RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The town of Encinitas, California is aiming to enhance the performance of its students through yoga. Yoga studios in the coastal town, just north of San Diego, are as prevalent as Starbucks outlets in other American cities. In fact it's known as the yoga capital of America. So when yoga became part of school gym classes there, few people took notice. But one group of parents is protesting now. They say the classes promote Hinduism.
Here's Kyla Calvert of member station KPBS.
KYLA CALVERT, BYLINE: It's the first period of the day at Olivenhain Pioneer Elementary School, and Kristen McCloskey is leading about two dozen third graders through some familiar yoga poses.
KRISTEN MCCLOSKEY: All right, let's do our opening sequence A. Everyone take a big inhale, lift those arms up. Look up.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING)
CALVERT: At the end of the half-hour class, eight-year-old Jacob Hagen says he feels ready for the rest of his day.
JACOB HAGEN: Because you get to stretch out and it's good to be the first class because it wakes you up.
CALVERT: Schools across the country are focusing more on teaching students to make healthy choices. And Encinitas superintendent Tim Baird says yoga is just one part of the district's physical education curriculum.
TIM BAIRD: We also have a nutrition program, we also have a life skills program where kids learn about perseverance and responsibility.
CALVERT: The whole wellness program is supported by a half-million-dollar grant from the K.P. Jois Foundation. The Encinitas-based group promotes a kind of yoga called Ashtanga. It's also paying for researchers at the Universities of San Diego and Virginia to study whether the yoga classes affect things like attendance, behavior and student achievement.
But, when Mary Eady visited a yoga class at her son's school last year, she saw much more than a fitness program.
MARY EADY: They were being taught to thank the sun for their lives and the warmth that it brought, the life that it brought to the earth, and they were told to do that right before they did their sun salutation exercises.
CALVERT: Eady says those are religious teachings, so she opted her son out of the classes. And the more she reads about the Jois Foundation and its founders' beliefs in the spiritual benefits of Ashtanga yoga, the more convinced Eady is that it can't be separated from its Hindu roots.
EADY: It's stated in the curriculum that it's meant to shape the way that they view the world, it's meant to shape the way that they make life decisions. It's meant to shape the way that they regulate their emotions and the way that they view themselves.
DEAN BROYLES: And then the question becomes, if it is religious - which it is - who decides when enough religion has been stripped out of the program to make it legal?
CALVERT: That's Dean Broyles, lead attorney with the conservative Christian National Center for Law and Policy.
BROYLES: I mean that's the problem when you introduce religion into the curriculum and actually immerse and marinate children in the program.
CALVERT: Broyles is working with Eady and other Encinitas parents who want the classes made completely voluntary and moved to before or after the school day. They say school officials haven't responded to their specific concerns.
But what's being taught in the yoga program is typical of athletics programs for kids, says K.P. Jois Foundation director Eugene Ruffin.
EUGENE RUFFIN: They provide you with the exercise and the motivation for children and then they give you character exercises - thou shalt not steal, thou shall be honest, thou shall be respectful to adults.
CALVERT: Ruffin says those ideals aren't specific to Hinduism and don't conflict with his own Catholic upbringing.
Despite the controversy, most parents are happy with the classes, including Monique Cocco, who says her children certainly aren't learning about Hinduism.
MONIQUE COCCO: Absolutely not - no. What my daughter tells me is she did the pancake today and she lays down and then she cracks up because it's so funny.
CALVERT: Cocco hears from teachers that kids are calmer and more focused after yoga. And the school district says it's moving forward with plans to have the classes taught at all nine Encinitas schools this academic year.
For NPR News, I'm Kyla Calvert in San Diego.