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

soundoff (285 Responses)
  1. Moonlight

    Yoga is not hinduism. Damn there is nothing called hinduism. Hindu just meant indians in some mid aramiac language. First oganized religion in india was Buddhism and jainism. Thankfully both B'ism and J'ism were open and plural cultures that allowed opposing views to exists in the society without any religious tension. Quite unlike christianity and islam which have destroyed the ancient culture of land whereever they went by calling it pagans or kafir culture. So yes Hinduism in that sense meant everything that occured in india including Buddhism, jainism, sikhism, yoga, tantra, advaita, vaishnism, shivism, paganism etc etc. Yoga can be done by anyone without bothering about its Hindu connection because hinduism doesnt own Yoga just like it doesnt own Buddhism or jainism. Hinduism is just a label for diverse indian culture.

    April 6, 2013 at 6:15 am |
    • sharpenu

      Wow! So, much ignorance about Yoga. Any honest individual who does the least bit of research will uncover the fact that (real) Yoga is all about Hindu Dharma; taught by Hindus. Sadly, phony Yoga prevails just like all historical violations against all "the others."

      August 12, 2013 at 8:04 am |
  2. Shiva

    Yoga and concept of reincarnation are total hindu.we welcome the christian muslim to do yoga .yoga is a sanskrit word

    March 5, 2012 at 12:55 pm |
  3. Dr. O. P. Sudrania

    Yoga is just as much Hindu as Science is as much Christian.

    January 9, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
  4. Truth sayer

    IIam very much shocked to note that those westerners simply give their opinions as Indian history.Yoga as a practice existing time immemorial in India.Simply,saying it never related with Hinduism is so much ignorance and travesty of facts.!
    Recent,discovery of Rigvedic Saraswathi river discovery and Gulf of cambay vedic city discovery, give much much antiquity to Vedic culture.
    Recent genetic studies nullified the theory that Vedic culture came from outside or through people called Aryans but confirm presence of Vedic people around 40,000 years continuously in North India.
    IIn this context,those Northern Yogic seals of Indus civilization adds much meaning and substance! to Vedic civilization aka Hinduism.
    Simply,clubbing the lies on Indian history with the help of last century disproved opinions on Indian history simply suite the agenda of those who really like to hijack Yoga from it place of origin and usurp it from the people who preserved it over many thousand years in all adverse situations!

    June 30, 2011 at 11:02 pm |
  5. Arun Kumar Upadhyay

    No knowledge is confined to a limited area. History of past 200 years starting at Oxford is a fight to denigrate all others and prove own civilization as prior and better. Even Berosus of Sumer in 300 BC had decried this anti-history approach of Greeks starting with Herodotus. Human history is in grand cycles parallel to glacial floods starting in about 63000 BC from which Puranic records are available. Chronology from 62000 BC may be seen at my website http://www.scribd.com/Arunupadhyay under articles-Shaka and Samvatsara or Jaina and Vedic Heritage etc. Patanjali was contemporary of Vedavyasa and Panini in 3100 BC at Mahabharata period-all the 3 have written commentaries on works of each other. Much before him, there are stories that Svayambhuva Manu (29102 BC), Kashyapa (17500 BC) and even Asura kings Hiranyakashipu and Hiranyaksha (16500 BC) had done Tapa and could defeat Devas by that. Later, Ravana (4500 BC) and his brothers also had done severe tapa. Later on he was killed by Rama in 4395 BC. It is obvious that sutras of Patanjali could be formulated only when the theory and practice had reached a saturation level. Many techniques of the sutras are still beyond the current state of modern science. Specialty of India is that it has preserved ancient traditions , whereas Asura tradition of Christianity and Islam has destroyed everything prior to them first in their own country and then outside. They can never thing about a single God which is falsely professed by them, but consider God of others as different and try to convert everybody in own belief-not the truth.

    March 22, 2011 at 7:32 am |
  6. Swami Param

    Factually, real Yoga is Hinduism; taught by Hindus and never for a fee. The so-called "yoga" of today is simply the age-old tendency to steal from others, elevate one's ego and make a profit.

    Swami Param
    Classical Yoga Hindu Academy

    February 11, 2011 at 10:35 am |
  7. coldnoseca

    Yoga is the science of spirituality, and is practised by many as such. Don't take anyone's word for it, approach it like a science experiment. Practise, and observe the results for yourself.

    February 1, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
    • Supporter

      So basically you are denying to yourself it has Hindu roots and for the lack of words belongs to Hinduism so you can practice it?

      February 9, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
  8. Dan

    I wouldn't advertise that it has religious roots.

    January 31, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
    • Rula

      People who don't want to do something because it has religious roots should be free to make that choice. They have the right to know what they are exposed to, so they can decide for themselves if this is what they want to get involved with. Otherwise that is deceiving them. The purpose of the Vedic darshana, Yoga, is religious, it does not just have religious roots. Yoga is more than the physical exercises – that is just one part of the whole Yoga. The Hindu God, Lord Shiva is known as the master Yogi. One of the main yogic texts is the Hindu sacred scripture the Bhagavad Gita. You can do the subsection of Yoga, the physical exercises and go no further than that, and you don't have to convert to Hinduism. Hinduism does not seek converts. But Yoga is one of Sanatana Dharma's (aka Hinduism) six Vedic dashanas.

      March 3, 2011 at 7:43 am |
  9. Tara Das

    In relation to the ancient Vedic culture and tradition the term Hinduism has a very recent history. In fact the word Hindu or Hinduism appears nowhere in the ancient "Hindu" scriptures. It is a term introduced by Muslims who referred to the people living on the Eastern side of the Sindh river (regardless of their specific theological outlook) as "Hindus". So the people of India have ignored the core teaching of their scriptures which strongly discourages identifying oneself with any temporary bodily designation whether it be ethnic, gender, or religion based. Ironically they have embraced (proudly at times) an identification introduced by their previous Muslim rulers. As far as yoga, it is the systematic and precise technique for purifying consciousness and reviving one's self awareness and one's understanding of God. Though it originated in that region of the world it is a process with universal application.

    January 31, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  10. Guru das

    To say that there is no God, is not logical. Because to affirm that there is no God you have to know everything that exists. Because if there is a part of the total creation that you do not know, God can be living there. If you say that you know everything then you are omniscient and therefore you are God.

    January 31, 2011 at 5:28 am |
  11. Guru das

    Who created intelligency? And if you have some you can not say that it comes from a combination of chemicals, unless you can prove it. 😉

    January 31, 2011 at 5:22 am |
  12. Mr Kitty

    It is good to study the roots of things. Perhaps if we truly look at where Yoga, Hatha included stems from and the goals that are aligned with those practices then we can develop a better understanding of the results/consequences of these modalities. One fundamental question one can consider would be what is it to truly experience Nirvana, and once experiencing this can they comeback to this world? If the pursuit of Nirvana is the ultimate goal then does Hatha Yoga quicken this result, if so what are the physiological, mental, and spiritual ramifications of this pursuit.

    January 30, 2011 at 11:48 pm |
  13. OhPlease

    FogHornLegHorn said:
    Yoga is for people who are afraid to suffer through a real workout. They don't even practice it in India, it is a fake soccer mom activity.

    I used to think it would be easy, too. Then I tried it. You've obviously never done yoga. I wish I could watch you try an advanced class and fall on your ass!! Because you WOULD!

    January 30, 2011 at 7:07 pm |
  14. katherine

    I don't see the point of arguing about this. It is true that yoga has its roots in Hinduism and we should honor and acknowledge that. Wisely, western culture has adopted the physical aspects that have proved so beneficial to Hindus. That is a compliment to the practice. What are we trying to accomplish with this?. Do we not want atheist or christians or jews to practice yoga because they don't agree with the spiritual roots? That's ridiculous. I'm guessing many physical practices such as martial arts, tai chi have roots in religion. Why not take the benefits and open it to everyone. What we really need to worry about is the growing obesity and its associated medical costs. We should be encouraging everyone to partake in whatever physical exercise suits them rather than arguing about who owns yoga. Focus on the bigger picture here.

    January 30, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
    • Rula

      Hindus do not need anyone to convert to Hinduism. If yoga helps you be a better atheist, Jew, Christian, agnostic, good for you. They do not have a right to pretend the branch of Hinduism, Yoga, is not Hinduism. Yoga is one of the six Vedic darshanas of Hinduism. The Hindu God, Lord Shiva is known as the master Yogi. If you have such prejudice against Hinduism that the only way you are able to do Yoga is to delink one of the six Vedic darshanas of Hinduism, Yoga, from Hinduism, then you would probably do better to reflect on your religious bigotry against Hinduism, and work on getting over your prejudices and grown as a person.

      March 3, 2011 at 7:34 am |
  15. becca

    stretching is sooo good for the body! aren't the yoga poses also poses in eastern religion?

    January 30, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
  16. Gaurab

    I am a born Hindu but I find a lot wrong with the belief system like any other religion. Yoga is perhaps a good aspect of it but the American Hindu association seems to want publicity out of this. Is Hinduism so insecure that it needs to remind people about Yoga being Hindu? There is no such thing as a Hindu anyway. You can be overly conservative and cover up your women and become a Hindu. You can also be naked and be a Hindu. And anyway the right word I believe is 'Sanatan Dharma', the eternal religion, rather than Hindu. But I feel this is a vain attempt of the association to hog the limelight. Sad that CNN reporters took the bait. When you let a minority of people talk on the majority's behalf, labeling them as 'representatives' this is the sort of stupidity that usually comes out. But I guess today's media will latch on to anything it can to manufacture news which serves the purpose of the association very well as well.

    January 30, 2011 at 6:17 pm |
    • Rula

      "You can be overly conservative and cover up your women and become a Hindu. You can also be naked and be a Hindu."
      That is true of Christianity, Judaism, etc...

      Sanatana Dharma is also known as Hinduism in the West. The Vedas are the central scriptures of Sanatana Dharma. People who follow Sanatana Dharma aka Hinduism are known as "Hindus." HAF has a right to speak up against people falsely delinking Yoga from Sanatana Dharma/Hinduism. Speaking up for what is right is healthy and makes a world a better place.

      March 3, 2011 at 7:31 am |
  17. noonie

    This is as stupid as asserting that martial arts keep the eastern religion aspect in it. We can all agree that life is made up of energy and while Hindus have their physical style of incorporating that truth into their religion and Shinto observers incorporate that truth into their martial art, or any physical system of harnessing that energy, doesn't matter. To each their own in their choice of religion and style of martial art, be it tai chi, judo, yoga, tang soo do or other forms of karate, it's all beneficial. If Baptists want to "Christianize" it, so be it, it's their right do to it.

    January 30, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
    • Rula

      Christians are welcome to do Yoga. Hindus do not need anyone to convert to Hinduism. If yoga helps you be a better atheist, Jew, Christian, agnostic, good for you. They do not have a right to pretend the branch of Hinduism, Yoga, is not Hinduism. Yoga is one of the six Vedic darshanas of Hinduism. The Hindu God, Lord Shiva is known as the master Yogi.

      March 3, 2011 at 7:25 am |
  18. A Hindu

    I am a Hindu. And Hinduism preaches tolerance, which consequently means not shoving Hinduism down everyone's throats. So the Hindu American Foundation should shut up and let people enjoy yoga for what it is about: peace of mind.

    January 30, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
    • Proud Hindu

      Why not stand up for ourselves? She is not saying that yoga is not for everyone, but why shouldn't Hindu's be known for yoga because it is a part of the our ways.

      February 9, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
    • Satya

      Well, the author is not trying to shove Hinduism on anybody; it wants to not delink Hinduism and Yoga which I am in full support of. Why would someone not want to recognize that Hinduism has given the gift of Yoga to the world?

      April 12, 2011 at 4:48 pm |
    • stormchaser1983

      I dont think it is intolerant to ask people to be aware of yoga's roots. I am a hindu as well, and proud of it, though I m not religious...but its my culture. And if someone else is not paying respect to it, then all I want to do is point it out. I am not stoping anybody....we should all follow HAF's lead...

      August 29, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.