Om. Hindu. Huh?
Yoga. Fifteen million practitioners in the United States…and not one unified position on what exactly yoga is. What a surprise! And yet the debate rages on, among Southern Baptists and Orthodox Jews just to name a couple of religious groups, about whether or not yoga is a specifically Hindu practice, and whether to practice it is a betrayal of one’s own religious predilections should they not happen to hail from the Indian subcontinent.
Although it was my father who was born in India, my mother, an American of European descent, took me to my first yoga class. I was about 10, and found myself after an hour of deep breathing and deeper stretches, sprawled on the floor in savasana. We were at church. … Little did I know I was playing out a role in some strange echo chamber of historical experience. The blood of east and west pumped through my young heart. My lapsed Baptist mother had married my lapsed Hindu father and, wanting to give their children some religious foundation, had chosen Unitarianism. It was a flexible faith. In the 1800s, its early American adaptors helped bring Hindu ideas to a New World audience when Henry David Thoreau penned to a friend, “Even I am a yogi,” and Ralph Waldo Emerson published his poem Brahma.
But my ruminations on twenty years of yoga practice aside, some people are getting serious about wanting to remind Westerners that theres a bit of history behind yoga—perhaps as much as four thousands years’ worth. Today, a piece by Paul Vitello climbs the top-ten list of most emailed stories on The New York Times site, about the “Take Back Yoga” campaign being waged by a group of Indian-Americans. They have
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…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.
So what do you think? Have Americans, in our physioyoga™-core vinyasa-embodyoga™-anusara-ashtanga-Bikram™-hatha-prenatal-power-yin-happy-restorative thirst for yoga rejuvenation, stolen something? And is that something religious? Who or what are you invoking when, hands clasped in front of your heart center, you open your mouth and emit the eternal sound of Om?
Meera Subramanian is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about the environment and culture for Nature, InsideClimate News, Virginia Quarterly Review, Orion, and others. Her first book is A River Runs Again: A Natural History of India from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka (PublicAffairs, 2015). Visit her at meerasub.org.