The subtleties of yoga

Last month Southern Baptist Seminary President Albert Mohler reviewed The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America. While he gave the book a favorable review, he used the review as an opportunity to discuss how Christianity and Hinduism differ and why that’s important. Peter Smith at the Louisville Courier-Journal highlighted Mohler’s review and it created a bit of a firestorm. The Associated Press even ran a story, which I dinged for failing to quote any Hindus on the matter, much less Hindus who agree with Mohler that yoga is a Hindu practice.

Paul Vitello at the New York Times mentioned the controversy in his length report headlined “Hindu Group Stirs a Debate Over Yoga’s Soul.” Here’s how the article begins:

Yoga is practiced by about 15 million people in the United States, for reasons almost as numerous — from the physical benefits mapped in brain scans to the less tangible rewards that New Age journals call spiritual centering. Religion, for the most part, has nothing to do with it.

But a group of Indian-Americans has ignited a surprisingly fierce debate in the gentle world of yoga by mounting a campaign to acquaint Westerners with the faith that it says underlies every single yoga style followed in gyms, ashrams and spas: Hinduism.

The campaign, labeled “Take Back Yoga,” does not ask yoga devotees to become Hindu, or instructors to teach more about Hinduism. The small but increasingly influential group behind it, the Hindu American Foundation, suggests only that people become more aware of yoga’s debt to the faith’s ancient traditions.

That suggestion, modest though it may seem, has drawn a flurry of strong reactions from figures far apart on the religious spectrum. Dr. Deepak Chopra, the New Age writer, has dismissed the campaign as a jumble of faulty history and Hindu nationalism. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has said he agrees that yoga is Hindu — and cited that as evidence that the practice imperiled the souls of Christians who engage in it.

The question at the core of the debate — who owns yoga? — has become an enduring topic of chatter in yoga Web forums, Hindu American newspapers and journals catering to the many consumers of what is now a multibillion-dollar yoga industry.

You can read Mohler’s rather more nuanced argument here. The Indian-American group is called the Hindu American Foundation, which can be found here.

I love that the Times is covering this and not mocking the Hindus or others who discuss the debt yoga owes to Hinduism. I’m almost inure to the treatment that folks like Mohler receive at times like this but thought the short shrift to Hindus who advocate for yoga as a Hindu practice was a lost opportunity.

The article explains the origins of the viral debate about how much yoga owes to Hinduism. One of the readers who submitted the story thought the choice of “experts” arguing against yoga’s Hindu origins were a bit weak. They were, in fact, a Brooklyn yoga instructor and Deepak Chopra. We’re told that some religious historians think that yoga originated “in the Vedic culture of Indo-Europeans who settled in India in the third millennium B.C., long before the tradition now called Hinduism emerged.” But we’re not given any religious historians who agree with this. What’s more, the Vedic culture is strongly related to the origins of Hinduism, so some clarification about exactly where the argument differs would be helpful, too.

The reader notes:

Chopra is well-known author and spiritual leader, but is he the best person to comment on the origins of yoga? He’s an endocrinologist and self-help author, not a historian. Given his leading role in the “spiritual not religious” movement, doesn’t he have a vested interest in making sure that yoga is too closely associated with a specific religion?

Of course, the same conflict of interest might be argued for HAF. And the story is really about Chopra and the HAF’s conflict, and HAF’s campaign. I thought this was some great context:

Loriliai Biernacki, a professor of Indian religions at the University of Colorado, said the debate had raised important issues about a spectrum of Hindu concepts permeating American culture, including meditation, belief in karma and reincarnation, and even cremation.

“All these ideas are Hindu in origin, and they are spreading,” she said. “But they are doing it in a way that leaves behind the proper name, the box that classifies them as ‘Hinduism.’”

The debate has also secured the standing of the Hindu American Foundation as the pre-eminent voice for the country’s two million Hindus, said Diana L. Eck, a professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard. Other groups represent Indian-Americans’ interests in business and politics, but the foundation has emerged as “the first major national advocacy group looking at Hindu identity,” she said.

I was going to say that the article should probably note HAF’s Hindu Nationalist approach but Chopra is quoted arguing just that. Perhaps a bit more than a note would be helpful should Hindu identity get the additional coverage it deserves. Still, nice to see this article and the context it provides.

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  • Anonymous

    Deepak Chopra is about as much of an authority on Hinduism as the unspeakable Mr. John Shelby Spong is on Christianity.

    Speaking as a former Hindu, convert to Christianity: I’d say that yoga is certainly a Hindu practice in its essence, though of course it can be secularized and ripped away from its religious origins in the same way that Christmas (in this country) has been converted into an orgy of conspicuous consumption.

    • Cheri Passell

      I couldn’t have said it better myself.

  • Guest

    The Indo-European settling in parts of India and creating the Vedas is part of the myth that is called the Aryan Invasion Theory. With passing years, this theory is losing ground. AIT does not have sturdy legs to stand on.

    • Toronto Guy

      Um, why?

    • Ben

      This is a massive scholarly and political debate, and by no means is it over, though it does seem like momentum (last I checked) is moving away from Aryan Invasion Theory. This was a big debate in regards to California history textbooks:

      Roughly sketched, Hindu nationalism played a role in revisiting an old scholarly consensus around AIT. The scholarship dated from British empire days and the theory helped British power. But in the face of revisionism on AIT, scholars shot back in 2005: Nationalists charged many of these scholars as being Marxists and thereby anti-Hindu; the scholars charged the revisionists as being Hindu nationalists looking to change history for their own agenda, which at times has been linked to communal violence.

      I don’t know where impartial scholarship stands these days on the question as it’s been heavily polluted with claims of political agendas on all sides.

  • Jerry

    Looking for two sides to a question reminds me of a joke that goes something like: there’s your side and then there’s my side and then there’s the truth.

    These stories are based on erroneous assumptions and betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of history and what yoga is all about. This is exactly equivalent to the points the GR bloggers have made qite often about stories not reflecting what Christianity is all about and including doctrinal specifics.

    Some specific points:

    The small but increasingly influential group

    Where is the evidence for that claim of increasing influence outside of many talking about them which does not necessarily equal real influence?

    The argument about the Hindu roots of Yoga also reminds me of the argument about the Christian roots of America. I think the analogy works pretty well since both Yoga as practiced in the US and our system of government had deep religious roots but the current instantiation of both is pretty far from those roots.

    Many histories of Yoga such as and give dates in the 3000BC range which predates what is called Hinduism today. In addition, the yoga sutras were written somewhere two thousand years ago much after it’s origin. So to say Yoga is a Hindu practice is to tie the two together in a specific time frame which is a mistake unless you make the point that Hinduism and the Yoga Sutras as we know them today developed together in roughly the same time frame.

    So probably the best way of putting it is that what is called Hinduism today incorporated pre-existing forms of Yoga in the same way as Christianity today has incorporated certain pagan elements as discussed in many places including

    From another frame of reference describes what most think of as yoga, some elements of which are identical to Christianity and some which are different:

    * Ahimsa: non-violence, inflicting no injury or harm to others or even to one’s ownself, it goes as far as nonviolence in thought, word and deed.
    * Satya: truth in word & thought.
    * Asteya: non-covetousness, to the extent that one should not even desire something that is not his own.
    * Brahmacharya: abstain from sexual intercourse; celibacy in case of unmarried people and monogamy in case of married people. Even this to the extent that one should not possess any sexual thoughts towards any other man or woman except one’s own spouse. It’s common to associate Brahmacharya with celibacy.
    * Aparigraha: non-possessiveness
    * Niyama refers to the five observances
    * Shaucha: cleanliness of body & mind.
    * Santosha: satisfaction; satisfied with what one has.
    * Tapas: austerity and associated observances for body discipline & thereby mental control.
    * Svadhyaya: study of the Vedic scriptures to know about God and the soul, which leads to introspection on a greater awakening to the soul and God within,
    * Ishvarapranidhana: surrender to (or worship of) God.

    If you look at these, it’s easy to substitute study of the Bible for study of Vedic scriptures to derive a Christian form of yoga. Thus we now have Christian yoga practitioners such as

  • Revjohndye

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    • Irarifkin

      Why has this post not been removed? It seems to defy all that GR claims to be about.

    • Jon in the Nati

      Just like Facebook, GR clearly needs a dislike button.

  • Jay Cal

    I am an Indian who lives in the US with an American wife. The
    community I come from are practitioners of ancient Indian medicine,
    which probably makes them have a greater claim to Yoga than any other.

    Let’s start with Hinduism. It is not a religion like Christianity,
    Judaism or Islam. It does not have one central book which adherents
    must profess to believe. Rather there are many different works which
    may be classified as “Hindu”, some philosophical, some dogmatic, and
    others merely to advance the cause of some castes over others.

    The society which produced the Hindu philosophical ideas also produced
    Yoga, and of course the two are intertwined. Yoga is a means of being
    healthy, and it recognizes that to be healthy one also needs to have a
    healthy mind. The ancient Indians who developed Yoga were very
    perceptive of human nature, and Yoga was a product of their
    perceptiveness and wisdom.

    You can quite easily substitute belief in a divine being with a name
    different than Krishna or Shiva, and practice Yoga as correctly as its
    founders intended. So, yes, you don’t have be be a “Hindu” to be a
    Yogi, but you do have to believe in some ideas (like some form of a
    divine being, the futility of excessive consumerism, an amount of
    detachment from the material world, etc.) to be complete Yogi. Mental
    health is an intrinsic part of Yoga.

    The movement to “reclaim” Yoga to “Hinduism” is important, if only
    because commercialism of Yoga takes it away from true Yoga. There
    should be more reference to the historical roots of Yoga. It is not
    something that anyone can come along and make better. It is important
    to preserve the wisdom of Yoga, and this is threatened by “celebrity
    teachers/gurus” who have a distorted understanding of Yoga and whose
    goal is wealth and fame.

    • Micheal Hickerson

      Jay Cal, that’s an excellent point about the nature of Hinduism, which makes Chopra’s comment about “Yoga isn’t Hindu, it’s Vedic” all the more confusing to me. Do you (or anyone else reading this blog) have insight as to why someone would emphasize the distinction between “Hindu” and “Vedic”?

      • Anonymous

        I don’t know (and am not particularly interested) in Mr. Chopra’s thought processes, but here’s a guess: Hinduism is much bigger than the Vedas, in the same sense that Christianity is bigger than the Bible. (More so, actually, since the Vedas are older than the New Testament and Hindu thought has been evolving continuously for even longer than Christian thought has).

        There are some people who will tell you that they believe in the ‘pure’, philosophical, monistic thought system found (purportedly) in the Vedas, but have little time for the stories about gods, demons, incarnations, spirits, and so forth found in the later Hindu texts. In something like the same way that some people will tell you that they don’t believe in, say, the Chalcedonian/Nicene/Athanasian teaching about Christ because ‘one person, two natures’ isn’t explicitly in the Bible, or whatever.

        Perhaps one of the practicing Hindus who read this blog can comment on to what extent that view of the Vedas is accurate- for the few years that I was a Hindu (and I was more one by default then anything else) I always found the theistic, ‘popular’ Hinduism of the stories and epics much more interesting and compelling than the more abstract, philosophical side.

  • Ron Krumpos

    In Hinduism, bhakti yoga is our devotion in love and adoration of the divine. Jnana yoga is knowledge of the way to approach the divine. Both are considered paths to realize divine union and to be released from samsara, the cycle of birth and rebirth. The way of devotion is the preferred path of most Hindu movements, as in many orthodox religions; the way of knowledge is emphasized in Vedanta; preferred and emphasized, perhaps, but they are not mutually exclusive. Karma yoga is the way of selfless action. Raja yoga can apply to, and integrate, all three in mental and spiritual concentration. Hatha yoga is for mental and physical health. It is the latter which is most familiar in the West.

  • Sshah

    Just a fact check: The Hindu American Foundation is not an Indian American organization but a Hindu American organization — there is a difference. Sure the majority of Hindus are Indian, but there are a growing number who are not. Also, Mollie’s point about HAF’s “Nationalist approach” doesn’t make much sense for an that’s American. Deepak Chopra cheap shot to discredit his opponent as a Nationalist was more about strawman’s arguments in lieu of making any coherent arguments to support his position. Deepak Chopra is famous for calling himself an Advaita Vedantin — Advaita Vedanta is one of the major schools of non-dualistic Hindu philosophy — the man is part of the problem of having made “Hindu” a bad word.

    • Anonymous

      Re: Deepak Chopra is famous for calling himself an Advaita Vedantin — Advaita Vedanta is one of the major schools of non-dualistic Hindu philosophy — the man is part of the problem of having made “Hindu” a bad word.

      Amen to that.

  • Arodgers

    Maybe I’m missing something, but I’ve never spotted any Hindu nationalist bent in the Hindu American Foundation. On the contrary, they seem to be a thoughtful group that is deeply involved in interfaith relations and which avoids fringe causes. They’ve condemned attacks against Muslims and church burnings in the United States. They don’t seem to say anything about anything that goes on in India, which I’ve always associated with their desire to keep their focus on America.