January 25th, 2011
07:00 AM ET

Fight emerges over yoga's religious roots

By Wes Little, CNN

Sheetal Shah, an official with the Hindu American Foundation, hears a lot about the physical practice of yoga these days - but not much about its religious roots.

So her group, which seeks to provide what it calls "a progressive voice for American Hindus," recently mounted a "take back yoga" campaign, including appearances at conferences and attempts to raise media awareness of the practice's Hindu origins.

For Shah, who is the Hindu American Foundation's senior director, yoga is primarily a moral and spiritual philosophy, a fact she says has been lost as the popularity of physical yoga has boomed in the West. "There has been a conscious de-linking between Hinduism and yoga," in the United States and elsewhere, she says.

Yoga is mentioned in many of the ancient Indian texts that form the basis of the religion now known as Hinduism, which claims to be the world's oldest religion - and which is the third most-practiced faith on the planet.

One main source of yoga philosophy is the sage Patanjali, who lived in the 2nd century B.C. and whose Yoga Sutras describe a philosophy comprising 8 limbs, one of which is the physical poses, or asanas, which are commonly referred to as yoga in the West.

Other elements of Patanjali's yogic philosophy are concepts like the yamas, moral vows that include chastity and nonviolence.

Sheetal Shah of the Hindu American Foundation practices yoga asanas in her home. She tries to incorporate yogic concepts like nonviolence into her life.

In a yoga class offered by the Hindu Temple Society of North America in a New York temple, yoga is taught as a spiritual practice in which the physical asanas are an essential component. But the practice is supposed to lead to meditation.

"Yoga is really a spiritual discipline," says Uma Mysorekar, the Hindu Temple Society of North America's president. "From its origin in Hinduism, yoga really originated from a Sanskrit word yuj, which means union."

That union is supposed to happen, she said, "between individual being or the soul with Paramatman," or cosmic being.

According to a 2008 study commissioned by Yoga Journal, there are roughly 16 million yoga practitioners in the United States. Those people spend $5.7 billion dollars a year on yoga classes and gear.

Most of that yoga is marketed as physical exercise as a health practice. Some Sanskrit terminology is usually used, and many practitioners in a non-religious context say they sense a vaguely spiritual aspect in the activity.

But most American practitioners wouldn’t go nearly so far as to label yoga as a religious act or even to relate it to a specific religious tradition.

"Yoga is a great thing, no matter what style you do, how you come about it, why you come about it, what you end up with spiritually from it," says Donna Rubin, the founder of Bikram Yoga NYC, a New York chain of yoga studios offering yoga in the style of Bikram Choudhury, a contemporary Indian yogi who now lives in Los Angeles. "So to start nitpicking or criticizing this type of yoga or that type of yoga or what it's not doing or what it should be doing, I don't really see the point of that."

Bikram yoga involves a set series of postures performed in a heated room.

"Bikram has developed this specific series so that it's more accessible," said Christopher Totaro, a Bikram Yoga NYC instructor. "It's more palatable to a wider demographic of people by pulling that religious part or separating that religious part from it."

Yoga students exercise at an Atlanta Hot Yoga class in Atlanta, Georgia. Classes are conducted in a room heated to around 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Among those that have taken up yoga in the United States are devout followers of Western religions.

Atlanta, Georgia's Northside Drive Baptist Church holds a weekly yoga class.

Amanda Gregg, who instructs the class, says that she is respectful of Hinduism but argues that yoga didn't "come from" Hinduism as much as it developed alongside the religious tradition.

"Although Hinduism and yoga grew out at the same time of the Indian subcontinent and there are references to yoga in the Upanishads and in the Bhagavad Gita, that doesn't mean that Hinduism has the exclusive hold on yoga," she said, referring to sacred Hindu texts. "Sort of like Jews don't have the exclusive hold on prayer."

Some churches attempt to "Christianize" yoga by adding Bible verses to the practice, but Northside Drive Baptist Church does not.

The Hindu American Foundation, meanwhile, says that while yoga is not just for Hindus, it can't be totally divorced from its religious roots.

Shah says the organization's campaign is helping to gain wider acceptance for that view.

"People are now starting to put yoga and Hindu in the same sentence, in the same paragraph," she says. "They may not be agreeing with (our) stance but they are thinking about it they're talking about it."

"People who had never even thought of this are starting to explore this idea that maybe there is some sort of connection," she says.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Hinduism • Yoga

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