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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. truthinrock

    How sad that another group of religious extremists, this time Hindi, feel the need to claim sovereignty over a physical exercise.

    January 30, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • abhijit

      Hindi – what religion is that?

      January 30, 2011 at 5:00 pm |
  2. Darryl

    Okay,Shaw is hot, but my question is "She tries to incorporate yogic concepts like nonviolence into her life." – If she tries, I guess sometimes she doesn't make it – who dies then?

    January 30, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
  3. Lisa

    Yoga's roots are not Hinduism, but Sanatana Dharma, which is Universal. It is based upon the spiritual laws of the Universe, not a specific religion. There's a big difference.

    January 30, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
    • jaina

      Correct. There was nothing called Hinduism, it was labelled such by the western civilizations for the people living in Indus valley civilization. And before India was invaded by many races, there was this richly developed way of life in India, which we know as Sanatan Dharma.

      January 30, 2011 at 10:18 pm |
  4. Ellen Hunt

    Typo in the article. Yama is the lord of death. Yamas are things to not do. These are things like addictions, criminal acts, immoral acts. Niyamas are things that are not death. So the vows are actually Niyamas, not yamas.

    The Hindu tradition is deep, and many people don't realize that the Buddhist tradition is a branch of Hinduism. Gautama was its founder, and he was a Hindu. It is more than saying that Jesus was a Jew, which everyone recognizes. Buddhism was never cast out or considered to be non-Hindu in the way that Christianity became.

    January 30, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
  5. StanAmerikanski

    It is interesting how easy is to blame the "West" for cultural insensitivity and all the crimes of the past and present from the colonization time. But what about not so nice things in the religions of these great cultures from the pre-colonization times? Thousands of years, as so many emphasize. Are you proud of everything from these old good untainted times, like the cast system? What about the racism against other religions? The so peaceful hindus were killing moslems in Bombai (Mumbai) in 1993 when I was just to visit. Long hand of the West? What about the Inkas and the Mayas? Is it just cultural insensitivity to talk about their religious brutal ceremonies and sacrificial acts? Do not even mention islamist fanatics.

    Come on, do not blame the "West" for all the evil in the world but rather honestly look into your cultures, their roots and do not tell me that they are just fine for the modern times with all the rules in them.

    I must admit in my non-expert opinion that one religion seems to be most peaceful – Buddhism. But now I already expect the angry (peace be with you :)) ) responses that I am unfair to the other great religions. Christianity included (with the Inquisition, Crusaders, etc).

    Be objective and admit that very often religions are not inciting people to do good deeds, like Mother Theresa.

    Atheist and proud of it. I am not having G-d on my side against others. Et tu ?

    January 30, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  6. tallulah13

    I have always associated yoga with hinduism. That said, I would never practice it for that reason.

    Yoga has been shown to provide healthful benefits, even removed from its religious setting. If I am forbidden from pursuing a healthy activity because I don't share the belief from which it stems, so be it. However, I think its a shame that people can't simply share what is good without putting strings on it.

    January 30, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
  7. Xtards

    So much for intellectual property double standards! Just steal what you don't have and then patent it in your name. This is not the last thing stolen besides oil.

    January 30, 2011 at 3:10 pm |
  8. Christian Brothers

    In the past Chrisitan stole and robbed Shaturnalia and Eostre from Greeco-Roman "pagans" and renamed them as Christmas and Easter respectively.

    Now it is the time of Yoga to meet the same fate....but I guess Hindus are a much more potent group to ever let that happen. They have genius for survival and think that they will prevail.

    Carl Jung said that when Romans invaded and colonized Israel, the spirity of Israel entered Western civilization and dominated it ever since. He said the same thing about Hindu practices like Karma and Yoga. He said that Brtish colonized India and spirit of Hinduism has now entered Western civilization and will continue to grow its influence. This debate or "fight" seems to be a part of the same grand narrative of history which has just begun to unfold.

    January 30, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
  9. tintin

    white people will never accept colored people have something thats better than theirs...even the liberal ones...thts just the way it is...even if they adopt/steal something from the colored cultures they will never acknowledge the source...there is a million examples...

    January 30, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • Anglican

      tintin. Not all.

      January 30, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
  10. 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 2:58 pm |
  11. blahh

    note to self: go to yoga class to pick up hot women.

    January 30, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
  12. Dave

    The beauty of this country is that we have freedom, giving each individual the liberty to practice yoga any way desired. There is room for traditional yoga as well as non-traditional yoga. There is no reason for them to conflict. Such conflict is the sign of a conflicted mind. I recommend meditation.

    January 30, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • TJ

      Exactly, do what you want so long as it hurts no one else I say. If you want religious Yoga then go someplace where they teach that, you have a choice.

      January 30, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
  13. Sanjay Bhanot

    With so many mind boggling problems India faces like Over-population, casteism , regionalism, extreme poverty, pollution, environmental degradation, wildlife degradation, extreme corruption (one of the worst in the whole world), complete lack of creativity, worst education system, etc......

    It is good to see indian people always fighting for such trivial stuff like "origin of Yoga" or "insult to their god and religion" which will make no positive impact on the lives poor common indians ! No wonder this country is in such bad state.

    January 30, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • bp

      go teach them yoga, maybe that will help.

      January 30, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  14. chanak

    Reminds me of my previous boss at Bank One, Nimmerrichter, who argued that Yoga was a Greek invention. Ironically, she is in a very senior position in JP Morgan's IT. Peter principle at its best.

    January 30, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
  15. JRJ

    The Yoga teaches its own truth and it's own morality, and does not "require" a priest-craft or elaborate religious
    ornamentation to fulfill it's purpose which is simply to be enlightened. I say "simply" because enlightenment
    is the fundamental state of consciousness or "being" that exists below (and indeed surrounds) our conditioned
    states of mind. The yoga practice makes this apparent. There are people who resist this perspective but just relax there is nothing to "get" or possess;
    ...I too love the painted elephants with garlands and mirrored cloths as they sway there heads and children spread the flower blossoms in their path...
    "just relax" there is room enough at the banquette...

    January 30, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • bp

      if christian churches are now teaching the practices of yoga an meditation , how more religous does it get?

      January 30, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • Jg

      > The Yoga teaches its own truth and it's own morality

      In the sense that it focussed on "personal morality" (how one treats oneself) as opposed to the more standard "social morality" (how one treats others). After all, what's the point of social morality for someone who has left the society to discover one self in the woods (like Thoreau).

      January 30, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
  16. bp

    same way you white people stole the swastika now its yoga. you whites have no shame. u say aryan is white.....smh. did u know himler fought whith the bhagavad gita in his pocket? u people worst than chinese.

    January 30, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • Dave

      I recommend a program of yoga and deep meditation for you. You need to look inward until you find the inner source of the anger and aggression you are feeling. These feelings are not healthy for you, and they corrupt your behavior in the world around you.

      January 30, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
    • Jg

      @bp
      As an Indian, can I ask you to stay out of adult conversations? This name calling achieves nothing. You come off as juvenile and people shut you off. No, this is not called winning. If you want to disagree with people, do so with civility. You would do well to read the well-articulated philosophical system of Gandhi and its well-established track record of effectiveness in unlikely odds, before you claim to stand for Indians/Hindus. Arguments are won together, not against.

      January 30, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  17. bp

    Yoga was brought down by the lord himself and taught to Arjuna during the war. Simple as that. so dont be assuming nothing about nothing fool.

    January 30, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  18. Bob Bales

    "You have hit upon one of my most compelling reasons for deciding that all gods are false. There are so many versions of god(s)."

    Years ago, there was a TV show called "What's my Line" in which three people claimed to be the same person. The existence of two impostors didn't affect the existence of the real person. Nor would have 10 or 10,000 impostors. If there is a God, and I believe there is, His existence isn't affected by any number of claims.

    January 30, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • les3547

      Bob Bales, well said.

      January 30, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
  19. Ed

    Yoga predates Hinduism, strange that it is not mentioned in this article.
    Yoga is older than the 'Hindu' religion practiced by Patanjali, most likely even older than the Vedas themselves.
    Also, Hinduism has gone through so many developmental changes from the age that the Vedas came from, through the many Upanishads, etc., that to say Yoga is tied to 'Hinduism' is also a very silly statement.
    Yoga is effective, not because of the Hindu religion, but because it is an effective human practice that was later intertwined with what became known as 'Hinduism', NOT because of its attachment to 'Hinduism'.

    January 30, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
    • bp

      if you ever read about anything Hinduism u would know Lord. Krsn imparts this sacred knowledge to arjuna. while doin so he in gives a background as to the history. Lord Krsn says that it was practiced before but lost. The sun god had been given this yoga who then passed it on to the first man of this planet and later on this sacred art was lost. If god said it himself, than this is hinduism at its best. Obviously , jus to cleafiy, the hindu text and hindu gods imparted this yoga onto man. you may practice it, but kno its true roots. Which i fear will now become christianity.

      January 30, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
  20. Jg

    @les3547

    > If anyone should claim yoga, I'd say it's the Buddhists.

    Buddhism is 2500 years old. Yogic postures were found on seals excavated from Indus Valley civilization which can make it as old as 5000 years.

    > One might expect a Hindu to claim the origins of yoga are Hindu, but it's a stretch

    It is possible to argue this since we don't exactly know the beginnings of Hinduism. Its sacred texts are dated from around 3500 years onwards. However, oral traditions predated this. Hinduism is also a continuity rather than a rigid codification which may go back 6000 years or beyond.

    Hindus see Buddhists as Hindus (as one of its branches which rejected Vedas, but not the only one to do so); although Buddhists do not. Buddha's first sermon was to Hindu yogis explaining why his "middle way" is better than their strong ascetic approach... and they praise him for it. This was an environment of open pursuit of spiritual enlightenment, not one where people claimed selfish ownership of methods or called upon heresy on honest criticism.

    January 30, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
    • les3547

      Jg: "Buddhism is 2500 years old. Yogic postures were found on seals excavated from Indus Valley civilization which can make it as old as 5000 years."

      Yoga postures are not yoga! Yoga is "union," and union is an experience that happens in meditation where consciousness unifies. The pursuit of that practice is historically linked to a time around 800BCE when many gathered to live in the forest as ascetics. That's what Gautama came upon when he joined them some 200 years later, some of whom were so ascetically inclined the were on the verge of death. Thus when he attained enlightenment, he suggested the "middle way" as a response to that sort of extreme asceticism.

      Jg: "This was an environment of open pursuit of spiritual enlightenment, not one where people claimed selfish ownership of methods or called upon heresy on honest criticism"

      Possibly, but my criticism is of Hindu's, such as Ms. Shah, now trying to "reclaim" yoga as Hindu. I, as someone with a degree in religious studies, and who has worked hard to understand how and why things came about, find her claim seems self-serving.

      January 30, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
    • Muaril

      Dear Jg: Traditional buddhists also do not buy into this strange Buddhism as opposed to Hinduism theory erected by self-serving western interests. Most temples in south-east Asia show a mix of traditional hindu dieties and buddhism. This is also true in Tibet, Nepal and pre-islamic northern India. Temples to Buddha also had Shiva etc. Buddhist literature, including the easily accessible Jataka tales, are replete with references to Vedic dieties and Brahmins are spoken of in friendly and respectful tone (contradicting the supposed rivalry between Brahmins and Buddhists).

      Hindus ofcourse regard the Buddha as nothing less than an incarnation of Vishnu. This is accepted by even the most orthodox sects of Hindus who reverentially invoke Buddha as an avatara during their daily prayers.

      The division between Hindus and Buddhists is artificial and neither party saw other in the way western "scholars" would like them to.

      Buddha is an incarnation of Vishnu and accepted as such by even the most orthodox of Hindu sects. In fact, Buddha is

      January 30, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • Jg

      @les3547

      > Yoga postures are not yoga! Yoga is "union," and union is an experience that happens in meditation where consciousness unifies.

      I think this is precisely what Miss/Mrs. Shah is arguing. Don't promote yoga as postures and exercises but rather as a more complete package (which may not be a good business decision).

      > find her claim seems self-serving

      I actually find Bikram Yoga and other contemporary crass-commercializations self-serving. Although one has to admit the contributions they made (heated rooms should help to limber limbs in western climates and their marketing did ultimately enhance cultural conversation). It's not authentic of course, just like the widely consumed Chinese food in US is nothing like Chinese food in China. I am not suggesting that authentic systems must be enforced. But you see why there will be a few voices raising that point that the existing ones are not.

      > The pursuit of that practice is historically linked to a time around 800BCE when many gathered to live in the forest as ascetics.

      Linked/correlated. Does that not suggest origin at that time. Why would you rule out the existence of fuller practices at the time of the seals? Such evidence is much harder to be preserved archeologically and Indus valley script is limited and not yet deciphered. It might have been in a different form but cannot be ruled out, given the postures.

      > as someone with a degree in religious studies, and who has worked hard to understand how and why things came about

      I am working on the final parts of my doctoral studies and understand academic perspectives. Although comparative religion is not my area of study (health sciences), I do have an amateur interest in it. My interest in Hinduism is purely academic, not religious. I am an Atheist, but I would have a hard time to NOT call myself a Hindu (cultural term, the value system I grew up with). I do think there is a misunderstanding when Hindus talk about religion vs. how west interprets the word. Religion, spiritual enlightenment (philosophical metaphysical stances rather than faith in a western sense) and cultural traditions are all mashed together. This is a general feature of oriental thought – holism. I consider Greek metaphysics somewhat more advanced than Hindu (no India at that time, which is a very recent geo-political concept) metaphysics for mainly resisting this temptation much better and inclining to reductionism which offers better clarity (at the cost of completeness, which is not a good early goal – This also means that Yoga is best introduced to the West in the simpler, rather than its fuller form – as it has been).

      Perhaps, that needs to be clarified. I would disagree if Shah was proposing that Yoga be combined with belief systems (Which one? Hindu traditions have many branches that use Yoga). But I don't think that is what she means. She does have a right to campaign for awareness of her perspective, but of course does not have any special right to enforce it. Bikram can do what he wants with his system. So far however, I think she is being misinterpreted more than understood... not that I know her any more than this article says of her.

      January 30, 2011 at 3:43 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.