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. Shetal Shah is hot

    I'd definitely hit that

    January 30, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
  2. generalizationsarebad

    Honestly, who really has time for the countless Hindu Gods that go along with recognizing the background of yoga. Hinduism maybe old, but it also has a strong "are you kidding me" aspect. With the elephants and the monkeys. and the eight armed ladies. Americans find the imagery compelling, but the actual substance overwhelming. A sentiment I imagine many actual hindu people would share.

    January 30, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
    • Hindu Kush

      No it is not a sentiment that any Hindu I've know in my life have shared, but a generalization you have made. Being overwhelmed by the elephant headed Ganesha is like being overwhelmed by the big bad wolf from little red riding hood.

      January 30, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
    • Mozach

      wow generaliationsarebad! you are so incredibly naiive and closed-minded. You don't know the first thing about Hindu philosophy and beliefs – the oldest in the world.

      Mark Twain on India:
      "India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great-grandmother of tradition."

      Max Mueller on India:
      "Whatever sphere of the human mind you may select for your special study, whether it be language, or religion, or mythology, or philosophy, whether it be law or customs, primitive art or science, you have to go to India." Because, he said, "some of the most valuable and instructive material of the history of man are treasured up in India and India only."

      Look up more here: http://hinduism.about.com/od/history/a/indiaquotes.htm

      January 31, 2011 at 1:03 am |
  3. Jampa

    One needn't accept Hinduism as fact in order to recognize it as the historical root of Hatha Yoga. Just like one needn't accept ANY religion in order to recognize the beliefs and practices thereof. Anybody who reads this article and just immediately jumps to judgments about Hinduism's validity obviously has a lot of fear and doubt surrounding their beliefs.

    January 30, 2011 at 5:18 pm |
  4. HenryJay

    What it is

    January 30, 2011 at 5:04 pm |
  5. johannes

    I practice yoga every day and am aware that becoming aware of your body and thoughts helps in daily life
    most of the yoga techniques that we practice in the west were given to us by teachers who had lessons from indian teachers
    they adapted the lessons in such a way that they became more approachable
    Nowadays yoga and all kind of forms of yoga including mindfullness has adapted even more leading to completely ignoring the spiritual part of yoga
    The reason is quite simple, most people in the west don't want to be confronted with spiritual issues
    You should be proud that in hinduism the original yoga is still protected

    January 30, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • Muaril

      There are many in the west who are truly appreciate yoga beyond the physical aspects and are grateful for it. I wish they would be more vocal. Otherwise there is a real danger that commercial and church interests would distort it beyond recognition.

      January 30, 2011 at 5:12 pm |
  6. FogHornLegHorn

    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.

    January 30, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • Eric G.

      I used to say the same thing. I developed cronic lower back pain from my workouts and one of the trainers suggested I sit in on a yoga class for a month or two. I may not subscribe to the "spirituality" aspect of it, but it sure added flexibility. It is like a supercharger for my normal workout. Helps give results faster. Don't know how, but it works for me.

      January 30, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
  7. Fiona

    It is whatever you put into it. You can go into a Catholic church and kneel and cross yourself, but if you put no meaning into it you are just doing the motions. Same with yoga. Except that with yoga you will at least get a great physical benefit. After all, the poses are based upon calisthenics, not ancient practices. The physical practice of yoga is but a small part of the greater whole.

    January 30, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
  8. stevie68a

    Another excuse for christian lunatics to make something out of nothing. Religion poisons everything.
    Now the arguments over which imaginary god is real.

    January 30, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
  9. DrFood

    Yoga is exercise? 🙂

    January 30, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • Mozach

      Not just exercise. Read my comments above or better still – do some Internet research and stop making ignorant comments. You have a brain and a computer – use them wisely.

      January 30, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
  10. Rahula

    Yoga is not just yoga, as someone wrote. It means "union" from Sanskrit yuj like the English word yoke, to join with/to. And Hinduism is not just Hinduism. It is a broad name for a religion given by early European scholars to the Indian subcontinent's many, many spiritual practices and ideologies. But Hinduism is not one religion at all as is, for example, Christ-based Christianity. Yoga has many forms–karma or action yoga, bhakti or devotional yoga, hatha or 'sun-moon' physical postures, gyana or wisdom yoga, etc., all being ways to achieve union with the absolute, whatever that may be according to one's understanding capability. The West and some Indians have adapted yoga as a physical exercise. It is and it isn't.

    January 30, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
  11. HenryJay

    In the highest sense-You will be what you will be.

    January 30, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
  12. Joe Wojciechowski

    Taking religion out of Yoga is the same as taking religion out of Christmas. I like Santa Claus and presents, who cares where it originated from?

    January 30, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
  13. Lotus

    Yoga is part of Buddhist practice too – much of it remains secret so there are not pointless discussions thus actual religious awakening can occur.

    As it is said when the Buddha was asked if he were a god or a man, Buddha replied "I am aware."

    January 30, 2011 at 4:08 pm |
  14. Muaril

    For those claiming yoga is a good exercise and that they don't really care about its origins, Hindus are fine with this position as long as you don't try to delink yoga from Hindus.

    An anecdote I once heard: A medical research lab in Germany after much research and thinking came up an awesome tooth-brush: nice and solid to hold, ergonomically perfect and able to reach the most inaccessible parts of the mouth. Not surprisingly this tooth-brush became famous and made its way across the world. Now in LA some pawn stars discovered that the other end of the tooth brush also made an excellent d**do and the toothbrush became wildly popular there. The research company was perplexed by this unexpected use but decided this was okay as long as the company's patent on the tooth-brush was respected.

    And that's where we stand as well.

    January 30, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
  15. jaina

    I have been born and brought up in India. The majority population is spiritual and as they grow older they involve more and more into religious traditions like reading scriptures, fasting, practicing dhyana (meditation), visiting temples and listening to spiritual gurus. The best part is that religion is not taught in schools and forced upon. We are not taught that only our religion is true and everything else is false. This Indian tradition slowly grows on you as you grow older and exposed to other cultures. In fact when I came to US, the respect for Indian tradition increased when I saw two extremes here: Athiesism and Orthodoxy. Looks like these people are still living in the era of crusades, while I feel lucky to be part of a religion which feels as eternal as universe and feels as true as science.

    January 30, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • Mozach

      What does this have to do with Yoga?

      January 30, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
    • jaina

      @Mozach: My comment pettains to the discussion here, that Indian spiritual concepts (including Yoga) are universal and do not confine to religious boundary. But it is not true to the spirit of Yoga if you just adopt Physical form of Yoga (Hatha Yoga) and deliberately ignore more advanced form of Yoga (Raja or Kriya Yoga) which is more closely tied to the Indian spiritual traditions. I believe anyone can attain nirvana by following true path of Yoga "Yam, Niyam, Asan, Pranayama, Pratyahaar, Dhyana and Samadhi". Go read Swami Kriyananda's book on Kriya Yoga, should be available in b&n or amazon.

      January 30, 2011 at 9:58 pm |
  16. DP

    Taking a yoga class cured me of nightmares. Given, the nightmares were about yoga.

    January 30, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  17. Dhoriyas are Chodiyas

    You ignorant morons are retarded, if that. It isn't about Yoga having a tie to Hinduism, it's about WHY you should do Yoga. Whether or not you do it for that reason it doesn't matter. You're merely getting the partial benefits, but there's more to it than your mind can comprehend.

    January 30, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  18. guitarharry

    Why is this a "fight?" Who cares where yoga originated? I believe chess is a game from ancient Middle Eastern cultures, but that doesn't stop Jews and Christians from playing it...

    January 30, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
    • Mozach

      Chess (shatranj) was invented in India 🙂 Another wonderful gift to humankind.

      January 30, 2011 at 3:53 pm |
  19. SantaM

    Not sure why there is so fuss about Yoga..If one benefits from doing it then go ahead practise it and have fun.

    January 30, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
  20. Mozach

    So many of the foregoing comments are silly, misguided or on a tangent. The greatness of the Hindu/Vedic culture is that so many of its gifts are universal and for all humankind. I can easily show you (and you can do it yourself through some basic internet research) that the vast body of maths, astronomy, science, medicine and the 'zero' were rooted in hindu philosophy and critical thought. So is the case with Yoga. The word means 'union' – of the body and soul; i.e. the physical and spiritual union. If you are just focused on the physical, then it's just exercise. But to do true yoga you have to add in the spiritual elements. Now we can argue if those spiritual elements need to be Hindu/Aryan/Vedic. IMO that's pointless. As long as you are aware of the origin and significance of yoga, what spiritual elements you mix in is up to you. If Christian hyms and chanting work for you – more power to you. But you don't have the right to hijack or twist the truth and position it is as something it is not. For instance, you can't say the sun rises in the west – get it? And if you are ignorant about the spiritual role in yoga or if you are deliberately avoiding it, then you are not practicing yoga. Don't cheat yourself out of the full benefits of yoga – just add some of the spiritual element whatever yourself belief system is. Those in doubt should do some research instead of sounding ignorant on cnn.

    January 30, 2011 at 3:38 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.