California’s public schools are going to the dogs – the downward dogs, that is.

A battle is raging between parents and public school administrators in North San Diego County over a new program that has elementary students participating in yoga classes against the wishes of their parents.

In all fairness, most of us can vouch that physical exercise is a benefit to the health of our children.  And it’s certainly California law: every school in the State requires 200 minutes of physical education for every six days in school.

But the type of yoga at the heart of this debate at the Encinitas Unified School District is an ancient religious practice of yoga called “Ashtanga” – in which practitioners believe that this form of yoga cannot be extracted or separated from the Eastern religions to which it belong.  In fact, the yoga program is funded by a $533,000 grant from the Encinitas-based Jois Foundation, which strongly advocates this strict philosophy and seeks to incorporate Ashtanga into the curriculum – although school administrators vow that the controversial Sanskrit and Hindu religious references have been removed from the elementary school program.

And so begins the debate over the separation of church and state in our schools. One only needs to think back to various Supreme Court Cases such as Engel v. Vitale which ruled that prayer in school is unconstitutional, or Allegheny County v. ACLU which ruled that even a nativity scene inside any government building violates the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause. A local attorney in the Encinitas school matter suggests that the yoga instruction ties to Eastern religion amounts to religious indoctrination and as such, is unconstitutional. No doubt, the complexities of this debate are trickier than contorting oneself into a yoga pretzel position. (links for Supreme Court cases here.)

Imagine for a moment if we forced elementary students to participate in a Catholic ceremony, an altar call or some other ceremonial ritual of Christian religion – liberal activists would be up in arms. The ACLU would be called. Cries for separation of church and state would ensue. One has to wonder then, why the silence from these same groups when it comes to “alternative” religions.  Could it be a double standard, that they only want separation of church and state when the religion in question is Christianity?

School administrators don’t appear to be concerned. I called the Encinitas Unified School District yesterday and was surprised when the Superintendent’s office told me that the school district has no plans to curb the program; in fact, they plan to expand it.

“In January we’re expanding from four sites, to all of our schools in the district,” said Elizabeth Wallace, executive assistant to the Superintendent. Wallace told me the expansion is partially due to the grant provided by the Jois Foundation. But, Wallace said, there is an even larger program heading into 2013 – a joint research study funded by the University of San Diego and the University of Virginia which will measure any positive impacts of the practice of yoga among children at the Encinitas Unified School District, as it monitors children’s blood pressure, body mass index (BMI) and emotional well-being over a 3-year period as they participate in yoga classes.

Regarding the uproar over the program, Wallace said this week’s school district meeting with parents was strictly informational and that no future meetings have been scheduled on the matter.  That may be true but if a lawsuit is filed, the future of this elementary school yoga program could be turned upside down on its head and could soon find itself in the hands of a judge.