Through much of April a very public debate has been raging over the practice of Yoga in the West, and whether its Hindu origins are given proper credit and acknowledgement by those who profit from it. One on side of the debate is Aseem Shukla, co-founder and board member of the Hindu American Foundation, on the other mega-selling New Age author Dr. Deepak Chopra, who seemingly bristles at calling himself a Hindu, and is trying to “sanitize” Yoga because there’s a lot of “junk” in the religious tradition from which it originated.
Some of yoga’s best-known—and most entrepreneurial—purveyors concede they’ve consciously separated Hinduism from yoga to make it more palatable. “The reason I sanitized it is there’s a lot of junk in [Hinduism],” explains Deepak Chopra, the New Age guru whose latest book, co-written with Marianne Williamson and Debbie Ford, is The Shadow Effect. “We’ve got to evolve to a secular spirituality that still addresses our deepest longings … Most religion is culture and mythology. Read any religious text, and there’s a lot of nonsense there. Yet the religious experience is beautiful.”
The Hindu American Foundation released a position paper on the subject, saying that there is no way to entirely de-link Yoga, no matter how secularized, from its Hindu roots.
“While HAF affirms that one does not have to profess faith in Hinduism in order to practice Yoga or asana, it firmly holds that Yoga is an essential part of Hindu philosophy and the two cannot be delinked, despite efforts to do so.”
In a Newsweek editorial published yesterday, Lisa Miller, author of “Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife”, ultimately backs HAF’s stance (despite a truly bizarre opening paragraph), and talks to religion professor Stephen Prothero, author of the new book “God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World–and Why Their Differences Matter”, to bolster that position.
“My friend the Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero has just written a book called God Is Not One, which argues that the good in any religion (e.g., yoga) necessarily comes with the bad (caste systems). By seeing religion as a single, happy universal force, we blind ourselves to tensions of great consequence to individuals and to history. “America,” he says, “has this amazing capacity to make everything banal. That’s what we do. We make things banal and then we sell them. If you’re a Hindu, you see this beautiful, ancient tradition of yoga being turned into this ugly materialistic vehicle for selling clothes. It makes sense to me that you would be upset.”
But, Prothero points out, Chopra has a point. The American creative, materialistic, pluralistic impulse allows religion here to grow and change, taking on new and unimagined shapes. “You can’t stop people from appropriating elements in your religion,” Prothero adds. “You can’t stop people from using and transforming yoga. But you have to honor and credit the source.” Prothero’s bottom line is also my own. You can read from the Dalai Lama in yoga class. You can even read from the Sermon on the Mount. But know where yoga came from and respect those origins. Then, when you chant “om,” it will resonate not only in the room but down through the ages.”
I suppose it all comes down to respect. If you practice and benefit from Yoga, it’s only decent to acknowledge that you are benefiting from a practice that has sprung from Hindu religion and philosophy. To do otherwise would seem to cheapen and insult the practice. What about you, my readers? Do you practice Yoga? If so, do you acknowledge it as a Hindu practice?