's good enough for Homer Simpson, then it's good enough for me! Ever notice how so many kids (don't know the percentage) love yoga. Perhaps they see their parents (or mom) get so much out of it, they realize how great it would be for them, making them feel better, look better, stay young in body & mind, keep slender, be popular, be focused & successful & a force to be respected in a positive way. Yep, no bullies the yoga way, just a strong tendency if not a mandate to respect & get along with others. NO wonder some are so down on it - it might lead to peace, abundance, happiness & harmony throughout the world. And singing like a bunch of hippies! Oh my! It's like Joseph Campbell's dad saying about Joseph following his bliss - "you can't have that", as if that were Incomprehensible & the most dangerous thing. And usually (?) the so called "liberal" corporate (hello???) media is against functioning government that's not corrupt, being the so-called defenders of religion & all that's thought & promoted to be good, virtuous & just - oh yeah.

Log in to comment

Skip Ad