Quick Note: Yoga is Hindu

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  May 14, 2010 — 5 Comments

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?

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Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Wonkateria

    Will it have patron saints? Can John Travolta be named as one of the Outer Heads of the Great Order of Disco (OH GOD)?

  • Nik

    I just started Yoga several weeks ago. I’m fairly well aware of its historical and cultural origins, and we do begin each class with a chant in Sanskrit/Hindi (I’m not sure which), but that’s about as far as it goes. I consider the various Yoga styles to be techniques, integral parts of the religions of India (probably not just Hinduism), but nonetheless eminently practicable apart from the religion. Just like the energy work and inner journeying I do are integral to Reiki/Quantum Touch/what-have-you and shamanism, but are not exclusive to any single circumscribed tradition.

    Knowing the origins of a technique can be very useful and helpfu, but is by no means necessary for practicing the technique effectively.

  • Ashley Price


  • Cole Gillette

    I’m no scholar of Hinduism. I was, however, raised in it; and while I now practice a modern pagan religion, I do not consider myself an “ex-Hindu”. (There is no concept of apostasy in any form of Hindu religion I’m familiar with, and my pagan sensibilities do not conflict with Hinduism.)

    When discussing ‘yoga’ (cognate of the English ‘yolk’, union) in the West, the essentially spiritual origins of the practice are frequently neglected or disregarded entirely. Perhaps it is better that this is so: what most of us are talking about when we say ‘yoga’ is a mere exercise routine that bears little resemblance to the authentic practice of yoga, a Hindu spiritual discipline whose primary purpose is to unite the practitioner with the Supreme Being, Brahman (Brahman being, incidentally, the same philosophical concept that those squabbling hysterically over “megareligion” seem either to misunderstand or fear, or both).

    While postures are indeed elements of certain Hindu religious practices, yoga is divided into three distinct types, none of which are intended to get one “in shape”. These practices are not engaged in a few times a week, or even twice a day. They are intended to be lived every waking moment of one’s life, the goal being ‘moksha’, or liberation from the cycle of birth and death, the “wheel” of karma, action and reaction, ‘samsara’. The end of yoga is Brahman, not a flatter belly, or improved cardiovascular function.

    The first of the three, ‘karma-yoga’, is the path of work. One undertakes all endeavors with the understanding that the work is done for God. (“Wait, which god? Egad! You don’t mean… Could it be? It is! Perennialism! Ahhhh!”)

    The second, ‘bhakhti -yoga’, the path of devotion. One selects a deity or holy personality to humble oneself before, serve spiritually with devotion, and love without condition. Hindus are free to choose from among famous sages, deities, modern religious figures like Sarada Devi or Ramakrishna, or even Jesus Christ. (“Quick, someone call Prof. Prothero! These guys are doin’ it wrong!”)

    ‘Jnana-yoga’, the path of knowledge, involves study of philosophy, scripture, and intensive meditation. This approach is an attempt to one the practitioner with the Supreme Being directly, without intermediaries like deities, saints, or selfless work. It is generally recognized as the most difficult of the three traditions of yoga.

  • Ashwini Prashant

    People who claim yoga to be only an exercise and those claim it to be an exercise in uniting with the brahma are both a bit wrong. It is a bit of both. A fit body was supposed to be receptive of all good things that universe had to offer.

    But The claims about the credit going to hinduism are true only if all scientific discoveries and inventions in the West can be claimed as Christian. An Indian sage called Patanjali was the first known exponent of Yoga. He also compiled all the asanas that we know today. This was more 2000 years ago. It would be wrong to categorise knowledge under religious labels. But it also hurts a bit when popular soaps like Desperate Housewives show a Buddha statue outside a yoga classroom.

    Incidentally Hinduism is a word bestowed by the west, it simply meant civilisation across the Sindhu river. The river is in Pakistan and we had tough time until we decided to cross the river and go to the capitalist heaven. :) jk