Beliefnet
Reprinted from the November 2004 issue of Science & Theology News. Used with permission.

A religious edict in Egypt has ruled that the practice of yoga is a sin. The ruling by the Grand mufti Ali Gomoa, the highest authority on Islamic law, stipulates that yoga "is considered one of the ways of practicing Hinduism."

While Egypt is not an Islamic state, Islam is the main religion. Religious edicts, or fatwas, have no bearing on the legal system in Egypt, but they shape the ideologies of conservative Muslims. The edict, published in the pan-Arab daily newspaper Al-Hayat, called the practice of yoga "an aberration" and said it is "forbidden religiously." It continued: "Even if Muslims do not know the link with Hinduism, it is a sin."

Yoga, an ancient body of poses and techniques from in India, originated as a nexus of spirituality and health. Western scholarship is only now making inroads into researching the specific feelings of serenity and wellbeing practitioners report. Yoga has become popular in the West thanks to the teachers who linked poses with their physiological outcomes and promoted their health benefits.

In most parts of the world, yoga has been divorced from its Hindu origins; practitioners of all faiths do it for exercise and flexibility. As in the United States, yoga classes are offered at many gyms in Egypt. Tourist trips to the Red Sea often include yoga retreats.

"On one side of the spectrum, yoga can be steeped in religion and spirituality, but sometimes it is just physical exercise," said Jennifer Johnson, director of the yoga program at the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Chestnut Hill, Mass. "It is certainly taught as a way to decrease stress, condition and stretch the body."

When Johnston teaches yoga, "it's about connecting within and not connecting to an external dogma," she said. Johnston, who was raised as a Catholic, has had students from all faiths and traditions in her classes. "I like to hope that the world is moving towards integration and collaboration," she said.

"Yoga brings you closer to your religious beliefs," said Randa Thompson, a yoga practitioner who operates the yoga site, www.YogaFinder.com. "We cannot assume because someone practices yoga, they are going to change their religion. The Egyptian ruling is incorrect in its assumption that Yoga converts a person to Hinduism. Yoga would calm their bodies to be more open to a deeper Islamic spiritual practices in Egypt," she added.

Arif Padaria, a venture capitalist in Boston, said that yoga has never conflicted with his Islamic faith. He has practiced yoga off and on for 16 years, mostly to strengthen his back. His sister in Mumbai, India, does it for health reasons, as well. "It's the Hollywood-Bollywood thing to do," Padaria said.

Mukesh Kumar, a yoga instructor in Egypt for three years and diplomat at the Indian Embassy in Cairo, told the Associated Press, "It is neither a religion nor claims to be a substitute for any religion in the world," he said. "I am amazed and wonder why this kind of statement is coming."

Kumar explained that the Indian cultural center in Cairo introduced yoga classes in 1992, and the center is now operating at maximum capacity - 120 registered participants. Eighty percent of them, he said, are Egyptian.

Cairo, with a population of 16 million, is one of the world's busiest cities.

"I don't think it is haram [forbidden religiously]. It is a way of life. It relieves people from stress," he said, adding that Egyptian officials and diplomats are among those enrolled in his classes. "It is a boon for humanity. We have to carry it, and spread it."

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