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The Rape of Yoga - Published in Daily Pioneer

posted Aug 2, 2010, 7:33 PM by Sanjay Saxena   [ updated Aug 2, 2010, 7:37 PM ]

  The rape of Yoga

Aseem Shukla /Sheetal Shah

Apart from distorting it beyond recognition, the proponents of
America's $ 6 billion Yoga industry deny Yoga's inseparability with the Hindu way of life. The philosophy behind Yoga must be extolled

The burgeoning the Yoga industry, built off of $108 Yoga pants contoured to bind and sculpt the body, $185 Yoga studio membership fees and $100 yoga mats custom designed to decrease slippage from sweaty palms, continues to skyrocket in popularity. The latest fad at a spinning studio round the corner: "combination spin and Yoga", where the goal is to burn fat and loosen thigh muscles - ostensibly to decrease that pesky sore hamstring. But that shouldn't be surprising when there already exists Yoga in the nude, yoga and food, and even "Doga" - i.e. yoga with one's pet dog.

Welcome to Yoga 2010 sweeping the
United States @ $ 6 billion per year, where it is legit to pair Yoga with just about anything, including faith. Apart from the aforementioned distortions of a 5,000-year-old science, we now see the rise of "Christian Yoga", "Muslim Yoga", "Kabbalah Yoga" and what have you. 

Each of these "nuanced faith-yogas" have appropriated the knowledge of countless yogis without so much as a nod of gratitude towards Hinduism, the faith that gifted them this treasure. Hinduism today is identified overseas more with holy cows than Gomukhasana, the arduous twisting posture and exotic and erotic gods rather than the unity of divinity of Hindu tradition - that God may manifest and be worshiped in infinite ways; as a religion of incomprehensible ritual rather than the spiritual inspiration of Patanjali, the second century BC commentator and composer of the Yoga Sutras, that has formed the philosophical basis of practical Yoga for millennium. 

As Yoga becomes more "mainstream", its Hindu roots continue to be buried further and further by studios, practitioners and the media. While magazines such as Yoga Journal are replete with references to ancient India, new age blather and even Buddhism, it is only logical to ask why is there so much resistance to openly acknowledging Yoga's inextricable links with Hinduism.

Firstly, perhaps because not all of the great Hindu Yogis who introduced the West to this ancient philosophy took the uncompromising path of a Swami Vivekananda in his open assertion and embrace of his Hindu faith. A generous perspective would be that these more modern yogis and swamis couch their teachings in secular syntax to benefit millions of followers. But a more realistic view would reach far harsher conclusions. The followers of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, under whose tutelage the Beatles steadied their mind, packaged and even trademarked the benefits of meditation as Transcendental Meditation (TM). Yet, a search of the words "Hindu" or "Hinduism" on TM's website reveals not a single instance of either word. 

Contemporary gurus unwisely continue this trend that severs yoga from its very wellsprings of inspiration. From Ayurveda to meditation and Yoga to pranayama and riya, the path of least resistance for acceptance in the West is seen to simply indulge the consumer with homilies to wellness, holistic healing and rewiring the mental hard drive without eliciting the baggage of that pariah term: "Hinduism." 

As these gurus highlight only the universal nature of Yoga while discarding overt references to Hinduism. They end up grabbing the transcendent philosophical fruits of the ancients, leaving Hinduism with stereotyped detritus of incomprehensible ritual and the cliched "caste, cows and curry." As the popularity of Yoga has skyrocketed and spiritual practice has morphed into a $6 billion industry, this delinking has become so prevalent and commonplace that many in the western yoga community are outraged that any faith, particularly one that is now largely associated with colorful rituals and multi-headed gods, could dare claim to be the mother of Yoga.

Critics, such as the American Yoga Association and Deepak Chopra have argued that Yoga predates Hinduism - a term coined just a few hundred years ago. Based on this flawed logic, would these critics also venture to say that neither the Vedas nor the Upanishads nor the Bhagavad Gita are fundamental "Hindu" texts because they all pre-date colonial
India? Would these same critics then take issue with the legendary BKS Iyengar's statement in Light of Yoga that "some asanas are also called after the Gods of the Hindu pantheon and some recall the Avataras, or incarnations of Divine Power"? Or would they perhaps venture to state that Shiva is not a Hindu god because He is mentioned in the opening line of Swami Svatmarama's Hatha Yoga Pradipika. 

Even more baffling are the practitioners who learn to master asanas such as Hanumanasana or Natarajasana while simultaneously denying the Hindu roots of Yoga. Lord Nataraja's eternal dance precedes creation of this universe itself, but when will the Deepak Chopras of the world concede that the spiritual tradition moving to His divine rhythms is what we all accept as Hinduism?

For these self-indulgent appropriators of Yoga in the
US, the end-all-and-be-all of Yoga is asana-based classes. They have not delved into Yoga's foundational scriptures, such as Patajanli's Yoga Sutras. For these "lay" yogis, the focus is on sculpting muscles or simply balancing inSirshasana for 10 minutes, ignoring that the ultimate goal of Yoga is also that of Hinduism: moksha, the attainment of liberation from worldly suffering and from the cycle of birth and rebirth. Yoga 2010 is only a stress-buster, 90 minutes out of the American's day, a few times each week. 

And unfortunately, much of what is practiced in the West is exactly this - asanas in the name of Yoga, making it that much easier to decouple the practice from its Hindu roots. It's rather simple to brush off the idea that Hinduism, or any faith for that matter, can lay claim to a headstand or spinal twist or any physical pose. But for Hindus working toward the ultimate goal of moksha, Yoga is not just an asana practice that can be forgotten after "arising" from savasana. Instead, yoga is lived every minute of everyday and both asana and pranayama are small, but integral components. As Prashant Iyengar, the son of
BKS Iyengar, so aptly states, "There is no physical Yoga and spiritual Yoga. If it is exclusively physical, it won't be Yoga. Yoga is dealing with the entirety; it is a union."

Yoga is not only for Hindus; Hindus do not own yoga. Yoga is Hinduism's gift to humanity to follow, practice and experience. No one will ever be asked to leave their own religion or reject their own theologies or convert to a pluralistic tradition such as Hinduism. Yoga, in its path of regaining mastery over the body, mind and intellect, does not offer ways to believe in God; it offer ways to know God. 

Dr Aseem Shukla, a Minneapolis-based Pediatrician is co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation (
HAF) and may be reached at shuk1011@umn.edu; Sheetal Shah is Director,Development,HAF 


The Great Yoga Debate

posted Nov 22, 2009, 4:46 AM by Sanjay Saxena   [ updated Aug 2, 2010, 7:23 PM ]


The theft of yoga

Nearly 20 million people in the United States gather together routinely, fold their hands and utter the Hindu greeting of Namaste -- the Divine in me bows to the same Divine in you. Then they close their eyes and focus their minds with chants of "Om," the Hindu representation of the first and eternal vibration of creation. Arrayed in linear patterns, they stretch, bend, contort and control their respirations as a mentor calls out names of Hindu divinity linked to various postures: Natarajaasana (Lord Shiva) or Hanumanasana (Lord Hanuman) among many others. They chant their assigned "mantra of the month," taken as they are from lines directly from the Vedas, Hinduism's holiest scripture. Welcome to the practice of yoga in today's western world.

Christians, Jews, Muslims, Pagans, agnostics and atheists they may be, but they partake in the spiritual heritage of a faith tradition with a vigor often unmatched by even among the two-and-a half-million Hindu Americans here. The Yoga Journal found that the industry generates more than $6 billion each year and continues on an incredible trajectory of popularity. It would seem that yoga's mother tradition, Hinduism, would be shining in the brilliant glow of dedicated disciples seeking more from the very font of their passion.

Yet the reality is very different. Hinduism in common parlance is identified more with holy cows than Gomukhasana, the notoriously arduous twisting posture; with millions of warring gods rather than the unity of divinity of Hindu tradition--that God may manifest and be worshiped in infinite ways; as a tradition of colorful and harrowing wandering ascetics more than the spiritual inspiration of Patanjali, the second century BCE commentator and composer of the Yoga Sutras, that form the philosophical basis of Yoga practice today.

Why is yoga severed in America's collective consciousness from Hinduism? Yoga, meditation, ayurvedic natural healing, self-realization--they are today's syntax for New Age, Eastern, mystical, even Buddhist, but nary an appreciation of their Hindu origins. It is not surprising, then, that Hindu schoolchildren complain that Hinduism is conflated only with caste, cows, exoticism and polytheism--the salutary contributions and philosophical underpinnings lost and ignored. The severance of yoga from Hinduism disenfranchises millions of Hindu Americans from their spiritual heritage and a legacy in which they can take pride.

Hinduism, as a faith tradition, stands at this pass a victim of overt intellectual property theft, absence of trademark protections and the facile complicity of generations of Hindu yogis, gurus, swamis and others that offered up a religion's spiritual wealth at the altar of crass commercialism. The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, under whose tutelage the Beatles steadied their mind and made sense of their insane fame, packaged the wonders of meditation as Transcendental Meditation (TM) just as an entrepreneur from here in Minneapolis applied the principles of Ayurveda to drive a commercial enterprise he coined as Aveda. TM and Aveda are trademarked brands--a protection not available to the originator of their brand--Hinduism itself. And certainly these masters benefited millions with their contributions, but in agreeing to ditch Hinduism as the source, they left these gifts orphaned and unanchored.

The Los Angeles Times last week chronicled this steady disembodying of yoga from Hinduism. "Christ is my guru. Yoga is a spiritual discipline much like prayer, meditation and fasting [and] no one religion can claim ownership," says a vocal proponent of "Christian themed" yoga practices. Some Jews practice Torah yoga, Kabbalah yoga and aleph bet yoga, and even some Muslims are joining the act. They are appropriating the collective wisdom of millenia of yogis without a whisper of acknowledgment of yoga's spiritual roots.

Not surprisingly, the most popular yoga journals and magazines are also in the act. Once yoga was no longer intertwined with its Hindu roots, it became up for grabs and easy to sell. These journals abundantly refer to yoga as "ancient Indian," "Eastern" or "Sanskritic," but seem to assiduously avoid the term "Hindu" out of fear, we can only assume, that ascribing honestly the origins of their passion would spell disaster for what has become a lucrative commercial enterprise. The American Yoga Association, on its Web site, completes this delinking of yoga from Hinduism thusly:

"The common belief that Yoga derives from Hinduism is a misconception. Yoga actually predates Hinduism by many centuries...The techniques of Yoga have been adopted by Hinduism as well as by other world religions."

So Hinduism, the religion that has no known origins or beginnings is now younger than yoga? What a ludicrous contention when the Yoga Sutras weren't even composed until the 2nd Century BCE. These deniers seem to posit that Hinduism appropriated yoga so other religions may as well too! Hindus can only sadly shake their heads, as by this measure, soon we will read as to how karma, dharma and reincarnation--the very foundations of Hindu philosophy--are only ancient precepts that early Hindus of some era made their own.

The Hindu American Foundation (Disclosure: I sit on the Foundation's Board) released a position paper on this issue earlier this year. The brief condemns yoga's appropriation, but also argues that yoga today is wholly misunderstood. Yoga is identified today only with Hatha Yoga, the aspect of yoga focused on postures and breathing techniques. But this is only one part of the practice of Raja Yoga that is actually an eightfold path designed to lead the practitioner to moksha, or salvation. Indeed, yogis believe that to focus on the physicality of yoga without the spirituality is utterly rudimentary and deficient. Sure, practicing postures alone with a focus on breathing techniques will quiet the mind, tone the body, increase flexibility--even help children with Attention Deficit Disorder--but will miss the mark on holistic healing and wellness.

All of this is not to contend, of course, that yoga is only for Hindus. Yoga is Hinduism's gift to humanity to follow, practice and experience. No one can ever be asked to leave their own religion or reject their own theologies or to convert to a pluralistic tradition such as Hinduism. Yoga asks only that one follow the path of yoga for it will necessarily lead one to become a better Hindu, Christian, Jew or Muslim. Yoga, like its Hindu origins, does not offer ways to believe in God; it offer ways to know God.

But be forewarned. Yogis say that the dedicated practice of yoga will subdue the restless mind, lessen one's cravings for the mundane material world and put one on the path of self-realization--that each individual is a spark of the Divine. Expect conflicts if you are sold on the exclusivist claims of Abrahamic faiths--that their God awaits the arrival of only His chosen few at heaven's gate--since yoga shows its own path to spiritual enlightenment to all seekers regardless of affiliation.

Hindus must take back yoga and reclaim the intellectual property of their spiritual heritage--not sell out for the expediency of winning more clients for the yoga studio down the street.

By Aseem Shukla  |  April 18, 2010; 10:50 PM ET

co-founder, Hindu American Foundation

Aseem Shukla

Associate Professor in urologic surgery at the University of Minnesota medical school. Co-founder and board member of Hindu American Foundation.


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