I’m always surprised at how many people don’t know the relationship of yoga to Hinduism. The Washington Post/Newsweek “On Faith” had a piece on the topic a few months ago. In “The Theft of Yoga,” Aseem Shukla, an associate professor in urologic surgery at the University of Minnesota medical school and co-founder and board member of Hindu American Foundation, wrote:
Yogis say that the dedicated practice of yoga will subdue the restless mind, lessen one’s cravings for the mundane material world and put one on the path of self-realization-that each individual is a spark of the Divine. Expect conflicts if you are sold on the exclusivist claims of Abrahamic faiths — that their God awaits the arrival of only His chosen few at heaven’s gate-since yoga shows its own path to spiritual enlightenment to all seekers regardless of affiliation. Hindus must take back yoga and reclaim the intellectual property of their spiritual heritage.
I subscribe to the Hindu American Foundation news and this is a common theme. They really want non-Hindus to understand that yoga is a Hindu practice. They send out quotes, announcements about temple openings — complete with an explanation of and workshops for yoga and its philosophy — and snippets of stories where Hindus are defending the practice of yoga.
OK, so Southern Baptist Seminary President Albert Mohler reviewed “The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America” last week. While he gave the book a favorable review, he agreed with the view of the Hindu American Foundation and others who say that the exclusivist claims of Christianity are at odds with yoga. You can imagine which side Mohler stands on.
And then all hell broke loose.
I first heard about the essay over at Peter Smith’s blog. He’s the religion reporter at the Louisville Courier-Journal. He simply quoted a brief excerpt from the column and got more comments than he normally gets. And even though Mohler is a prolific writer, the Associated Press even noticed this particular essay and wrote about the controversy:
Other Christian leaders have said practicing yoga is incompatible with the teachings of Jesus. Pat Robertson has called the chanting and other spiritual components that go along with yoga “really spooky.” California megachurch pastor John MacArthur called yoga a “false religion.” Muslim clerics have banned Muslims from practicing yoga in Egypt, Malaysia and Indonesia, citing similar concerns.
Yoga proponents say the wide-ranging discipline, which originated in India, offers physical and mental healing through stretching poses and concentration.
“Lots of people come to yoga because they are often in chronic pain. Others come because they think it’s a nice workout,” said Allison Terracio, who runs the Infinite Bliss studio in Louisville.
And some yoga studios have made the techniques more palatable for Christians by removing the chanting and associations to eastern religions, namely Hinduism and its multiple deities.
The article is about the controversy, not the underlying issue. As someone who has done a bit of yoga, I think the topic of whether the exercises can be secularized and adopted by non-Hindus is tremendously important and fascinating. But I was still shocked that no Hindus were quoted in the piece. Many would say that removing the religious aspect from the exercise makes it something completely different — something like rigorous stretching exercises.
Mohler, in a follow-up, notes that he’s been deluged with mail, but that none of it dealt substantively with his criticisms of syncretizing yoga and Christianity. Part of that could be because — apart from the Washington Post “On Faith” discussion I mentioned earlier — it’s rare to see a good debate on the religious dimensions of yoga and what it means, in a religious sense, to practice yoga. A story about the controversy Mohler caused is a good start but perhaps a few Hindu voices would have been preferable to the Pat Robertson and “spooky” quotes above.