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. ray mathews

    I do yoga with jesus all the time. He's really flexible!!!

    January 30, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
  2. Yogi d'Bear

    I think most people, even the ones who don't practice yoga, have some knowledge of its roots. However, it's not the spiritual aspect most people are interested in but it's physical form. Now, if Hindus, with all respect, has a problem with that, then maybe we can just call it by other name. I took a form of mix martial arts (way back when MMA is not an official form) and part of my training was yoga which involved concentration, meditation, relaxation among many other things. I became a vegetarian (though I don't practice that anymore), but I still do some of the exercises so called yoga. I stopped calling it yoga because of it's religious suggestion. I am not a Hindu therefore I don't subscribe to its religious practices but I enjoy the benefits of the exercises. I believe that Hindus or Indians in general should be proud of the "art and science" forms in yoga and the fact most Westerners still call it yoga is a respect to its origin in itself. Attempting to "educate" the general Westerner about the origin of yoga, I think, is underestimating the general knowledge of an average person. I don't believe we are that ignorant. I suggest, the writer of this article should do more yoga for "enlightenment" on this subject, or maybe he/she doesn't really practice the spiritual aspect of yoga either.

    January 30, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
  3. les3547

    One might expect a Hindu to claim the origins of yoga are Hindu, but it's a stretch. Yoga (not the exercises, but the inner part) even predates Patanjali by 600 years when men left their families to live in the forest and meditate.

    Yoga, or union, is realized through samadhi experience during meditation, and every other yoga technique was developed to aid samadhi meditation in some way. If anything, yoga was likely begun as a search for something more meaningful than the priestly, cast-distinguished rituals that dominated formal Hindu practices. Of course, LATER, Hindus absorbed yoga as part of itself as they have other religious ideas that have come along in India.

    If anyone should claim yoga, I'd say it's the Buddhists. It was from the forest mendicants who had devoted themselves for 2-3 hundred years to developing the meditation techniques that Gautama learned, and realized. He then, drawing his first disciples from that same group, set up a strong community to teach, practice and virtually live meditation. Patanjali was a relative late comer who more or less codified some of the understandings that had been worked out long before he came around.

    But is yoga Hindu? Possibly, but IMO only because some Hindus now include it in the variety of religious beliefs they accept.

    January 30, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • anne

      your religious views are way out of balance. Buddhism comes from Hinduism. Buddha was a Hindu. yoga comes from Hinduism which is much older than Buddhism.

      January 30, 2011 at 1:44 pm |
    • KDW31

      Anne just pointed out one thing I was going to say. Also do you feel the same way about Christmas and Easter which were co-opted from pagan traditions?

      January 30, 2011 at 1:59 pm |
    • les3547

      Lol, that's what all Hindus say. Do you think Hindu priests at the time were teaching or guiding the forest mendicants? Do you think the Buddha's teaching resembled in any, way, shape or form what Hinduism was in his day? No, not even close. Just because yoga and the Buddha came from Hindu culture doesn't mean all that arises from that culture is "Hindu."

      January 30, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
    • les3547

      KDW31 . . . I don't see the parallel. Yoga (and what the Buddha taught) can never be understood if one doesn't know it was totally about meditation. Exactly how were the elaborate rituals and beliefs, priestly practices, pantheon of gods, etc. of Hinduism remotely related to sitting in meditation? And the Buddha taught no rituals, plus refused to discuss whether or not there was a God, or speculate at all, which is very, very different from the concept-burdened volumes of speculation that was, and is, Hinduism. No, it is merely from the perspective of a Hindu, altering history to include everything good that's ever happened in Hindu culture, that has yoga and the Buddhas as "Hindu." (Not that there's anything wrong with being a Hindu! 🙂 )

      January 30, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • Christian Brothers

      Some people are claiming that Buddha started Yoga. Just to be clear the word "Yoga" is not found in Pali canon which supposedly contaions original sermons of Buddha. Yoga came into Buddhism during later phased when it was married with Hindu Tantra philosohy by later teachers like Padmasambhava. Buddha did not teach Yoga though he might have implicitly practiced it. He is always shown in Lotus Posture.

      People who are arguing "Yoga predates Hindusim" are talking out of pure ignorance and have not been able to quote any scripture or treatise plder than Vedas that mentions the word Yoga.

      January 30, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • Muaril


      Err..."men who left families to go meditate in forests" are called sannyasins and they are the core of Hinduism. Ever heard of "Brihadaranyaka"? Funny to see people without having even a basic acquaintance with India spinning fancy theories.

      January 30, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
    • les3547

      Muaril: "Err...'men who left families to go meditate in forests' are called sannyasins and they are the core of Hinduism. Ever heard of "Brihadaranyaka"? Funny to see people without having even a basic acquaintance with India spinning fancy theories."

      Lol, and what are you doing? Making a fool of yourself in public?

      The sannyasins are Hindu Śaiva ascetics who belong to one of the 10 orders established by the philosopher Śaṅkara in the 8TH CENTURY AD . . . so tell me, how exactly did the 8th century AD ascetics live in the forests in the 8th century BC?? Do you think those joining Sankara's order were 1600 years old?

      And how would the brihadaranyaka upanishads contribute to knowing who the pre-Buddha forest mendicants were, or why they were there practicing meditation?

      January 30, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
  4. Indian

    Hinduism is NOT A RELIGION. Its a set of practices, and yoga is a part of it.
    Hinduism was meant to be for well being of a human as individual and the tools it has should be shared with all humans irrespective of their religion. This is why India has so many religions coexisting under one country.

    January 30, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • Sweetenedtea

      I assume the "Indian" name is meant to be ironic? 1) Hinduism has an awful lot of gods, temples and ritual practices. It's pretty much the very definition of religion; 2) India has been heavily scarred by religious conflict between the Hindus, the Muslims, the Buddhists and the Christians. And religious oppression and intolerance has definitely been practiced in Hindu-dominated areas (and, yes, the others are also guilty of poor behavior, but it's the Hindus we're talking about here.)

      January 30, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
  5. John

    To the author: The surname of Shah is of Persian origin. So this woman has probably put a few different ideas in with her own. And she is connected to the internet, and must be presented with new thoughts all the time. And of course that is the way for all ideas to spread. Religions and cultural ideals are flexible over time and distance; there are many different versions of every religion. Like you can't lump all the foods in the USA in one category, or all things from southeast Asia as curry.

    January 30, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • KDW31

      Shah is an incredibly common Indian surname. Unless you know something about this woman's family history, I doubt that she is anything but 100% Indian. Also no one said we don't incorporate new thoughts into our world view, but this is not the same thing. Yoga is part of a religious tradition. People who practice that religion are upset that it is being divorced entirely from it's religious roots. Many Christians feel the same way about the secularization of Christmas. I think there is nothing wrong with people practicing yoga without the religion and nothing wrong with people celebrating a secular christmas. That said people should be aware of the history of these things and how they fit into the religions they come from.

      January 30, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
  6. TomUSMC

    Who cares? Women look hot when they do it!!! 🙂

    January 30, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
  7. Jg

    I am an atheistic Hindu. I think the point here is that some (a very small number, mind you) Yoga teachers would like Yoga students to be *aware* of the metaphysical theories of Yoga because this makes others appreciate its richness than simply holding poses. I don't think they are asking you to accept them. Hinduism is quite fine with non-belief. Disagreeing with standard spiritual texts (Nastika school of thought, similar to Atheism) is an accepted philosophical stance in Hinduism.

    Personally I don't care about all this. I learn Korean Taekwondo. As a student of science, I don't believe in Chi theories; although I like being aware of what the intellectual roots were, even if they are silly from my viewpoint.

    More importantly, Hindus or just Indians, like everyone else, would like others to try their culture (Yoga, food, even our silly movies 🙂 etc) so that you may better understand us... just like you like it when we adopt your scientific, cultural and political systems.

    January 30, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • Sweetenedtea

      I tried your movies once. I was so emotionally and intellectually scarred afterwards that it was *years* before I could pass by a singing water buffalo dancing in a silken boudoir while flinging lotus petals in the air without cringing.

      January 30, 2011 at 1:45 pm |
    • Jg


      > I tried your movies once. I was so emotionally and intellectually scarred afterwards

      Hey! Me too. Except you had a choice of not seeing them again. Being born in India, I did not have that luxury. Parents take you with them. They play them in the house etc. Do you know what it is like to have 3 weepy movies (which always follows the happy dancing part) *every* weekend that depress you even if you go to the other room and close the door. Talk about scars 🙂 I heard they got better since but haven't dared to watch one in over a decade.

      January 30, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
  8. Nick

    We Americans must learn to respect and acknowledge other culture's positives SOON...China is around the corner for next few decades. We dont want to feel humiliated when many things "americas best" or "found in america" are no where near that of China or India!!

    January 30, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  9. Richard

    By insisting that Yoga is associated with Hinduism, you may ensure that it is not taught in schools in America.

    January 30, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • Christian Brothers

      Indirectly you are saying that schools in America are run my close minded fanatics.

      January 30, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  10. TRUTH

    Of course as hindu religion is tolerent religion and you can find the yoga word in any part of hindhu scriptures. They may claim that yoga is not from hindhu origin it shows how ignorent thay are. Any other religion would made a great deal of noise but hindus do not.That is the nature of hindhus

    January 30, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  11. paul

    no wonder America is falling . you guys are indulging in pure evil. go back to JESUS CHRIST before its too late. Abraham Lincoln is by far the greatest president America has ever had there ll never be another like him. when america was in trouble he made the whole nation fast with him , how cool was that. just like the kings in the bible. cant imagine obama saying that. today. hell probably be stripped off his presidency.

    January 30, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • Nick

      how about Egypt style protest led by Sarah Palin!!
      PS: Wonder how CNN and FOX will cover that as opposed to Tunisia and Egypt protest

      January 30, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • paul

      i see my previous post was deleted.
      all i wanted to say was this . yoga has a lot to do with hinduism , in other words if u practice yoga ur actually worshiping some hindu god or godess . SO UNLESS UR STUPID ,IGNORANT AND DUMB,

      January 31, 2011 at 5:08 am |
  12. Nick


    January 30, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
  13. It's just exercise to some of us...

    I like stretching, but that doesn't mean I'm fighting for the Inquisition. Who cares where it comes from? We all heard for decades how Yoga was really a religion when all we wanted to do was be fit. If you want it to be religious, it can be, but that doesn't mean that it is for everyone. It's just an exercise and the origins are only as important as the workout if you choose to use it as a source of religious enlightenment. I can breath correctly and sit quietly in a stretch without it meaning that I'm demeaning your gods.

    January 30, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  14. srichey

    It's great exercise. My persona opinion is that the whole religious thing is used to bring in the self-obssessed types that have too much money and free time.

    January 30, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
  15. MissV

    Who really cares when Yoga is such an amazing benefit to millions of people worldwide. Yes, I agree many have jumped on the bandwagon as they saw a business opportunity in opening yoga studios, manufacturing clothing, planning retreats, etc. So what???
    All I can say is Yoga saved my well-being, I have chronic migraines along with arthritis that started in my twenties. I found that yoga relieves pain and allows me to have somewhat of a normal life. Flexibility and movement is key to a healthy body. How is that a crime to want to be healthy. Religions should stay out of EVERYTHING. Just look at every major conflict in the world (past & present), religion is at the epicenter. People should focus more on making the world a better place, not hold grudge and hate in their hearts over personal choices–starting with religion...

    January 30, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
  16. SonofSun

    Hello to Everyone,

    There are certainly many interesting and informative comments in discussion, the reason being belief and faith is involved. We are agruing after one person's misunderstanding and shallowness. Eastern cultures is much older than Western, that been said older practices like "Yoga" were part of the cultural and religious faith. Jesus and Bramha or Vishnu will never argue, it is the people like us get carried away at some layman ppl's comment(Ms. Amanda Gregg).
    It is disappointing that places like Church are trying to teach ppl "How to steal credit and misrepresent facts" !!!!
    Everyone is free to practice their belief and religion, they are also free to adopt good practices from other religion... just please make sure you give them the due credit !!!!!!!!

    January 30, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  17. Cletus

    Hatha yoga, which is just stretching, not exercise, is not a spiritual discipline. It is an excellent aid to meditation, as it relaxes the body. When the body is at rest, untroubled by aches and soreness, the mind also relaxes.

    January 30, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • Nik

      dude...an appetizer is part of the whole dinner. If that dinner is at Mexican Restaurant, its still Mexican food!!! Hatha yoga is to prepare for next level. LOL...not sure how else to make you guys realize how silly you sound sometime?

      January 30, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • David

      I think it depends on your teacher. You can adopt a purely physical approach to yoga or, if you had a teacher like mine, the spiritual side was a element of each class. May I suggest you read B. S. K. Iyenger.

      January 30, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
  18. Cali Girl

    I spent 2 months in India this year and I was surprised at how little yoga is a part of the culture there. The only people I saw practicing yoga were other white-Westerners. Meditation is another story – based on the people I spoke to, the majority of Indians meditate. But it seemed to me that a lot of Indians were so very, very skinny (in many cases malnourished) and already did so much manual labor and, even if they did not, they walked everywhere, so that there wasn't much "need" for yoga as physical exercise they way there is in the US. This is of course anecdotal. It was just my impression.

    January 30, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
    • IceOpen

      Caligirl, sadly I agree with your observation. Many Indians are more enamored with MTV and Coca-Cola than they are with their own culture and yoga.

      At a time when westerners are looking to the east to fulfill their spiritual longings, Indian society is regressing.

      January 30, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
  19. Dakshi

    How does it matter? It doesn't matter what the roots are. If practicing yoga makes you feel good and make you feel better, just do it! Stop making everything so political. If you think yoga provides you with a spiritual experience, then good for you! It doesn't matter whether that feeling is "Hindu" or "Christian" or "Jewish". You don't need to attach a label to everything. As far as I know as a practising Hindu, a lot of the beliefs and behaviours mentioned in Hinduism stem from practical reasons. By attaching a religious reason for doing "Surya Namaskaram" every morning as a salutation to the Sun God, you end up getting more people to perform it as a great way to start the morning. Similarly pranayamam and chanting slokas/mantras have such positive effects on the body, both physically and mentally. The chanting of the Sanskrit mantras provided a way to keep time as you did the breathing exercises and the power of prayer just has such a calming effect on people. Hinduism is just a way of life. Attaching religious beliefs to these exercises just made it a great way to ensure more people did it everyday.

    January 30, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • Nik

      and its precisely what Hinduism about...Living Life with daily morality of Dharma(moral law/regulations) and Karma (performing your duty well) . Its unfortunate Western media distort the root value and its meaning. Sheetal just want to spread awareness (and not fight about, force it, market it, re-brand it) that Yoga is not just physical, but its also spiritual and its roots are from Hinduism. Its a Fact that Yoga and Hinduism are ONE. But if you ask, most american are not aware of it (like Amanda above), and down 100 yrs, distorted fact will be 'american yoga'. So awareness must spread NOW, specially for "many" (and not all) Americans being so naive to respect or acknowledge anything that is not found in America!

      January 30, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
  20. Muaril


    "Making such a big deal about things like this goes against Hinduism."

    So you are an expert on all things Hindu and issue blanket statements on what goes or doesn't go against Hinduism? If acknowledgment is no big deal then they why is the Rishi of every mantra acknowledged?

    "Sheetal may be from a fundamentalist background."

    More likely you may not be able to think straight. One of the six schools of Hinduism is Nyaya (logic). May be a small course in Nyaya would do you good.

    January 30, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
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About this blog

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.