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Orthodox Jews to Muslims: Yoga is different things to different people

Orthodox Jews do it. So do the devout in Muslim nations. Across India, yoga is taught by Muslims and practised by Bible teachers. Some chant Om, others chant Allah or don't chant at all. A look at how yoga has always been different things to different people. And why that's a good thing.

health and fitness Updated: Jun 21, 2015 16:07 IST
Riddhi Doshi
Riddhi Doshi
Hindustan Times
Yoga,Yoga Day,Asanas

One of the earliest depictions of yoga asanas occurs in a Persian text commissioned by a Mughal emperor: Bahr al-Hayat (Ocean of Life) is a text on yogic practices compiled by Sufi master Shaykh Muhammad Ghawth Gwaliyari around 1551. The first illustrated copy was produced in Allahabad around 1602, at the request of the Mughal prince Nur-ud-din Mohammad Salim, soon to be known as the emperor Jahangir.

The text contains 21 illustrations depicting various asanas and is an expanded translation of an Arabic work on yoga titled Hawd Ma' Al-hayat (The Pool of the Water of Life), which is itself based on an older Sanskrit text, the Amritakunda, says Carl Ernst, co-director of Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations, at the University of North Carolina.

"These were not mere coffee table books for idle curiosity, but part of a serious engagement by the Mughal elite with important Indian intellectual and spiritual traditions," Ernst says. "This illustrates that yoga is not the property of any one religious community."

Two of the 21 illustrations in Bahr al Hayat (Ocean of Life), a Persian text on yogic practices compiled by Sufi master Shaykh Muhammad Ghawth Gwaliyari around 1551. (Images courtesy Smithsonian Museums of Ancient Art)

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi gathered with thousands in New Delhi to lead celebrations of the first-ever International Yoga Day on Sunday - an initiative the PM has actively promoted - scholars reiterated that the discipline has nothing to do with religion.

Calling yoga Hindu is like calling gravity Christian, as one online meme put it. Both are sciences; both were discovered; in both cases, the faith of the discoverers is irrelevant. "Referring to yoga as religious is like calling Dante's philosophy religious," adds Shubhada Joshi, scholar and professor of philosophy at the University of Mumbai.

"It is a scientific guide to caring for your body and mind," says Hansaji Yogendra, director of the 97-year-old The Yoga Institute, one of the oldest organised yoga centres in the world. "Religion, in fact, came much later," adds Yogendra, who has been teaching yoga for 40 years and is one of the four gurus invited to share the stage with the prime minister at Rajpath.

Like most prehistoric traditions, the practice of yoga was handed down orally from generation to generation. "It was a way of life," says Yogendra.

In recorded history, the word 'yoga' first appears in the Rig Veda (circa 1500 BC), the oldest text in the Indo-European family of languages. It comes from the Sanskrit word 'yuj', which means 'to connect'. "Yoga is the science of connecting with your inner self," says Girish Nath Jha, scholar of computational linguistic Sanskrit and associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi.

College student Basir Raza Kazmi practises yoga with his sisters, Salma and Farwa, at a park in New Delhi. (HT photos Virendra Singh Gosain and Pratham Gokhale)

"Even then it was mentioned that yoga had been practised for ages. It is older than even the first recorded text," says Ram Nath Jha, professor of yoga at JNU and a scholar on Patanjali Yoga Sutra.

Around 400 BC, a yogic named Patanjali systematised this traditional knowledge in the form of sutras or brief texts. His compilation became the standard text followed over centuries, and is still followed today.

"Nowhere in the text is there mention of any religion," says Ram Nath Jha. "In one sutra, Patanjali urges people to surrender to the will of the absolute, the higher consciousness, if they believe in it."

While Patanjali laid down the philosophy, generations of subsequent gurus helped convey it to lay practitioners in the form of asanas or poses and pranayams or breathing techniques.

These asanas were then given descriptive names, like padmasana (lotus pose) and savasana (corpse pose).
In some cases, a collection of asanas best practised together was collectively given a descriptor. One of these is the surya namaskar, a combination of 10 or 12 asanas packaged together as a wellness routine.

"Facing the rising sun is believed to be good for optic nerves and concentration. It is a technique in yoga, it is not a prayer," says Yogendra. "In yoga, no one prays to anyone."

Concern over the names of asanas is not unique to India. In a discipline practised by people around the world - from orthodox Jews and conservative Christians in the US to devout Muslims in Iran, Pakistan and Malaysia - objections have been raised from time to time, particularly by parents of children learning yoga in schools.

The concerns usually centre on introducing children to terms that are seen as representative of another religion.

Hansaji Yogendra, director of the 97-year-old The Yoga Institute, guides practitioners during a session in Mumbai. TYI is one of the oldest organised yoga centres in the world.

So in many cases the asanas are renamed. Thus, in the US, you now have the 'surfer pose', 'washing machine' and 'kangaroo' or the downward dog, lotus and cobra poses. Some schools practise the chanting of mantras to focus concentration and clear the mind, but this isn't prescribed or compulsory.
Given that people of all faiths - and no faith - practise yoga across India as well, what then caused the fuss over International Yoga Day?

One answer is that impressions that it was compulsory polarised the issue and gave it a saffron hue. Then the right wing pitched in, with BJP MP Yogi Adityanath, for instance, saying people who did not wish to perform the surya namaskar ought to leave the country or 'drown themselves'.

Speaking to HT, Adityanath sang a different tune, describing yoga as "an ancient tradition of India", adding: "Yoga cannot be limited to a religion or community. Its aim is the welfare of the human being."
The protocol for the International Yoga Day celebrations is indeed secular. "It consists of simple asanas and breathing techniques selected because people from all age groups could easily practise them," says Yogendra, one of the gurus who help design the protocol.

Adds Ram Nath Jha: "In a country where stress and lifestyle diseases are such a huge concern, there is no harm in urging people to take up yoga. If it had been made absolutely compulsory, that would have been another matter. That would have gone against the philosophy of yoga to begin with."

(With inputs from Rajesh Kumar Singh in Uttar Pradesh)


* Basir Raza Kazmi, 23, yoga student
'I see no contradiction between Islam and Yoga'

Kazmi, a college student from Delhi, has been learning yoga for three months.

"It's a combination of physical exercise and mental wellness techniques," he says. "There is no conflict with Islam. In fact, my religion wants every individual to be physically and mentally fit."

While Kazmi chants Om as he does asanas, he stresses that it is just a word used to enhance concentration. "I could also chant the alphabet A or the word Ali and attain the same positivity," he says.

A lot of people, including his friends and relatives, initially had questions about whether yoga promoted Hinduism. "I think that's largely because most renowned yoga teachers around the world have been Hindu," Kazmi says. "As people from other communities become renowned yoga gurus, such perceptions will change."

-- Danish Raza

Jennifer Braganza, Yoga practitioner (left) and Yoga teacher Iftekhar Ahmed Farooqui

* Jennifer and Elvis Braganza, Yoga practitioners
They teach the Bible, and promote Yoga

The Braganzas are Bible teachers from Mumbai and have been practising yoga for more than 33 years.
"Elvis introduced me to yoga. His grandfather used to practise it," says Jennifer, 57 (left).

The husband and wife duo say the discipline has kept them fit and healthy, something that always draws compliments from friends and relatives.

"It still takes some effort to convince people that yoga does not propagate any religion," says Jennifer. "But the principles it promotes - of discipline, sacrifice and connecting with a higher reality - are actually common to all religions, including Christianity."

* Iftekhar Ahmed Farooqui, 38, Yoga teacher
'I have become more devout'

Farooqui, a devout Muslim from Mumbai, was introduced to yoga four years ago by his general physician, also a Muslim. "Back then I was an emotional and physical wreck. I was 16 kg overweight and suffered from frequent headaches and even memory loss," he says.

After a week-long yoga camp left him 'relaxed and happy', he decided to enrol in a seven-month teacher training course. He eventually quit his job as an office assistant in a doctor's clinic and now teaches yoga to aspiring yoga teachers and children.

"Initially, my father disapproved," he says. "But he soon realised that yoga has nothing to do with any religion. He has no problems with my practice now."

Farooqui says his father is not alone in his misconceptions. "Even though many Muslims practise yoga, many others still believe that it propagates Hinduism and that one has to chant Hindu mantras while practising it," says Farooqui. "Of course, it is not so. You are not supposed to chant anybody's name. And if you like, to help you concentrate, you can also chant Allah's name."

Yoga has also helped him gain the discipline to perform all his duties towards his family and his faith, Farooqui adds. "In this way, it has made me a more devout Muslim."


* Yoga as practised in the modern era can be traced back to 500 AD, when Guru Matsyendranath and his disciple Gorakhnath popularised Hatha yoga, which focuses on asanas or poses and pranayams or breathing techniques rather than on the meditative aspect of the discipline.

* Much later, in the 20th century, T Krishnamacharya was credited with popularising yoga under the patronage of Maharaja of Mysore. Often referred to as the Father of Modern Yoga, he has been credited with revival of Hatha yoga.

* Krishnamacharya's disciple and brother-in-law was BKS Iyengar, photo above, (1918 - 2014). A teen of frail health, he visited Mysore to try and get fitter using the techniques of yoga. He later began to teach it and it was Iyengar who introduced the use of simple props like chair and tables to help pupils perform asanas with ease.


* The country with arguably the largest number of yoga students in the world is the US, where it has been growing in popularity since the 1980s, coinciding with growing concerns about stress and lifestyle diseases.

* The US is also possibly the best example of a good thing repackaged too many times for commercial gain. Aside from the multimillion-dollar yoga accessories industry - yoga mats and 'form-enhancing' yoga pants sell for over $100 a piece - there is the wide array of 'styles' now practised.

* There is power yoga, where asanas are performed at great speed; hot yoga, in rooms heated to a particular temperature; rocket yoga, where you race through poses as quickly as you can. There's even doga, or yoga with your dog. Yoga holidays and cruises are a growing trend.

* "It's worrying to see that, as the popularity of yoga grows, the acknowledgement of it being a holistic spiritual path, not just physical exercise, is fast shrinking," says Shubhada Joshi, scholar and professor of philosophy at the University of Mumbai.


* The first ever International Yoga Day (IYD) is being observed today in all 192 member countries of the United Nations, including the US, China and Egypt.

* The proposal to declare June 21 IYD was put forth by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi in the UN General Assembly last September.

* It was passed unanimously in December.

* Of the 177 countries that signed on as co-sponsors of the move, 47 are from the Organisation of Islamic Countries.

* As is the norm with such celebrations, groups will gather in front of iconic monuments to mark the day. Thus, International Yoga Day will be celebrated with asanas performed in front of the Eiffel tower in Paris, in New York's Times Square, at South Bank in London. Enthusiasts in Tanzania, Bahrain and Russia will also hold mass yoga demonstrations.

First Published: Jun 21, 2015 13:04 IST