Yoga, Hinduism and Islam

A reader sent in a link to this New York Times story about Muslims adopting yoga with the note:

Did I miss something or did the Times do a credible job in this story? If so, what is different about this story?

Here's the top of the piece:

As a community activist in Queens, Muhammad Rashid has fought for the rights of immigrants held in detention, sought the preservation of local movie theaters and held a street fair to promote diversity.

But few of those causes brought him anywhere near as much grief and controversy as his stance on yoga.

Mr. Rashid, a Muslim, said he had long believed that practicing yoga was tantamount to “denouncing my religion.”

“Yoga is not for Muslims,” he said. “It was forbidden.”

But after moving to New York in 1997 from Bahrain, he slowly began to rethink his stance. Now Mr. Rashid, 56, has come full circle: not only has he adopted yoga into his daily routine, but he has also encouraged other Muslims to do so — putting himself squarely against those who consider yoga a sin against Islam.

In New York City, where yoga has become as secular an activity as spinning or step aerobics, the potential sins of yoga are not typically debated by those clad in Lululemon leggings. But in some predominantly Muslim pockets like Jackson Heights, Queens, yoga has been slow to catch on, especially among first-generation immigrants, newly arrived from cultures where yoga is considered Hindu worship.

I love journalistic discussions of yoga, Hinduism and other religions. I used to do a bit of yoga, although now I'm into Crossfit. I would say it's the opposite of yoga except that we actually use quite a few yoga stretches at the end of each workout. But when I first began doing yoga, and read what Hindu practitioners said about the practice of yoga, I took their words seriously enough to talk to my pastor about it.

This article does a good job of showing how some Muslims have overcome their initial objections to yoga. But I do think it failed in not discussing enough about the Hindu history and nature of yoga. I'm not sure dismissing it as secular even flies when describing the typical New Yorker's approach to it. At least, not among my New York friends who are totally into at least a portion of the religious or spiritual aspect of the practice. Indeed, it's much of the selling point for them. And that doesn't even touch on how Hindus themselves feel about yoga, particularly some of the more traditional Hindus.

The article only talks about Christian and Muslim opposition to using yoga, but not to Hindu opposition to the way yoga is treated by some outside the faith. For instance:

The religious opposition to yoga also extends to some Christian sects. One widely publicized clash came in 2010, when R. Albert Mohler Jr., an evangelical leader and the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, declared the practice of yoga blasphemous because of what he said were its pantheistic roots.

In India, near-annual pushes by members of Parliament to make yoga compulsory in schools have riled Muslim parents who feel it bridges on indoctrination. When a member of Parliament proposed to insert yoga into most curriculums in 2010, wording was included to exempt things like madrasas, or Islamic schools.

Viewed solely from the perspective of how some Muslims integrated yoga into their religious lives, however, this is a great article. Just really well done.

Almost as if in answer to my main complaint about the piece, however, comes this NPR article headlined "To Some Hindus, Modern Yoga Has Lost Its Way."

The article does a good job of recognizing that there is not one Hindu approach to how yoga should be practiced throughout the world or treated by outsiders, much less consent about its origins. Still, it talks to people associated with the Hindu American Foundation to get their objections to the secularization of yoga:

But some Hindus are taken aback by how so much of the yoga practiced in the United States emphasizes only the physical.

One group, the Hindu American Foundation, has launched a "Take Back Yoga" campaign to address what they see as a fundamental disconnect between yoga and Hinduism.

Sheetal Shah, senior director at the foundation, says the group started the campaign when it noticed that while "Vedic," "tantric" and many other words appeared regularly in yoga magazines, the word "Hindu" was never mentioned.

So, the foundation called up one of the country's most popular magazines to ask why.

"They said the word 'Hinduism' has a lot of baggage," Shah says. "And we were like, 'Excuse me?' "

Shah says she understands why some people have a problem with linking yoga and Hinduism. Many American practitioners associate the practice with something pure and serene, she says. But when they think of Hinduism, she says, they think of "multiple gods, with multiple heads and multiple arms. Colorful [and] ritualistic."

It may be difficult for people to see how these things fit together, Shah says.

With the Take Back Yoga campaign, the Hindu American Foundation is hoping for broader acknowledgment that yoga has Hindu philosophical roots — while also emphasizing that it is universal and appropriate for everyone.

"What we're trying to say is that the holistic practice of yoga goes beyond just a couple of asanas [postures] on a mat. It is a lifestyle, and it's a philosophy," Shah says.

It wouldn't be Hindu without that universal aspect, eh? But while the Hindu American Foundation is somewhat controversial

The article probably should have mentioned a bit more about how controversial the campaign and the foundation are. The Times reported a couple years ago that "Deepak Chopra, the New Age writer, has dismissed the campaign as a jumble of faulty history and Hindu nationalism."

It's a challenging topic. There aren't easy answers for whether, much less how, to integrate yoga in a religious life.

Image of yoga pose via Shutterstock.

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