Aseem Shukla /Sheetal Shah
Apart from distorting it beyond recognition, the proponents of America’s $ 6 billion Yoga industry deny Yoga’s inseparability with the Hindu way of life. The philosophy behind Yoga must be extolled
The burgeoning Yoga industry — built off of $108 Yoga pants contoured to bind and sculpt the body, $185 Yoga studio membership fees and $100 yoga mats custom designed to decrease slippage from sweaty palms — continues to skyrocket in popularity. The latest fad at a spinning studio round the corner: “combination spin and Yoga”, where the goal is to burn fat and loosen thigh muscles – ostensibly to decrease that pesky sore hamstring. But that shouldn’t be surprising when there already exists Yoga in the nude, yoga and food, and even “Doga” – i.e. yoga with one’s pet dog.
Welcome to Yoga 2010 sweeping the United States @ $ 6 billion per year, where it is legit to pair Yoga with just about anything, including faith. Apart from the aforementioned distortions of a 5,000-year-old science, we now see the rise of “Christian Yoga”, “Muslim Yoga”, “Kabbalah Yoga” and what have you.
Each of these “nuanced faith-yogas” have appropriated the knowledge of countless yogis without so much as a nod of gratitude towards Hinduism, the faith that gifted them this treasure. Hinduism today is identified overseas more with holy cows than Gomukhasana, the arduous twisting posture and exotic and erotic gods rather than the unity of divinity of Hindu tradition – that God may manifest and be worshiped in infinite ways; as a religion of incomprehensible ritual rather than the spiritual inspiration of Patanjali, the second century BC commentator and composer of the Yoga Sutras, that has formed the philosophical basis of practical Yoga for millennium.
As Yoga becomes more “mainstream”, its Hindu roots continue to be buried further and further by studios, practitioners and the media. While magazines such as Yoga Journal are replete with references to ancient India, new age blather and even Buddhism, it is only logical to ask why is there so much resistance to openly acknowledging Yoga’s inextricable links with Hinduism.
Firstly, perhaps because not all of the great Hindu Yogis who introduced the West to this ancient philosophy took the uncompromising path of a Swami Vivekananda in his open assertion and embrace of his Hindu faith. A generous perspective would be that these more modern yogis and swamis couch their teachings in secular syntax to benefit millions of followers. But a more realistic view would reach far harsher conclusions. The followers of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, under whose tutelage the Beatles steadied their mind, packaged and even trademarked the benefits of meditation as Transcendental Meditation (TM). Yet, a search of the words “Hindu” or “Hinduism” on TM’s website reveals not a single instance of either word.
Contemporary gurus unwisely continue this trend that severs yoga from its very wellsprings of inspiration. From Ayurveda to meditation and Yoga to pranayama and riya, the path of least resistance for acceptance in the West is seen to simply indulge the consumer with homilies to wellness, holistic healing and rewiring the mental hard drive without eliciting the baggage of that pariah term: “Hinduism.”
As these gurus highlight only the universal nature of Yoga while discarding overt references to Hinduism. They end up grabbing the transcendent philosophical fruits of the ancients, leaving Hinduism with stereotyped detritus of incomprehensible ritual and the cliched “caste, cows and curry.” As the popularity of Yoga has skyrocketed and spiritual practice has morphed into a $6 billion industry, this delinking has become so prevalent and commonplace that many in the western yoga community are outraged that any faith, particularly one that is now largely associated with colorful rituals and multi-headed gods, could dare claim to be the mother of Yoga.
Critics, such as the American Yoga Association and Deepak Chopra have argued that Yoga predates Hinduism – a term coined just a few hundred years ago. Based on this flawed logic, would these critics also venture to say that neither the Vedas nor the Upanishads nor the Bhagavad Gita are fundamental “Hindu” texts because they all pre-date colonial India? Would these same critics then take issue with the legendary BKS Iyengar’s statement in Light of Yoga that “some asanas are also called after the Gods of the Hindu pantheon and some recall the Avataras, or incarnations of Divine Power”? Or would they perhaps venture to state that Shiva is not a Hindu god because He is mentioned in the opening line of Swami Svatmarama’s Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
Even more baffling are the practitioners who learn to master asanas such as Hanumanasana or Natarajasana while simultaneously denying the Hindu roots of Yoga. Lord Nataraja’s eternal dance precedes creation of this universe itself, but when will the Deepak Chopras of the world concede that the spiritual tradition moving to His divine rhythms is what we all accept as Hinduism?
For these self-indulgent appropriators of Yoga in the US, the end-all-and-be-all of Yoga is asana-based classes. They have not delved into Yoga’s foundational scriptures, such as Patajanli’s Yoga Sutras. For these “lay” yogis, the focus is on sculpting muscles or simply balancing in Sirshasana for 10 minutes, ignoring that the ultimate goal of Yoga is also that of Hinduism: moksha, the attainment of liberation from worldly suffering and from the cycle of birth and rebirth. Yoga 2010 is only a stress-buster, 90 minutes out of the American’s day, a few times each week.
And unfortunately, much of what is practiced in the West is exactly this – asanas in the name of Yoga, making it that much easier to decouple the practice from its Hindu roots. It’s rather simple to brush off the idea that Hinduism, or any faith for that matter, can lay claim to a headstand or spinal twist or any physical pose. But for Hindus working toward the ultimate goal of moksha, Yoga is not just an asana practice that can be forgotten after “arising” from savasana. Instead, yoga is lived every minute of everyday and both asana and pranayama are small, but integral components. As Prashant Iyengar, the son of BKS Iyengar, so aptly states, “There is no physical Yoga and spiritual Yoga. If it is exclusively physical, it won’t be Yoga. Yoga is dealing with the entirety; it is a union.”
Yoga is not only for Hindus; Hindus do not own yoga. Yoga is Hinduism’s gift to humanity to follow, practice and experience. No one will ever be asked to leave their own religion or reject their own theologies or convert to a pluralistic tradition such as Hinduism. Yoga, in its path of regaining mastery over the body, mind and intellect, does not offer ways to believe in God; it offer ways to know God.
Dr Aseem Shukla, a Minneapolis-based Pediatrician is co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; Sheetal Shah is Director, Development, HAF
Another article worth reading by the same author (don’t forget to read the readers’ comments):
The dispute is about origins of Yoga, not its ownership. That is why the statement “Nobody owns Yoga” is a strawman argument. To make Yoga more palatable to Xian moneybags, some mercenary charlatans of Deepak Chopra variety have begun to claim that Yoga has nothing to do with Hinduism but is an orphan art that miraculously developed on its own in ancient India. This is a blatant lie and theft of intellectual property. It is like saying Bible has nothing to do with Christianity, and if some Christians object, then argue: “Nobody has any copyright on Jesus.”