≡ Menu

Branding Yoga, Branding India: More Commentary on Yoga and Hinduism Connection

in YD News, Yoga Feuds

UPDATED: Further commentary on the Hindu American Foundation’s “Take Yoga Back” Campaign, and Yoga history and connection with religion in general –  from authors Stefanie Syman, Mark Singleton, Deepak Chopra, and Hindu American Foundation co-founder, Suhag A. Shukla, Esq.

Via Times of India Op-Ed – “Yoga’s appeal is universal”

Yoga gives cultural weight to Brand India, enhancing it by displaying the multifarious facets of our society.

Subsuming yoga strictly within Hinduism misconstrues both the practice and the faith. Undoubtedly, there is a multiplicity of forms of yoga, but they may be practised by anyone. To constrict the varieties of the art within any particular religious, cultural or even personal order detracts from the universal availability and applicability of yoga by imposing ownership on the common fruits of Indian civilisation. After all, India has always been an inclusive culture. Nor has yoga been practised exclusively by Hindus.

Via Stefanie Syman, thesubtlebody.net, author The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga In America:

As for that $6 billion yoga industry we’re often reminded of, it’s a highly fragmented one. People like Deepak Chopra or Bikram Choudhury who have built “empires” on traditional Hindu knowledge without, in Dr. Shukla’s view, giving it its due, are outliers. Most yoga teachers scrape by, just like the rest of America’s dwindling middle class.

Far from lamenting Hinduism’s loss of control of yoga, Dr. Shukla should be gladdened by the discipline’s proven ability to open Americans up to India and Hinduism.

Meanwhile, we seem to be navigating the poles represented by Dr. Shukla—yoga isn’t Hindu enough—and Dr. Mohler, who believes yoga is too Hindu for Christians, rather gracefully. Most of us who practice yoga have some sense of its Hindu roots and yet don’t feel as constrained by that fact as Dr. Mohler wishes.

LISTEN: Earlier today Stefanie Syman and Mark Singleton, author of Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, spoke on the topic of Yoga and Religion on WYNC.org’s Brian Lehrer show. Listen here.

Deepak Chopra weighs in at HuffPo, ‘Who Owns Yoga?’ :

The Hindu American Foundation is as mad about the “brand” running out as they were a year or two ago, and their claim is just as unfounded. There was bread and wine before the Last Supper, flies and frogs before the curses that Jehovah visited on Egypt and Yoga before Hinduism.

Nevertheless, what is certain is that ancient Vedic culture, which lays claim to being the first written spiritual tradition in the world, is much older than the loosely formed religion, Hinduism, that sprang from it. The spiritual practice of Yoga was part of Vedic culture long before Hinduism. In the interests of generosity, maybe we should refer to a famous Sanskrit aphorism, Vasudev Kutumbukam: “the world is my family.” Yoga is India’s gift to the world, and it would be a shame to bring back the phrase Indian giver, now banished from polite conversation, with a new meaning.

Indians would do well to lighten up. With a burgeoning economy at home and a return to importance on the world stage, Indian pride is getting more than its share of strokes.

Having written about spirituality for many years, I’d like to point out that the whole point of Yoga is to achieve enlightenment, and that the most revered practitioners, whether known as yogis, swamis or mahatmas, transcend religion. In fact, even if Yoga were granted a patent or copyright by the U.S. Patent Office, there is no denying that enlightenment has always been outside the bounds of religion.

12/3/10 Suhag A. Shukla, Esq., Co-Founder, Hindu American Foundation, via HuffPo “Of course no one owns yoga” and the “H-word aversion” :

…folks still don’t get that it’s not at all about ownership, but about origins. It’s not about branding, but about acknowledgement. It’s not about conversion, but about self realization. It’s about understanding that yoga is but one of Hinduism’s great contributions to humanity.

On history and origin:

It started back in 2008, with the Yoga Journal. The summer issue was not particularly different from any other — the mantra of the month, the sacred Hindu symbol, Om, sprinkled throughout the magazine, advertisements for products like bottom-shaping yoga pants and sticky yoga toe socks, and, of course, feature articles offering advice, insight and wisdom on yoga. What we did not find, however, was any reference to Hinduism. In fact, Buddhism, Christianity and Judaism were more overtly associated with the discipline.

It was as if the Yoga Journal, as well as much of the $6 billion yoga industry, had agreed to some sort of unwritten covenant to use code words rather than what they deemed the unmarketable “H-word.”

But call it what you may, Sanatana Dharma, Vedic traditions and Hinduism are synonymous. Hindus have long self-referred to our way of life as Sanatana Dharma — the Eternal Law or Way which has no beginning and no end in history.

On Chopra:

Deepak Chopra’s take is different, and absolutely wrong — at least in what he has articulated here on the Huffington Post. He is going beyond delinking yoga from Hinduism; he is actually proffering to delink the Vedas from Hinduism!

He writes books on Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed and then specifies to Larry King that he is not a Hindu but an Advaita Vedantin (Advaita Vedanta is one of the most influential schools of Hindu philosophy). See a pattern of denial here?



17 comments… add one
  • There is a more inclusive way for everyone, including Dr. Albert Mohler, to agree and get along.


  • I’m about to listen to this:

    “Mark Singleton, author of Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, and Stefanie Syman, author of The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America, talk about the origins and links between yoga and religion.”

  • Oh! You already posted it. I think I was reading the shortened post.

  • Gotta love Deepak, always have 🙂

  • What is “Hinduism” anyway? According to this article by Sadhguru, it’s just a geographic identity rather than a religious one: http://www.deccanchronicle.com/op-ed/hindu-way-life-768

    Which would mean that if yoga has Hindu roots, it’s only because it was developed in the region now known as India. “Being a Hindu does not mean having a particular belief system; there is no particular God or ideology which one can call as the Hindu way of life.”–Sadhguru

  • As usual, the truth is considerably more complex, and luckily, one can read what many consider the truth in all its glorious complexity in Georg Feuerstein’s The Yoga Tradition.

    Anyone looking to Feuerstein to prove Chopra or Shukla right and the other wrong will be sorely disappointed. Feuerstein provides copious support for both points of view.

    The fact is, Yoga grew up as an integral part of the Hindu history AND developed a rebellious anti-establishment life of its own early on. Now only that, Yoga was intimately intertwined with the development of other religions as well, most obviously Buddhism, Sikkism, Jainism, Sufism, and others I can’t remember at the moment, but which Feuerstein goes into in some detail.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor
    Elephant Journal

  • Bob, that’s quite a diplomatic resolution to the issue! But isn’t the question more about Yoga’s origins, rather than who co-opted it? And can’t it only have one origin?

  • Hi, Becky. That’s a good question. My answer would be no, Yoga doesn’t have one single identifiable origin, the way, say, Buddhism does, or Christianity. (And clearly neither does “Hinduism”.)

    The origins of Yoga are hundreds, if not thousands of years in pre-history. By the time Yoga was recorded in oral history and then the most ancient texts, it was already a diverse bubbling cauldron of philosophies and practices shooting out in different directions.

    (And I would not apply the word “co-opted” to describe that complex organic process.)

    Bob W.
    Elephant Journal

  • I think I actually agree with George and Bob.

    How about instead of “Take Yoga Back,” we continue to move foreword. I have written on this subject, and was met with skepticism.

    Yoga is a fluid vessel that works best when practiced.

    American Yoga has disregarded Indian Yoga Tradition, so what are we going to do about it? Are we going to revert “back,” to the way “it was.”

    Not really a very realistic option. We don’t need right wing yoga, we need to keep moving forward into how we proceed from this point on.

  • It’s kind of like saying Jesus invented love, and so we have to sue anyone who tries to claim it as their own. Pretty ridiculous stuff.

    Yoga, to me, is about kindness and connection, as well as asana – linking breath to mind to action (how we interact with others in our world). Are the trying to take ownership of that?


  • chris

    Is there even any need to debate this ?

    Is Yoga Hindu ?
    Hmm, let’s see. Is the Pope Catholic ? All righty, then !

    Of course, Yoga is very much a part of Hinduism. Yoga is born of Hinduism. Who did you think Patanjali was ? Patanjali was an ancient HINDU sage, who compiled the science of Yoga in a systematic manner.

    Asking if Yoga has to do with Hinduism is like me asking if I can receive a Baptism and Holy-Communion, but still SOMEHOW avoid getting involved with Catholicism.

    The physical Yoga-Asanas are but a first step in the Vedic Hindu tradition of disciplining the body, and thence, the mind, as a pre-cursor to the attainment of Enlightenment by the Yoga-practitioner.

    So, all practitioners of Yoga are getting initiated into Hinduism, whether they like it or not. So, if your Evangelical Church has a problem with your getting involved with the Heathen religion of Hinduism, drop out of the Yoga class.

    Also, Yoga requires its practitioners to be VEGETARIAN. So, if you are practising Yoga-asanas, but are still eating animal-flesh, you are already in violation of the Yogic principles. Does that make you a bad person ? Well, it definitely makes you an incomplete Yogi or Yogini.

    Americans can call it Power-Yoga, or any other kind of name, but bear in mind, that you owe it all to Hinduism.

    Also know this that before Christianity swept over Europe, ancient Europe was actually Hindu. Alexander the Greek invaded India, but ended up becoming conquered by Hinduism and Buddhism. Alexander’s Greek Generals took back with them to Europe Hinduism and Buddhism.

    It’s amazing that Americans are ever so willing to attribute pretty much any ancient knowledge to the Chinese. Thus, Americans will gladly announce that they are practising Kung-fu, an ancient Chinese art, but an American will never announce, “Yeah, I’m practising the ancient Hindu science of Yoga.”

    Meanwhile, even Kung-fu was invented by an ancient Indian monk, who traveled to China, and taught Kung-fu to the peasants of China. The Chinese word “Chen”, and the Japanese equivalent “Zen” are both derived from the Sanskrit word “Dhyan”, which means a combination of concentration and meditation.

    Siddhartha Gautama was born a Hindu prince, who went on to become the Buddha (The Enlightened One) and establish Buddhism.
    From India, Buddhism traveled East to China.

    The Arabic numerals ? The Arabs refer to these by their correct name of “Hindu numerals”. Mathematics was basically discovered in ancient India by the ancient Hindus, and the Arabs merely transmitted this knowledge to the West.

    I am perfectly happy to be thanking those great Americans, the Wright Brothers Orville and Wilbur, every time that I step onto an aircraft to take a flight. So, why can’t Americans similarly be gracious enough to give credit where credit is due, and thank Hinduism every time that they step onto their Yoga-mats ?

  • chris

    The Hindu-nature of Yoga. Does this even need to be debated ?

    It is indeed Hinduism that has given birth to Yoga. Yoga and Hinduism are inseparable.

    Yoga is a part of Hinduism, much like a Baptism is part of Catholicism. Yoga practitioners the world over would do well, not to lose sight of the source of Yoga, even as these yoga-practitioners continue to derive immeasurable health-benefits from even the most superficial sampling of this great gem among Hinduism’s countless treasures.

    Ask any American practitioner of the Martial Arts, and he will respond thusly :
    Kung-fu ? —> Chinese
    Tae-kwan-do ? —> Korean
    Ju-jitsu ? —-> Japanese
    Aikido ? —> Japanese
    Karate ? —> Japanese

    Why then is it so hard for Americans to respond joyously, gracefully, and gratefully :
    Yoga ? —-> Hinduism and India.

  • Daniel

    Chris, you have said it most straightforward.

    Kung Fu practiced 2000 years ago is not the same as Kung Fu practices 200 years ago or Kung Fu practiced now. It may even have been adapted, so that it can be taught now in western kung fu schools to weekend warriors who practice one, two or three hours a week. Does any of this mean that kung fu is not chinese? No, of course not. Nobody denies that Tai Chi or Qigong are not linked to Chinese spiritual ideas. Even though a lot of the techniques are not ancient, but also have developed over the centuries. The sole reason that the Hindu roots of yoga are being denied, is crass commercialism. All the rhetoric by so called yoga scholars doesn’t disprove the fact that yoga has been developed within the framework of Hinduism, modern or ancient. Unfortunately, many westerners have a wrong understandings of Hinduism and do not want to attribute something that benefits them so greatly to a religion that is foreign to them.

    I also practice the Japanese art of Jiu Jitsu. The system of black belts was not part of Japanese Jiu Jitsu until recently the founder of Judo, antoher Japanese martia artist, introduced it. Does that make Jiu Jitsu practiced with this system less Japanese? No, of course not? So, why do these pseudo-scholars start screaming that yoga is not Hindu, because the strong emphasis on postures was introduced by later Hindus like Krishnamacharya and B.K.S Iyengar. These later Hindus who emphasised asana didn’t move away from the philosophical and religious aspects of yoga, that is something we can give credit for to the crass commercialism of the west. B.K.S. Iyengar himself has said that this is not yoga, but un-yoga. This commercial approach to yoga, completely ignoring its religious and spiritual roots, is not very different from buying a black belt with certificate online. You can buy a black online and nobody is going to stop you from wearing it. But don’t start claiming that you are a master Jiujitsuka. This is similar in yoga, don’t claim you are a master yogi, if you do not understand its religious and spiritual roots in Hinduism.

Leave a Comment