Do Yoga's Hindu Roots Matter?

I don’t care much for bland spirituality, so at yoga class I generally tune out the prelude, when the teacher reads aloud—as is the custom—an inspirational passage on which to meditate. Recently, though, I was startled to attention when the teacher chose a paragraph on compassion from the Dalai Lama’s bestseller The Art of Happiness. Hold on a minute, I thought. Isn’t the Dalai Lama a Tibetan Buddhist? And isn’t yoga a Hindu practice? And haven’t Buddhists and Hindus been at war over land and gods for thousands of years? The Dalai Lama may be regarded throughout the world as a holy man, but downward dog is not his expertise.

Sixteen million Americans practice yoga, according to Yoga Journal, and in 2008 we spent nearly $6 billion on classes and stretch pants. Yet aside from “om” and the occasional “namaste,” Americans rarely acknowledge that yoga is, at its foundation, an ancient Hindu religious practice, the goal of which is to achieve spiritual liberation by joining one’s soul to the essence of the divine. In its American version, yoga is a mishmash: Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, 12-step rhetoric, self-help philosophies, cleansing diets, exercise, physical therapy, and massage. Its Hindu roots are obliterated by the modern infatuation with all things Eastern—and by our growing predilection for spiritual practices stripped of the sectarian burdens of religion. Americans’ naive but characteristic conflation of Eastern religions isn’t new; in 1845 Ralph Waldo Emerson called the Bhagavad-Gita (which is Hindu scripture) “the much renowned book of Buddhism.”

Lately, though, that muddle is less innocent. Some of yoga’s best-known—and most entrepreneurial—purveyors concede they’ve consciously separated Hinduism from yoga to make it more palatable. “The reason I sanitized it is there’s a lot of junk in [Hinduism],” explains Deepak Chopra, the New Age guru whose latest book, co-written with Marianne Williamson and Debbie Ford, is The Shadow Effect. “We’ve got to evolve to a secular spirituality that still addresses our deepest longings … Most religion is culture and mythology. Read any religious text, and there’s a lot of nonsense there. Yet the religious experience is beautiful.”

Generically spiritual yoga may be fine for most Americans—preferable, even, for those who desire the benefits of meditative exercise without any apparent conflict with their own religious beliefs. But for some American Hindus, it amounts to a kind of ethnic cleansing. In The Washington Post’s On Faith blog (to which I contribute), the pediatric urologist Aseem Shukla last month tangled with Chopra over the whitewashing of yoga. Shukla, who is also the head of the Hindu American Foundation, believes that if he doesn’t help his American-born children feel good about their religion, no one will. And so he says, loudly and often and to anyone who will listen: “Yoga originated in Hinduism. It’s disingenuous to say otherwise. A little bit of credit wouldn’t be a bad thing, and it would help Hindu Americans feel proud of their heritage.”

In all religions, heartbreak and enmity lie in this struggle between those who want to unify and transcend, like Chopra, and those who want to protect their tradition’s unique identity and character, like Shukla. My friend the Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero has just written a book called God Is Not One, which argues that the good in any religion (e.g., yoga) necessarily comes with the bad (caste systems). By seeing religion as a single, happy universal force, we blind ourselves to tensions of great consequence to individuals and to history. “America,” he says, “has this amazing capacity to make everything banal. That’s what we do. We make things banal and then we sell them. If you’re a Hindu, you see this beautiful, ancient tradition of yoga being turned into this ugly materialistic vehicle for selling clothes. It makes sense to me that you would be upset.”

But, Prothero points out, Chopra has a point. The American creative, materialistic, pluralistic impulse allows religion here to grow and change, taking on new and unimagined shapes. “You can’t stop people from appropriating elements in your religion,” Prothero adds. “You can’t stop people from using and transforming yoga. But you have to honor and credit the source.” Prothero’s bottom line is also my own. You can read from the Dalai Lama in yoga class. You can even read from the Sermon on the Mount. But know where yoga came from and respect those origins. Then, when you chant “om,” it will resonate not only in the room but down through the ages.

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