“Taking Back” Yoga

I read today a piece in the Washington Post about Hindus needing to “take back” yoga.  I read the article and the comments with great interest because it has been a matter of much discussion with those in my meditation and philosophy course as to the extent to which the practices we are learning are “religious” practices and whether they can be practiced consistently with other religions.  There is much difference of opinion and strongly heated and held positions.

What I think is missing from the article is the question of distinctions between “spiritual” and “religious” practices.  It is a simple fact that practicing yoga with depth and sincerity entails learning practices that are observed by Hindus.  Does that make one a Hindu?  Does it mean that one is “dissing” Hinduism if one learns and benefits from the practices, but does not self-identify as a Hindu.

What about Jews who have trees at the Christmas holidays (a tradition co-opted from the pagans in any event)? Is it OK that I have a mezuzuh even though my parents (who were born Jews) raised me in the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), and I continue to be a member of a Quaker meeting, and observe no other Jewish laws or practices.

Is it OK for me to chant “Hindu” chants if I do not identify myself as a Hindu or attend Hindu temple?  If it is not OK, for whom is it not OK?  Quakers?  Hindus?  Jews? Me?  Who is to decide or judge?

It seems to me that “religion” (as specific sects, identities, and strict rules) tends to highlight difference and disunity, but sincere spiritual practice — whether or not done in a religious context and observance — should be unifying because all religions at their highest and most universal, call upon us to recognize the unity of spirit in ourselves and in all beings.

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4 Comments

  1. Craig

    I am of many minds on this one. First, I think we need to give deference to Hindus who feel non-Hindus have (mis)appropriated one of their practices. Not that Hindus “own” yoga, but it is one of their paths to the divine and we non-Hindus should be sensitive to how we use or talk about it. It would give me pause if non-Christians somehow started using the Eucharist in a non-Christian context, so I think I can understand why Hindus might not feel comfortable with the way yoga is used today in the US.

    On the other hand…. The first Eucharist was a Passover meal. Christians appropriated Passover and turned it into a sacrament. Baptism, too, started as a Jewish practice and Christians appropriated that. (Jesus and thousands of other Jews were baptized.) I don’t think that any one religion can exclusively own a particular practice. If the practice is meaningful, it will naturally grow beyond the confines of the religion in which it originated. Yoga obviously brings a host of physical benefits to the practitioner and it seems only natural that non-Hindus would want to benefit from that.

    On the other, other hand, Hindus themselves are responsible in part for the separation of yoga from Hinduism. Just look at Bikram yoga, for one example.

    In the end, what is to be done about this anyway? The divorce has happened. Yoga is no longer Hindu, in the minds of most Americans at least. Perhaps devout Hindus would care to start offering their own yoga classes which comport more fully with what they want yoga to be. That would be a real gift to the world.

  2. kiley

    I agree with Craig when he states, “we non-Hindus should be sensitive to how we use or talk about it(yoga).” As we should with all Religions.

    How beautifully written your last paragraph is.

    I find, from my own upbringing, that there are many that assign themselves to a specific religion but do not fully open themselves up to religions greatest teachings “of unity” and love. We are so quick to judge and want all to walk our way.

    Thank you for the reminder!

  3. Sara Foster

    the religion of my grandfather is Hinduism and he says that it is a great religion.;-`

  4. Chris

    Is there even any need to debate this ?

    Is Yoga Hindu ? Hmm, let’s see now.
    Is the Pope Catholic ? All righty, then.

    Of course, Yoga is very much a part of Hinduism. Yoga is born of Hinduism. Who did you think Patanjali was ? Patanjali was an ancient HINDU sage, who compiled the science of Yoga in a systematic manner.

    Asking if Yoga has to do with Hinduism is like me asking if I can receive a Baptism and Holy-Communion, but still SOMEHOW avoid getting involved with Catholicism. Do you understand ?

    The physical Yoga-Asanas are but a first step in the Vedic Hindu tradition of disciplining the body, and thence, the mind, as a pre-cursor to the attainment of Enlightenment by the Yoga-practitioner.

    So, all practitioners of Yoga are getting initiated into Hinduism, whether like it or not. If your Evangelical Church has a problem with your getting involved with the Heathen religion of Hinduism, drop out of the Yoga class.

    Also, Yoga requires its practitioners to be VEGETARIAN. So, if you are practising Yoga-asanas, but are still eating animal-flesh, you are already in violation of the Yogic principles. Does that make you a bad person ? Well, it definitely makes you an incomplete Yogi or Yogini.

    Americans can call it Power-Yoga, or any other kind of fancy name, but bear in mind, that you owe it all to Hinduism.

    Also know this that before Christianity swept over Europe, ancient Europe was actually Hindu. Alexander the Greek invaded India, but ended up becoming conquered by Hinduism and Buddhism. Alexander’s Greek Generals took back with them to Europe Hinduism and Buddhism.

    It’s amazing that Americans are ever so willing to attribute pretty much any ancient knowledge to the Chinese. Thus, Americans will gladly announce that they are practising Kung-fu, an ancient Chinese art. But you will never hear an American say, ” Yeah, I am a student of the great Hindu science of Yoga.” Meanwhile, even this is factually incorrect. For even Kung-fu was invented by an ancient Indian monk, who traveled to China, and taught Kung-fu to the peasants of China. The Chinese word “Chen”, and the Japanese equivalent “Zen” are both derived from the Sanskrit word “Dhyan”, which means a combination of concentration and meditation.

    Siddhartha Gautama was born a Hindu prince, who went on to become the Buddha, and establish Buddhism.

    From India, Buddhism traveled East to China.

    The numerals that the Western World knows as “Arabic Numerals” ? In Arabia, they call them by their correct name of “Hindu numerals”. The Arabs merely transmitted the Hindu invention of numerals, and of Zero, to the Western world.

    I am perfectly happy to be thanking those great Americans, the Wright Brothers Orville and Wilbur, every time that I step onto an aircraft to take a flight. So, why can’t Americans similarly be gracious enough to give credit where credit is due, and thank Hinduism every time that they step onto their Yoga-mats ?

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