Yoga is practiced by about 15 million people in the United States, for reasons almost as numerous — from the physical benefits mapped in brain scans to the less tangible rewards that New Age journals call spiritual centering. Religion, for the most part, has nothing to do with it.
But a group of Indian-Americans has 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, labelled “Take Back Yoga,” 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.
That suggestion, modest though it may seem, has drawn a flurry of strong reactions from figures far apart on the religious spectrum. Dr Deepak Chopra, the New Age writer, has dismissed the campaign as a jumble of faulty history and Hindu nationalism.
R Albert Mohler Jr, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has said he agrees that yoga is Hindu — and cited that as evidence that the practice imperiled the souls of Christians who engage in it.
The question at the core of the debate — who owns yoga? — has become an enduring topic of chatter in yoga Web forums, Hindu American newspapers and journals catering to the many consumers of what is now a multibillion-dollar yoga industry.
In June, it even prompted the Indian government to begin making digital copies of ancient drawings showing the provenance of more than 4,000 yoga poses, to discourage further claims by entrepreneurs like Bikram Choudhury, an Indian-born yoga instructor to the stars who is based in Los Angeles. Choudhury nettled Indian officials in 2007 when he copyrighted his personal style of 26 yoga poses as “Bikram Yoga.”
Organisers of the Take Back Yoga effort point out that the philosophy of yoga was first described in Hinduism’s seminal texts and remains at the core of Hindu teaching. Yet, because the religion has been stereotyped in the West as a polytheistic faith of “castes, cows and curry,” they say, most Americans prefer to see yoga as the legacy of a more timeless, spiritual “Indian wisdom.”
“In a way,” said Dr. Aseem Shukla, the foundation’s co-founder, “our issue is that yoga has thrived, but Hinduism has lost control of the brand.”
For many practitioners, including Debbie Desmond, 27, a yoga instructor in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the talk of branding and ownership is bewildering.
“Nobody owns yoga,” she said, sitting cross-legged in her studio, Namaste Yoga, and tilting her head as if the notion sketched an impossible yoga position she had never seen. “Yoga is not a religion. It is a way of life, a method of becoming. We were taught that the roots of yoga go back further than Hinduism itself.”
Like Dr Chopra and some religious historians, Desmond believes that yoga originated in the Vedic culture of Indo-Europeans who settled in India in the third millennium BC, long before the tradition now called Hinduism emerged.
Other historians trace the first written description of yoga to the Bhagavad Gita, the sacred Hindu scripture believed to have been written between the fifth and second centuries B.C.
The effort to “take back” yoga began quietly enough, with a scholarly essay posted in January on the Web site of the Hindu American Foundation, a Minneapolis-based group that promotes human rights for Hindu minorities worldwide. The essay lamented a perceived snub in modern yoga culture, saying that yoga magazines and studios had assiduously decoupled the practice “from the Hinduism that gave forth this immense contribution to humanity.”
Loriliai Biernacki, a professor of Indian religions at the University of Colorado, said the debate had raised important issues about a spectrum of Hindu concepts permeating American culture.