Is Yoga Hindu?

Last month, the Take Yoga Back campaign of the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) got a leg up when the New York Times ran an article about their movement to reclaim yoga’s soul. The campaign aims to spread awareness that yoga originated in Hinduism, drawing on arguments that will resonate with many yoga practitioners and Hindus. HAF Spokesperson and co-founder Suhag Shukla bemoans a loss of Hindu identity in yoga that corresponds with an erosion of Hindu identity in general. While the idea is compelling, it also has considerable flaws.

Shukla and her allies claim that yoga is being separated from its Hindu roots by the new age and fitness cultures of America, and by a generally irreverent modernity. In a December 3 Huffington Post piece, she stresses that the Take Yoga Back movement is not about ownership, but rather about origins. This is a seductive line, suggesting that before the corruptions of modern life there existed an untainted yoga that was coextensive with Hinduism.

A vocal band of scholars have re-mounted the perennial argument that yoga is a Hindu practice because it traces its origins from the ‘proto-Rudra’ seals at Harappa, through the Yoga Sutras and into modernity. B.K.S. Iyengar, a living legend in the world of postural yoga practice, has come out in favor of the movement. Even University of Colorado professor Lorelai Biernacki is cited by the New York Times, attributing not only yoga but meditation itself to Hinduism.

Yoga’s Birth Certificate(s)

Unfortunately Shukla’s claim falls apart under scrutiny. While the Take Yoga Back movement positions itself against the secularization and de-Hinduization of yoga, it can also be seen as an answer to one of the most fruitful decades in yoga research to date. A corpus of literature has emerged over the past ten years, including David Gordon White’s “Siddha” trilogy, several volumes by Joseph Alter, Elizabeth DeMichelis’ A History of Modern Yoga and just last year Stefanie Syman’s Subtle Body and Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body, all of which oppose the straightforward message of the Take Yoga Back movement.

These works reveal the formative influence of (wait for it) Buddhism, Jainism, Sufism, television, military calisthenics, Swedish gymnastics and the YMCA, as well as of radical Hindu nationalism, upon today’s postural yoga practice. There is no doubt that the Vedas, Upanishads, and folk traditions of India have been formative toward yoga: yoga is almost inseparable from them. Nevertheless to assert that yoga is essentially and primarily a Hindu practice means to ignore millennia of generative influence from other quarters. Worse still, it means to step blindly into a political fight for the heart of India that has simmered for over two hundred years.

Is Hinduism Really Hindu?

If we are to really speak of origins, “Hinduism” does not accurately describe Indian religion before the British Raj. The term’s use to designate a religion per se sprung from the meeting of British rule and what sociologist M. N. Srinivas called the “Brahminization” of Indian culture. Colonizing British deemed those religious activities in India that were closer to their own as more evolved and genuine than others. These were the hierarchical, centralized and vaguely monotheist (or deist) theologies of Saiva and Vaisnava Brahmins. The Brahmins themselves had been struggling with armed tantric monastic orders on one front, unsubordinated folk religion in small communities on another, and against Muslim rule on yet a third. The British presented an answer to all three woes. They broke the power of the Naths, the most powerful of the monastic orders that held North Indian trade routes. They also generally favored Brahmins to Muslims, and offered communication technologies that would spread and streamline Brahminic religion. The propagation of Brahminical culture and repression of contradictory folk practices included putting down the “superstitious” practice of Hatha Yoga.

This is partly because Hatha Yoga and affiliated systems, while often sectarian, emerged out of the busy exchange between Shaivite, Vaishnava, Buddhist, Jain, and other tantric virtuosos on the periphery of religious society. One could therefore with similar success claim that yoga is a Buddhist practice, or a shamanic one. Yoga has always been a changing discipline: as David Gordon White and others point out, the semantic field of the word yoga is highly contingent upon when and where the word was used. Its intellectualized application in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is not what it meant in its (quite rare) Vedic and early epic uses. Yoga was a path to divine afterlives and superpowers for early Tantrics and a psycho-physical heal-all for Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), who is popularly considered the grandfather of contemporary yoga practice.

Then again, Krishnamacharya’s teachings themselves bear the influence of the YMCA and its calisthenic appropriation of yoga in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. At many times throughout the development of yoga, there existed more disagreement among practitioners within the same general sect of Hinduism than among, say, Buddhist and Hindu tantrics, as to the meaning and practice of yoga.

It is through early Hindu Nationalist organizations like the Arya Samaj and Brahmo Samaj that yoga emerged as a “Hindu” practice. This new yoga, however, was made to conform to the still-Brahminic inclinations of party leadership, as well as to the esotericism of European supporters like the Theosophical Society. Purged of its mixed roots, yoga came to represent Hinduism to the world through celebrity gurus such as Swami Vivekananda and Swami Shivananda. Thus the re-invention of a “Hindu” Indian history, along with nationalist revolutionary movements and a freshly-minted yoga, combined to foster the complex relationship between Hindu nationalism and yoga that exists today.

Obviously, just because yoga is not summarily Hindu does not mean that it is culturally neutral. In India, controversy around the political foray of Swami Ramdev, whose morning yoga show boasts over 20 million viewers and whose party, Bharat Swabhiman, aims to dominate an entire section of Indian parliament by 2013, suggests how much yoga and its origins have become a loaded issue in Indian politics. Ramdev’s entire platform appears to be a nationalistic interpretation of yoga, and has been embraced by the Hindu conservative Bharatya Janata Party.

While the Hindu American Foundation may not be a Hindu nationalist organization, the take on yoga that it has chosen to espouse owes its bulk to the emergence of Hindu nationalism, and to the colonial conditions out of which such nationalism arose. Paradoxically, it would seem that claiming yoga as essentially Hindu cedes a vibrant and important practice with Indic roots to the influence of routine colonial reduction. While it may fit nicely with many an Orientalist construction of what yoga ought to be, this is nary more than fantasy. Conversely, if we must acknowledge debts in our yoga practice, we might do well to pranam not only Hinduism, but also Islam, Theosophy, Swedish gymnastics, and the YMCA—just to name a few.