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The subtleties of yoga

Last month Southern Baptist Seminary President Albert Mohler reviewed The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America. While he gave the book a favorable review, he used the review as an opportunity to discuss how Christianity and Hinduism differ and why that's important. Peter Smith at the Louisville Courier-Journal highlighted Mohler's review and it created a bit of a firestorm. The Associated Press even ran a story, which I dinged for failing to quote any Hindus on the matter, much less Hindus who agree with Mohler that yoga is a Hindu practice. Paul Vitello at the New York Times mentioned the controversy in his length report headlined "Hindu Group Stirs a Debate Over Yoga's Soul." Here's how the article begins:

Yoga is practiced by about 15 million people in the United States, for reasons almost as numerous -- from the physical benefits mapped in brain scans to the less tangible rewards that New Age journals call spiritual centering. Religion, for the most part, has nothing to do with it.

But a group of Indian-Americans has ignited a surprisingly fierce debate in the gentle world of yoga by mounting a campaign to acquaint Westerners with the faith that it says underlies every single yoga style followed in gyms, ashrams and spas: Hinduism.

The campaign, labeled "Take Back Yoga," does not ask yoga devotees to become Hindu, or instructors to teach more about Hinduism. The small but increasingly influential group behind it, the Hindu American Foundation, suggests only that people become more aware of yoga's debt to the faith's ancient traditions.

That suggestion, modest though it may seem, has drawn a flurry of strong reactions from figures far apart on the religious spectrum. Dr. Deepak Chopra, the New Age writer, has dismissed the campaign as a jumble of faulty history and Hindu nationalism. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has said he agrees that yoga is Hindu -- and cited that as evidence that the practice imperiled the souls of Christians who engage in it.

The question at the core of the debate -- who owns yoga? -- has become an enduring topic of chatter in yoga Web forums, Hindu American newspapers and journals catering to the many consumers of what is now a multibillion-dollar yoga industry.

You can read Mohler's rather more nuanced argument here. The Indian-American group is called the Hindu American Foundation, which can be found here.

I love that the Times is covering this and not mocking the Hindus or others who discuss the debt yoga owes to Hinduism. I'm almost inure to the treatment that folks like Mohler receive at times like this but thought the short shrift to Hindus who advocate for yoga as a Hindu practice was a lost opportunity.

The article explains the origins of the viral debate about how much yoga owes to Hinduism. One of the readers who submitted the story thought the choice of "experts" arguing against yoga's Hindu origins were a bit weak. They were, in fact, a Brooklyn yoga instructor and Deepak Chopra. We're told that some religious historians think that yoga originated "in the Vedic culture of Indo-Europeans who settled in India in the third millennium B.C., long before the tradition now called Hinduism emerged." But we're not given any religious historians who agree with this. What's more, the Vedic culture is strongly related to the origins of Hinduism, so some clarification about exactly where the argument differs would be helpful, too.

The reader notes:

Chopra is well-known author and spiritual leader, but is he the best person to comment on the origins of yoga? He's an endocrinologist and self-help author, not a historian. Given his leading role in the "spiritual not religious" movement, doesn't he have a vested interest in making sure that yoga is too closely associated with a specific religion?

Of course, the same conflict of interest might be argued for HAF. And the story is really about Chopra and the HAF's conflict, and HAF's campaign. I thought this was some great context:

Loriliai Biernacki, a professor of Indian religions at the University of Colorado, said the debate had raised important issues about a spectrum of Hindu concepts permeating American culture, including meditation, belief in karma and reincarnation, and even cremation.

"All these ideas are Hindu in origin, and they are spreading," she said. "But they are doing it in a way that leaves behind the proper name, the box that classifies them as 'Hinduism.'"

The debate has also secured the standing of the Hindu American Foundation as the pre-eminent voice for the country's two million Hindus, said Diana L. Eck, a professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard. Other groups represent Indian-Americans' interests in business and politics, but the foundation has emerged as "the first major national advocacy group looking at Hindu identity," she said.

I was going to say that the article should probably note HAF's Hindu Nationalist approach but Chopra is quoted arguing just that. Perhaps a bit more than a note would be helpful should Hindu identity get the additional coverage it deserves. Still, nice to see this article and the context it provides.

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