A few days ago, as I picked at the lonely avocado on my plate, I overheard a group of girls discussing how much they loved their outdoor yoga session.  I glanced over and noted that they were like countless women in the city, myself included, wearing similar black yoga pants and toting around their own yoga mats.  I wouldn’t have even thought to write about it except I was particularly amused by one girl in the group. 

“I loved it [doing yoga outside] because it gets me in tune with nature…like, I feel one with nature,” she said as she absentmindedly plucked leaves off of a low hanging branch of a nearby tree.

I found this amusing (and a bit distressing), because it seemed that neither she nor anyone at her table saw the disconnectedness between her words and actions.  I point out this incident because it brings up an issue that we at the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) have been highlighting in our Take Back Yoga campaign for the past two years: yoga is not just a physical asana practice, but rather a philosophy, rooted in Hindu thought, of how we should lead our lives at all times, not just during a yoga “class.”  We’ve found that most practitioners readily agree that yoga is more than just a few rounds of surya namaskar, or sun salutations. But it is our second point – the idea that yoga is rooted in Hindu philosophy – that has generated and continues to evoke strong feelings on all sides.

Let’s start with why before we move on to what.  Why, you may be wondering, did HAF feel compelled to create this campaign?  Quite simply, it was due to the various yoga magazines, Yoga Journal, in particular.  After reading countless YJ magazines, we noticed an unusual trend – the words “Hindu” and “Hinduism” almost never appeared in its pages, barring an article about making yogurt at home.  Sacred Hindu texts such as the Bhagavad Gita or the Upanishads were referred to as “ancient Indian,” “yogic,” or even “tantric,” but never as “Hindu.”  Our initial thought was that the magazine was avoiding all religious overtones, but at second glance, that proved to be untrue.  The magazine was replete with references to Buddhism and also included the occasional shout out to “mystical Christianity, Judaism and Sufism.”  While we had no qualms with that, we were perplexed enough to write a letter of inquiry to Yoga Journal.  Unfortunately, the letter did not generate a reply, nor did a couple of follow up phone calls.  Persistent as ever, my boss continued calling until one day, a lady who identified herself as a receptionist and part-time writer for the magazine, actually answered the phone and informed us that the magazine does avoid the word “Hinduism,” because “it carries too much baggage.”

And that was all the spark we needed to launch our campaign.  So, what are we saying?  And what are we asking for?  Over the past two years, with a growing number of media reports on the campaign, there have obviously been some misunderstandings.

Quickly, let’s start with what we are not saying.  We are not saying that Hinduism owns yoga.  We are not saying that yoga is only for Hindus.  We are not saying yoga practitioners must pledge allegiance or convert to Hinduism.

We are saying two things:

  1. Yoga is more than just the physical asana-based practice it has largely become in the US.  The most famous of all yoga texts, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, explains that yoga is composed of eight limbs, asana being just one.
  2. Yoga, in its entirety, is rooted in Hindu philosophy.  Patanjali describes the goal of Yoga as chitta-vritti-nirodha, or “the cessation of mental fluctuations.”  This is also a core concept also expounded in Hinduism’s Bhagavad Gita: “Thus always absorbing one’s self in yoga, the yogi, whose mind is subdued, achieves peace that culminates in the highest state of Nirvana, which rests in me [Lord Krishna/Brahman/Supreme Reality].”

And we are asking for a nod of acknowledgement to the Hindu origins of yoga.  We never thought our simple request would generate so much debate and dialog, not only within the yoga community, but also from the national media and even from self-help Advaita Vedantists.  But it has – from the New York Times to CNN to NPR to Huffington Post.

I realize that this piece only reaches the periphery of the issue and debate.  There is much more to say…and it will be forthcoming in the next few blogs.


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