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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.