Om Sweet Om

Om Sweet Om


Is Asana Religious?

posted by sheetal

Last week, I received an inquiry from a Christian theologian interested in showing that “the postures of Yoga” (asana) are directly tied to Hinduism and thus, cannot be easily incorporated into daily life by Christians.  While the origin of yoga is undoubtedly tied to the Hindu sacred texts, the Vedas and Upanishads, I struggled with his idea of researching asana divorced from yoga in its entirety.

As we at the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) have repeatedly said, asana alone is not yoga.   It is but one of the eight limbs of yoga, albeit the most well-known and the limb through which most people begin to explore yoga.  But to attempt to draw conclusions on the theistic nature of yoga by examining only posture is problematic.  If posture alone is religious, then what is difference between a headstand in gymnastics and shirshasana in yoga practice?  If it’s only about posture, then are all gymnasts who do headstands also doing something religious?

A cursory exploration of the sacred yoga texts, particularly Patanjali’s much-revered Yoga Sutra, will easily demonstrate that more important than the posture itself is the intention behind it.  It is the intention – on and off the mat – that determines whether a practice is yoga or not.  If the intention is to purely reap physical health from posture – strength, flexibility, stress reduction  – then the asana practice is not theistic and thus, not yoga.

But it’s important to step back for a moment to look at the bigger picture and examine what the reason is for all the postures as they relate to Hindu practice and philosophy?  In Hindu scripture, “asana” is primarily used to be mean “seat,” and more importantly, a seat for meditation on the Divine.   The postures in yoga were developed with the intention that by their regular practice, the individual will remain healthy and fit enough to sit comfortably for extended periods and meditate on the Divine.   The average person cannot suddenly sit down one day and start meditating.   Our bodies have not been trained to sit still for even a few minutes, and as many of us have undoubtedly experienced, various limbs begin to fall asleep within minutes.  Second, our mind has not been trained toconcentrate (Patanjali differentiates between concentration – dharana – and meditation – dhyana).  Anyone who has closed her eyes and tried to concentrate on a mantra or any single object can attest to the difficulty of staying focused.  The mind has a tendency to constantly wander, jumping from one thought to the next because we have not spent time training it to concentrate.

In Ashtanga yoga (as taught by Pattabhi Jois), which is what I practice, the body is trained through the various asanas and the mind is trained through focus on the breath combined with drishti (or gaze).  The postures keep us engaged in the practice.  By focusing our gaze at the the tip of our nose, for example, we no longer pay attention to what is happening on the neighboring mat and thereby, enhance our ability to focus on our own breath.  Slowly, the body opens up, and the power to concentration strengthens.

Naturally, that begs the question, why do we need to concentrate?  Because concentration, or being present, allows us to focus inwards on our Divine self.  As we further develop this focus, we find that we  can focus on making our every thought, word, and action selfless and thus, worthy offerings to the Divine that resides in us all.But therein lies what I see as the fundamental disconnect with the teachings of yoga and exclusivist traditions that insist on acceptance or belief in a particular, external, and patriarchal God.

Yoga is one of the six schools of Hindu thought, and Hinduism is a pluralistic tradition.  Hinduism, and thus yoga, teach that ALL beings can reach union with the Divine, regardless of which name one chooses to call God, be it Shiva, Jesus, or Allah, because the Divine is One and within each of us.  It is not the religion or God an individual professes to that matters.  It is her karma that matters.  And by karma, I mean the combination of one’s thoughts, actions, and intention behind actions.  Part and parcel of karma is being in the present and focusing on the task at hand without worrying about the future result or reminiscing about the past.  The past is gone, and we cannot change it or relive it.  The future is out of our control.  It is only our present actions and thoughts that we can control.  Yet, most of us are motivated by or attached to the future intended results of our actions.   In Ashtanga yoga, the combination of posture, breath, and gaze teaches us how to be in the present.   And when we commit to its regular practice over a long period of time, we notice that we are better able to focus on the present throughout our day, even when we are not on the yoga mat.

Karma also simplistically refers to a metaphysical principle of cause and effect; our thoughts and actions produce appropriate and corresponding outcomes.  And these outcomes may span over lifetimes.  How else can we explain why “bad” things happen to “good” people?  Thus, along with a genuine belief in karma comes the corollary concept of reincarnation of the soul.   Both are absolutely necessary, not only to fully understand the eight limbs of yoga, but to truly benefit from the intended purpose of asana.

The point of yoga is to help us reach such a stage in our spiritual development, which has occurred over countless births in various physical bodies, where our actions no longer accrue new karma, or corresponding outcomes that must be experienced.  Thus, we are freed from the need to experience those outcomes, and freed from this continuous cycle of birth and death.  This freedom from reincarnation, also known as moksha, is open to all, regardless of religion, race, gender, or sexual preference.

Thus, in yoga there are no “saved” or “condemned” people.  There are only individuals at various stages in their journey toward moksha.   And, just as importantly, there is no one single path to moksha because we are all inherently different in nature.  What works for me may not work for you.  Hinduism recognizes that and because of its universal and pluralistic nature, anyone, regardless of their professed religion, can practice asana without converting to Hinduism. However, the intended purpose of asana in the practice of yoga —  to prepare the mind and body for samadhi, and ultimately, moksha — may place some practitioners in a metaphysical or religious quandary.



  • http://www.vasumurti.org VasuMurti

    A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami writes in The Path of Perfection:

    “Yoga does not mean going to some class, paying some money, engaging in gymnastics, and then returning home to drink, smoke, and engage in sex. Such yoga is practiced by societies of the cheaters and the cheated…

    “If one tells you that you can indulge in sex as much as you like and at the same time become a yogi, he is cheating you. If some so-called guru tells you to give him money in exchange for some mantra and that you can go on and engage in all kinds of nonsense, he is just cheating you. Because we want something sublime and yet want it cheaply, we put ourselves in a position to be cheated…

    “…if we want perfection in yoga, we have to pay for it by abstaining from sex. Perfection in yoga is not something childish, and Bhagavad-gita instructs us that if we try to make yoga into something childish, we will be cheated. There are many cheaters awaiting us, waiting to take our money, giving us nothing, and then leaving.”

  • Satya Kalra

    Today, tragically, the word “yoga” is being used interchangeably
    with “asana.” Asanas are wonderful. They are crucial to keep the body flexible, healthy and strong. The body is a temple of the Divine; hence to care for it is vital. Further, asanas, if practiced with devotion can carry one into a state of divine
    connection. However, according to Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga and according to the teachings of Bhagawan Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, asana is only a part of yoga. In Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga, asana is limb number three. The foundation of
    yoga is the yamas and niyamas – the way we live our lives, or our “yoga
    off the mat.” And beyond asana also there is so much, ultimately leading us to Samadhi or true union with the divine. I am so glad that Satya Kalra is encouraging readers and practitioners through her Pocket book, “Yoga beyond asana…” The Complete Guide for Blissful Life” on the teachings of yoga in the Bhagavad Gita
    to delve deep into spirituality, through asana and also beyond asana, to reach not only for their toes, but also to reach for Divine Union!

    http://www.amazon.com/Beyond-Asana-Complete-Blissful-Anandam-ebook/dp/B007WU4A3O/ref=tmm_kin_title_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=1-8&qid=1406052320

    With love and blessings,
    In
    the service of God and humanity,

    Swami Chidand Saraswathi

  • http://www.HAFsite.org Mihir Meghani

    Hindu American Foundation’s Sheetal Shah’s Om Sweet Om is a great column because it bring out the essence of Hindu beliefs relating to spirituality, religion and current affairs. This particular piece gives great insight into what yoga is supposed to achieve and its Hindu origins. Unfortunately, some Indian Marxist leaders and some ignorant people have tried to delink yoga from Hinduism. It is quite clear to an average Hindu that yoga is a contribution of Hinduism to the world, but one does not have to be Hindu to practice it or benefit. But yoga is more than the physical form, and that is the focus of this piece. Hinduism and yoga are pluralist, and are open to anyone, and anyone may benefit from its various schools and traditions.

  • classyoga

    Of course, all of real Yoga is the Hindu religion. Therefore, any Yoga divorced from Hinduism is fraudulent. HAF has undertaken a failed “Take back Yoga campaign.” It is clear that the masses want nothing to do with the Hindu religion; therefore, the so-called “yoga” of today is either simply an exercise routine for money or a vague so-called “spirituality” for money. The question is, “Why have the Hindus let this happen?” The perversions of Hindu/Yoga are by no means the first of many Sanskrit/Hindu terms and concepts to be taken out of context and completely distorted: Swastika, Aryan, Karma, Guru, Mantra, Kundalini and Chakras, to name of few.

    Obviously, the problem lies with the Hindus. Laziness, lack of cooperation and deep insight are some of the problems. Hindus who have been taught a misguided type of “universalism” are a huge part of the problem. This pompous attitude is reflected in confused statements like: “Hinduism and thus yoga, teach that ALL beings can reach union with the divine, regardless of which name one choose to call God , be it Shiva, Jesus, or Allah, because the divine is One and within each of us.” A thoughtful person should reflect deeply on such a statement. Why “God?” There is really is no “God” in Hinduism/Yoga. Would the followers of Jesus and Allah, say the same thing? Such confused statements are the very reason why there is this phony non-Hindu “yoga.” Lacking insight (but assuming they have it) Universalist Hindus become their own worst enemy and then wonder why they are such easy targets for theft! Sheetal, for example, follows a distortion of Patanjali’s Astanga Yoga and Jois who made innumerable non-Hindu phony yoga teachers. His followers are also behind implementing phony yoga into the California school system.

    The bottom line is that there is no real Yoga without Hindu Dharma and there is no Hinduism without (real) Yoga. Anyone can study (with recognition) the Hindu/Yogic Dharma: Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Raja Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Hatha Yoga, Mantra Yoga, Japa Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, Nada Yoga and Nata Yoga. BTW, Hatha Yoga is actually the one that is supposed to be kept rather secret. Why? Just look around for the answer. However, only the qualified Hindu (and one can become a Hindu) can teach all of Yoga and not for a fee. Some of us have been trying for decades to get
    Hindus to wake-up to the theft of their religion. There are even “Hindus” who align with the spurious Yoga Alliance. And, more than one Swami has been denied teaching a “yoga class” because: 1. They are not “certified.” 2. They are teaching within a Hindu context! Phony yoga (with all of its scandals) is now so entrenched in modern consciousness that it will take a monumental effort to reverse this violation.
    Swami Param
    Dharma Yoga Ashram
    http://www.classicalyoga.org

    • Indian

      Thank you Swami Ji. Absolutely agree with your point of view. Gandhi started this rubbish that all religions are same. ( Easwara Allah there nam business)

  • classyoga

    BTW, over ten years ago, I was the moderator for Belief net’s yoga discussion. However, when I stated that all of real Yoga is Hinduism, a group of phony yoginis got together and had me removed as moderator. They are a very militant group reflected in such statements as “It is our Yoga now, who cares what the Hindus think.”

  • classyoga

    Please go to Yogatrail.com Here you will see a dizzying array of phony yoga. It is truly amazing and truly sad that our sacred Hindu/Yoga teachings and practices have been so perverted!
    Swami Param

    • YogaTrail

      Well, you’re on there too, Swami…

      • classyoga

        Somebody has to stand up to the phony yogis and inform the naïve public.

  • me

    WORDS OF JESUS CHRIST from the holy bible ( matthew chapter five – seven ), you can discuss with your christian friends : – seek first the kingdom of GOD within…go in your chamber ( dark room at JESUS time ) and dont use much words while you pray cause your father in heaven knows already what you need ( praying without words )…blessed are those, who are poor in spirit ( no thoughts )…..if the eye is single, the body will be filled with light ( single eye-pineal gland that glows and fill the body with the light of GOD….this is yoga, which means connection and you connect to GOD via meditation in the most possible deepest way…JESUS : iam in the father and you are in me….this is sanatana dharma

    • classyoga

      This is absurd trying to make Christianity, Hinduism/Yoga. This is a clear example of confusing generalities and specifics. Yes, there is much in common with the various religions, but to not respect their specifics is ludicrous, at best. BTW, there was no “Jesus the Christ.” There was, apparently a Jewish Rabbi named Yeshua, but the rest is all made up and look at the problems that were created because of that delusion.

  • Prakash Shah
  • http://www.newbergfumc.org/pastor-bob/ Pastor Bob

    I am a Christian and I have incorporated Hatha Yoga asanas into my daily practice. I have also explored the philosophy Yoga, including an investigation of Pantanjali’s classic Yoga sutras. I suppose I would describe myself as a Christian pluralist. I have found that while my Christian roots nurture me, I am enriched by the practice and insights of other faiths. My encounter with other faiths has enriched and strengthened my Christian faith. I believe my sharing of Christianity in interfaith conversations and interactions has likewise enriched the experience of my Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Shik, Suffi, Native American friends as well.

  • Murugan2

    Someday Lord Surya will expand and all your vain orthodoxies will be swallowed up and reduced to atoms. Those atoms will be realigned and recycled into new forms. All of your careful separation of your group from other groups is an affront to the infinite creation.

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