The Theft of Yoga

By Aseem Shukla

Nearly 20 million people in the United States gather together routinely, fold their hands and utter the Hindu greeting of Namaste — the Divine in me bows to the same Divine in you. Then they close their eyes and focus their minds with chants of “Om,” the Hindu representation of the first and eternal vibration of creation. Arrayed in linear patterns, they stretch, bend, contort and control their respirations as a mentor calls out names of Hindu divinity linked to various postures: Natarajaasana (Lord Shiva) or Hanumanasana (Lord Hanuman) among many others. They chant their assigned “mantra of the month,” taken as they are from lines directly from the Vedas, Hinduism’s holiest scripture. Welcome to the practice of yoga in today’s western world.

Christians, Jews, Muslims, Pagans, agnostics and atheists they may be, but they partake in the spiritual heritage of a faith tradition with a vigor often unmatched by even among the two-and-a half-million Hindu Americans here. The Yoga Journal found that the industry generates more than $6 billion each year and continues on an incredible trajectory of popularity. It would seem that yoga’s mother tradition, Hinduism, would be shining in the brilliant glow of dedicated disciples seeking more from the very font of their passion.

Yet the reality is very different. Hinduism in common parlance is identified more with holy cows than Gomukhasana, the notoriously arduous twisting posture; with millions of warring gods rather than the unity of divinity of Hindu tradition–that God may manifest and be worshiped in infinite ways; as a tradition of colorful and harrowing wandering ascetics more than the spiritual inspiration of Patanjali, the second century BCE commentator and composer of the Yoga Sutras, that form the philosophical basis of Yoga practice today.

Why is yoga severed in America’s collective consciousness from Hinduism? Yoga, meditation, ayurvedic natural healing, self-realization–they are today’s syntax for New Age, Eastern, mystical, even Buddhist, but nary an appreciation of their Hindu origins. It is not surprising, then, that Hindu schoolchildren complain that Hinduism is conflated only with caste, cows, exoticism and polytheism–the salutary contributions and philosophical underpinnings lost and ignored. The severance of yoga from Hinduism disenfranchises millions of Hindu Americans from their spiritual heritage and a legacy in which they can take pride.

Hinduism, as a faith tradition, stands at this pass a victim of overt intellectual property theft, absence of trademark protections and the facile complicity of generations of Hindu yogis, gurus, swamis and others that offered up a religion’s spiritual wealth at the altar of crass commercialism. The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, under whose tutelage the Beatles steadied their mind and made sense of their insane fame, packaged the wonders of meditation as Transcendental Meditation (TM) just as an entrepreneur from here in Minneapolis applied the principles of Ayurveda to drive a commercial enterprise he coined as Aveda. TM and Aveda are trademarked brands–a protection not available to the originator of their brand—Hinduism itself. And certainly these masters benefited millions with their contributions, but in agreeing to ditch Hinduism as the source, they left these gifts orphaned and unanchored.

Read the entire On Faith article, here.

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6 Responses to The Theft of Yoga

  1. Who did the study that proved that yoga has been divorced from Hinduism in the collective consciousness of the masses?

    Where are the stats?
    Or is this just the author’s opinion?

    Ultimately, why does it matter?
    Should yoga be identified with Hinduism?
    Maybe not.
    Hinduism is also Kali worship and human sacrifice.

    • I believe this is simply the opinion of the author, hence it being categorized as an editorial and not news. I find some of his points very valid. It would be nice if practitioners of yoga looked deeper into the thought and culture behind the practice. Some do no doubt, but the more popular it becomes, the more diluted it becomes, as with anything.

  2. I agree with Nitaisundara’s point that in the West yoga has been largely divorced from its cultural context and so has been misunderstood by most of the people practicing it–as the article mentions, yoga was designed to facilitate mukti buy now most people equate yoga with only one aspect of yoga, i.e., hatha yoga. But I think it’s natural that when such a complex and exotic system is introduced into a culture the more external aspects will be more popular, and over time as the thing becomes established people look into it more deeply. Gaudiya Vaisnavism is a good example of this.

    That said, it’s not just Westerners who seek to separate yoga from Hinduism. In fact, one of the most prominent Indian yogis to propagate yoga widely in the West, Swami Visnudevananda (of the Yoga Vedanta Society), said that yoga is not a religion, that one can be a Christian, etc., and practice yoga. Considering that many Westerners learned yoga from him or his followers it should come as no surprise that they consider yoga a separate entity from Hinduism.

  3. I think that we have to allow that every practice spiritual or otherwise changes the practitioners and is changed by them to the extent that everything is constantly changing. So that “yoga” introduced into the west few decades ago is very different from yoga today. I was shocked to find in early 90s, that some christian nuns practice christian yoga and instead of saying Om they chant Amen and Jesus. Also I just saw an advertisement for Jewish yoga at the JCC. So what yoga means today for the western society is different then how it is used in its original form. We are capable of adopting and changing anything to suite our needs.
    I am sometimes annoyed by the hordes of “urban sadhus” prancing around SF and posturing themselves every time that sit down without any spiritual understanding. But when I compare them to those with no interest in anything “yogaesque,” suddenly they appear like saints. People approach yoga as anything from glorified stretching to some “spiritual” endeavor but ultimately they do it because it makes them feel good.

  4. I live on the fence regarding this topic. Part of me wants to appreciate and support the fact that people are at least engaging in spiritual exercises to some degree–that’s a good thing. However, I often think we live in a society where we are taught to “pick and choose”. In a consumerist environment (in the midst of a recession no less) we are conditioned to behave like this. Let’s be honest, it’s not always a bad thing. I go to Trader Joe’s for certain grocery items, I go to Whole Foods for others, I go to Target to pick up socks, I go to Old Navy for pants. We are all shopping for the best deal.

    Interestingly, spirituality today is no different. To echo Vamsi, people go where it feels good. The mass marketing of yoga culture has latched onto this. Yoga has become a marketing tool/strategy and Shiva and Ganesh are practically brands just like Apple, Paul Frank, or The Gap. People still want spirituality, they just want it on their own terms. Hinduism has been portrayed in the media and in academia over the years in just this way. It is the religion that doesn’t have any “thou shall nots”–it all works in Hinduism. Many of the tradition’s primary texts have been misinterpreted and co-opted to advocate certain positions which has at least muddied the waters even more.

    With this sort of “understanding” of the overall tradition is it any wonder that yoga has become this enormous smorgasboard of approaches. The kirtan scene is the same way. It has become so watered down and commercialized. It’s quite unfortunate.

  5. I pulled this from the (full) editorial on Habermas that is also posted on this site. Granted, I’m taking these out of context, but the way it was phrased seemed to express what I was trying to say. It describes how many people feel about religion today, and perhaps why they are drawn to Hinduism and yoga culture which is often portrayed as a sort of “spiritual buffet”.

    “…a religion that has been “instrumentalized,” made into something useful for a secular reason that still has no use for its teleological and eschatological underpinnings…”

    “Religions are brought in only to help to prevent or overcome social disruptions. Once they have performed this service they go back in their box and don’t trouble us with uncomfortable cosmic demands.”

    Sadly, I think this is how a lot of people view the yoga culture which they see as synonymous with Hinduism. They can take what they want and discard the wierd, icky, messy, religious parts. I’m just not convinced that’s the best way to fully appreciate the tradition.

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