Yoga: It's Not About Ownership, It's About Origins

yoga on the great lawn photo

Editor's note: Though TreeHugger normally writes about the environmental aspects of yoga, over the weekend Jessica wondered whether a religious group can really own yoga, referring to an awareness campaign about the origins of yoga by the Hindu American Foundation. Well, HAF contacted us asking if they could reply to the Jessica's article, which seemed only fair -- even if we're momentarily deviating from our normal green-themed content. The following is a guest post by Sheetal Shah, Senior Director of HAF.

Something is getting lost in translation here. The New York Times got it right when they wrote, "'Take Back Yoga' does not ask yoga devotees to become Hindu, or instructors to teach more about Hinduism...[the Hindu American Foundation] suggests only that people become more aware of yoga's debt to the faith's ancient traditions."

Yet somehow, neither that statement nor HAF's original piece on yoga, Yoga Beyond Asana, seem to be clear enough for the likes of Deepak Chopra. The Take Back Yoga campaign is not, nor has it ever been about who "owns" yoga. As HAF has said before, no one owns it. Just like a mother gives birth to a child, but does not own the child, so Hinduism gave birth to yoga, but does not own it. Yoga can be practiced by all. So, what exactly is HAF saying?Let's try again. The full name of the campaign is Take Back Yoga: Bringing to Light Yoga's Hindu Roots. It says two key things:

  1. Yoga is much more than just an asana practice, which is currently what it has devolved to in most yoga studios in the West.
  2. Yoga, in its entirety, is rooted in Hindu philosophy.

The point: Let's stop avoiding the "H-word" while attempting to balance in Natarajasana and acknowledge that the teachings of yoga are Hindu.

I am a Hindu and have been brought up in a Hindu household. I have been chanting "Om" and listening to Sanskrit shlokas for as long as I can remember. I have always welcomed people into my home with "Namaste." When I go to the temple, I join my hands in front of my chest and bow my head as a sign of respect. Everything I do in a yoga studio, I have done as a Hindu in my home and at temple.

Yet now, I am hearing that many of my traditions and those of my parents and forefathers are no longer Hindu, but rather yogic or Vedic. Excuse me, but I don't think so. Academics, Western yogis and spiritual self-help gurus who make big bucks off Vedic (read Hindu) philosophy may endlessly argue that "Hindu" and "Vedic" are not the same thing. But perhaps they should take a look at what the average mainstream Hindu believes and see how that compares to "Vedic" and "yogic" philosophies. More likely than not, they will find that the Hindu believes in a single, all pervasive Divine, the laws of karma and dharma, reincarnation and moksha, or ultimate enlightenment. They will also find that the Hindu believes in multiple paths of achieving moksha - be it bhakti yoga, jnana yoga, karma yoga or raja yoga - and that no one is born condemned or saved. And they will find that the Hindu believes in the sanctity of the Vedas. So, what exactly is the earth-shattering difference between a Vedantist and a Hindu?

Let's finally move beyond the linguistic debate and return to the crux of HAF's campaign: Yoga is rooted in Hinduism, and it's time to acknowledge it.

My secular yoga teacher has our class practice Natarajasana each week. Does she know that Nataraja is the Hindu God Shiva? My secular yoga teacher also plays the Sanskrit shloka "Yada yada hi dharmasya" during our practice. And it's not the first time I have heard that played during a yoga class. Do my yoga teachers know that it is a Hindu shloka describing how the Divine will continuously take human form from time to time to ensure the victory of good over evil? My secular yoga teacher quotes Sage Patajanli as she describes "chitta-vritti-nirodha," or complete mental calmness/stability, to be the goal of yoga. Does she know that this is a key concept described in the Bhagavad Gita, a core Hindu text?

Perhaps she doesn't, and that is OK. I am still an avid fan of her classes and attend every week. But that is why HAF's Take Back Yoga campaign is so relevant--it educates. Most yoga classes, even those I attend at the gym, tend to provide guidance beyond just proper asana alignment. Attend enough of them and it should become harder and harder to deny the Hindu roots of yoga. And despite this, it's important to reiterate that Hinduism does not own yoga, nor does one have to be Hindu to practice yoga. To quote HAF's original yoga piece, Yoga Beyond Asana, "Yoga is a means of spiritual attainment for any and all seekers." But just like a child, no matter how far she travels, is always tied to her mother, so yoga will always be rooted in Hindu philosophy.

photo: Matthew McDermott
More on Yoga:
A Spanish Woman Owns the Sun. Now a Religious Group Owns Yoga?
Green Your Mind With Yoga: Ahimsa
Can Yogic Philosophy Save the Planet?
5 Simple Yoga Moves to Beat the Heat Naturally
Ask Pablo: What is the Best Environmental Choice For Yoga Mats?

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