UVA-linked public school yoga program comes under fire

Paul and Sonia Tudor Jones. File photo. Paul and Sonia Tudor Jones. File photo.

A yoga program in a California public school district that’s linked to UVA’s Contemplative Sciences Center (CSC) is the subject of a religious freedom lawsuit filed last week in San Diego County, and the plaintiffs’ expert witness is using language from UVA professors to help her make her case.

The CSC, a collaboration among several UVA schools dedicated to the scientific study of meditation and yoga, exists thanks to a $12 million gift last year from big-donor alum Paul Tudor Jones and his wife Sonia, who also founded Jois Yoga, a California-based school responsible for setting up yoga practices around the world. ‘

It was Jois Yoga that awarded a $550,000 grant to the Encinitas Union School District to introduce a modified form of Ashtanga yoga—the rigorous brand Sonia Tudor Jones is devoted to—into a health and wellness program. Researchers with UVA’s CSC were tapped to study the program.

“We’re working with them so we know scientifically what the effective benefits are, and to see what it is about this program we’d like to keep,”  said Patrick Tolan, a Curry School professor and director of UVA’s Youth-Nex program for youth development who helps oversee the research partnership with Encinitas.

But last week, The National Center for Law & Policy, a conservative legal group, filed a civil suit on behalf of two parents with kids in the district. In a news release, attorneys called the yoga program “inherently and pervasively religious, having its roots firmly planted in Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, and Western Metaphysical religious beliefs and practices.”

That assertion is supported by an expert witness, Iowa University religious studies professor and evangelical Christianity scholar Candy Brown, who cites two UVA professors in her argument.

When interviewed for a story on the Contemplative Sciences Center that ran last September in C-VILLE, CSC Director John Campbell and John Shorling, director of UVA’s Mindfulness Center, both discussed the legacy of religion in yogic practice with Jayson Whitehead, the article’s author.

The CSC’s mission is focused on a scientific approach, Campbell said. “That’s not to say that somehow you can avoid or strip away elements that in other contexts you would call religious,” he continued.

Shorling said that yoga “has been practiced for thousands of years in different religious traditions,” and that “at their highest forms, if you really want to go deeply into them it’s difficult to do them without practicing in a religious tradition.”

Those quotes were plucked from the 4,500-word C-VILLE feature and inserted into the plaintiffs’ expert witness memorandum, in which they also point out that Campbell is an advisor to the Encinitas program.

But Tolan said the stretching and exercises being practiced in the schools there have nothing to do with religion. What researchers do believe, he said, is that yoga can really help young people.

“There’s pretty strong scientific evidence that mindfulness as a practice—stopping and thinking and considering what it is you’re stressed out about—has significant health benefits, including helping kids be able to concentrate and do well at school,” Tolan said.

The lawsuit is seeking to end the Encinitas program, but Tolan said UVA’s research into school yoga programs will continue. They’re currently exploring partnerships with schools in the Northeast and in Virginia, he said, but “we’re still looking at where we might do it, and how.”