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School Wellness: The Latest Frontier in the Culture Wars?

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It was "showdown day" last Tuesday at a packed-to-capacity meeting of the Encinitas, California school board, during which the board faced angry threats of litigation in a heated dispute far afield of those predictable curricular lightning rods, sex education or science instruction. The embattled program is yoga.

Yoga?

In late October, about 60 Encinitas parents approached the board to strenuously oppose an Ashtanga yoga curriculum offered 30 minutes twice weekly to students district-wide. "I will not allow my children to be indoctrinated," one parent insisted. Another expressed "a deep concern [the District] is using taxpayer resources to promote... religious beliefs and practices" on children "being used as guinea pigs." Anxieties that opposing parents were forced to "segregate their children" reached fever pitch -- one said kids opting out faced ostracism, comparing the situation to Nazi Germany.

As the local and national press has been quick to report, this vocal minority of parents "bent out of shape" or "in a twist" about savasana at school want the program terminated immediately. Their attorney, Dean Broyles, whose firm National Center for Law and Policy, is devoted to defending "faith, family, and freedom," as well as "traditional marriage" and "parental rights" articulates the core issue as "the EUSD using taxpayer resources to promote Ashtanga yoga and Hinduism, a religious system of beliefs and practices." The yoga community in Encinitas and beyond has responded fast and furiously, gathering over 2,500 signatures on a petition to preserve the program.

California is no stranger to heated educational controversy -- beginning in the 1960s when the state was known (renowned by some, reviled by others) for its breakneck pedagogical innovation, the region became ground zero in some of the nation's fieriest debates over sex education, character education, ethnic studies and bilingual education. Such progressivism, conservatives charged, was expensive, immoral, academically unserious, and even un-American. Perhaps worst of all to grass-roots groups like POSSE (Parents Organized to Stop Sex Education) and CPR (Citizens for Parental Responsibility), the emphasis on critical reflection shared by these diverse initiatives undermined parental prerogative to determine their children's worldview.

Encinitas might just be the perfect theater for a contemporary battle in these culture wars pitting traditionalist parents advocating for "the 3 Rs" against "hippie" pedagogies. The beachfront community embodies the cultural extremes defining California: Encinitas is known as a mecca for kale-eating freethinkers who seek out the diverse yoga practices with local strongholds and the open-minded environment, while surrounding San Diego County remains one of the country's most politically conservative regions.

But the Encinitas yoga battle is more than just a new skirmish in an old fight waged by familiar combatants; it represents what will likely be a new theater of war in the educational culture wars in the 21st century.

The complaints among conservatives about yoga promoting Hinduism and mysticism are hardly of a piece with recent resistance to Christian Texas cheerleaders reading scripture at football games, as some press accounts have assumed. The rhetoric of the Encinitas parents' protests may nominally be to free schools of religious influence, but the mission of Broyles' firm is actually to defend the very principles the Christian cheerleaders espouse. A linchpin of the traditionalist perspective since the 1960s has been that liberals "took God out of schools and put sex [or Chicano studies or black children or the New Math] in," as said one disgruntled father in the late 1960s. In the Encinitas case, however, the complaint is that there is too much God in the schools, just the wrong deity. This shift speaks to a transformation in how conservatives and liberals envision the appropriate role of spirituality at school... here conservatives position themselves as the defenders of civic secularism, in stark contrast to the stance which first galvanized their movement.

1960s culture warriors of any stripe couldn't have fathomed the popularity "school wellness" would attain in the last two decades -- enfolding not only yoga but also gardening, cooking, exercise, and meditation-- and contemporary advocates of such curricula have difficulty understanding how these innocuous initiatives can inspire controversy. The press, the EUSD, and scores of online commenters expressed shock that anyone would suggest, "a little stress-reducing exercise ever hurt anyone," especially in the context of a much-discussed "obesity crisis." The Los Angeles Times couldn't believe the degree of the plaintive parents' worries, as yoga is regularly practiced in San Diego spots as disparate as the Camp Pendleton naval base and the Jois yoga enclave, which funds the school program. Glamour commented, "most people associated with the controversy are scratching their heads," quoting similarly incredulous Jois chief executive: "It's hard to know how to respond to someone who says if you touch your toes, you're inviting the devil into your soul."

Onlookers should not be so surprised at the perspectives Broyles raises, and should expect expanding wellness programs to generate more concerns, on the right and left. Encinitas parents are not the first social conservatives to oppose yoga; there's even a cottage industry of Christian alternatives to the practice. Moreover, historians remind us that yoga's well-scrubbed image today -- think wholesome spectacles such as children doing yoga on the White House Lawn to celebrate Easter -- elides the practice's overtly spiritual and erotic origins. On the other end of the political spectrum, the field of Fat Studies argues the whole "obesity crisis" that provides the rationale for many wellness programs -- including that in Encinitas -- is fundamentally flawed, based more on our cultural aversion to fat bodies than on any objective health criteria. Michael Pollan, patron saint of the "real food" approach core to so many wellness programs, acknowledges that this new cultural terrain "mixes up the usual categories" even as the origins of the food and wellness movement are the same 1960s impulses that fueled the first round of the polarizing culture wars.

A familiar indignation over squandered tax dollars fuels the frustration of the Encinitas parents, though here it is largely misplaced, as the program is financed by a $533,000 grant from the private non-profit Jois Foundation. If the wellness movement suggests a newly fraught educational politics, so too does this funding situation. Nationwide, budget constraints are making public districts increasingly dependent on private initiative, especially for offerings such as wellness, which despite their popularity are usually deemed as "enrichment" rather than as a core academic need. As outside groups step in to fill curricular gaps and districts have fewer resources to shape these interventions, wellness programs are likely the next theater of battle in our ongoing but evolving educational culture wars... in which the earnest claim of the Encinitas superintendent that "it is just physical activity" sounds ever more naïve.

This piece was originally published on the blog www.iloveyoubutyouregoingtohell.org