From the Huffington Post: Is Yoga a Hindu Practice?
Minneapolis, MN (March 5, 2012) - As a regularly featured blogger on the Huffington Post, HAF's Managing Director, Suhag Shukla, provides a Hindu American perspective on various issues. Below is Ms. Shukla's latest piece. Please post your comments directly on the Huffington Post by clicking here.
"We are of the view that yoga, which originates from Hinduism, combines physical exercise, religious elements, chanting and worshipping for the purpose of achieving inner peace and ultimately to be one with god."
"The bare fact is that yoga is a spiritual discipline by which the adherent is trained to use the body as a vehicle for achieving consciousness of the divine."
As a Hindu advocate and one of the several brains behind the Hindu American Foundation's Take Back Yoga Project, these statements could easily be mine or those of my colleagues' in our quest to bring to light yoga's Hindu roots. But they are not. These acknowledgements of yoga being a spiritual and Hindu discipline are actually from the most ironic of bedfellows -- Abdul Shukor Husin, chairman of Malaysia's top Islamic body, and Dr. Albert Mohler, the President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Granted, Husin and Mohler do not represent or speak for all Muslims and Christians, respectively, but their conclusions are worth considering.
As a Hindu, the answer to "Is yoga a Hindu practice?" is obvious, and demands a more important question: Why are we even having this debate? I offer three reasons: 1) The $6 billion yoga industry's cater-to-the-masses, bottom-line delinking of yoga from Hinduism has significantly secularized, plagiarized or mutated yoga, almost beyond recognition; 2) many of the Hindu yoga gurus who have traveled to America, over-emphasized the "universal" and de-emphasized the "Hindu," in their hopes of sharing, and perhaps making more palatable for Westerners, their own profound experiences of Self-realization and the systems by which anyone could strive for the same; and 3) our American tendency to "reduce, reuse, recycle" combined with cafeteria-style spirituality and an unhealthy serving of religious illiteracy has played its part as well in muddying the waters unnecessarily. With that out of the way, onto my offering to this debate's question.
Yoga is a Hindu practice and how one arrives at this conclusion depends a great deal on how one defines yoga. I've said here before, yoga is the practice of preparing oneself to yoke, unite or experience the Divine within (i.e. Consciousness). Yoga is about attaining chitta-vritti-nirodha (cessation of mental fluctuations), and ultimately, moksha, or liberation from worldly suffering and the cycle of birth and rebirth. Yoga is a combination of both physical and spiritual discipline, the key word being "combination," with an emphasis on the spiritual. The popular understanding of yoga, however, too often begins and ends with asana (physical posture). The truth is that asana accounts for only a small sliver of yoga. Nonetheless, asanas, named as they are after the many avatars of the Hindu pantheon and with their tremendous psycho-physiological and psycho-spiritual effects, have proven to be the gateway for millions into the heart of yoga, which is a seeker-lifestyle defined by a specific philosophy and purpose.
The inter-connected, metaphysical principles that form the core of yoga are the core of Hinduism. While these principles have informed other Dharma traditions, they are quite different from the central principles of the Abrahamic traditions. First, karma, a universal law of cause and effect, is the mechanism by which we create karmic debits and credits through our actions (thoughts, words, deeds). Some may argue, "Well, every tradition has this 'do unto others' type Golden Rule." One of the key difference for the law of karma is that one's karmic balance sheet is zeroed out over many lifetimes.
Integral to the belief and understanding of karma then is the second principle of samsara, or reincarnation. Hindus believe that the immortal soul or Consciousness evolves by experiencing varied lives through a process wherein the soul takes on different physical bodies through cycles of birth and death. Any notions of eternal hells, heavens or salvation do not fit in this transcendental equation.
These two related concepts feed into a third metaphysical principle which is that Consciousness is present in all living things. What does that really mean? It means no promised land, no chosen people, no requirement to accept any one prophet, no my way or the highway --- it's just each and every one of us, regardless of how we identify our outer-selves, owning our potential to realize or experience the Divine within on a spiritual path to which we are inclined.
Christianizing, Judeo-fying or secularizing the Sanskrit terminology, or even cutting out the Oms and Namastes isn't enough of a twist to cleanse yoga of its guiding principles. Yes, the beauty of yoga is that it can be both flexible and fluid, but without its metaphysical, Hindu bones, yoga falls flat on its face.