Who Owns Yoga?

By Paul Vitello

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, labeled “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. Mr. Choudhury nettled Indian officials in 2007 when he copyrighted his personal style of 26 yoga poses as “Bikram Yoga.”

Organizers 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, Ms. Desmond believes that yoga originated in the Vedic culture of Indo-Europeans who settled in India in the third millennium B.C., 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.”

Dr. Shukla put a sharper point on his case a few months later in a column on the On Faith blog of The Washington Post. Hinduism, he wrote, had become a victim of “overt intellectual property theft,” made possible by generations of Hindu yoga teachers who had “offered up a religion’s spiritual wealth at the altar of crass commercialism.”

That drew the attention of Dr. Chopra, an Indian-American who has done much to popularize Indian traditions like alternative medicine and yoga. He posted a reply saying that Hinduism was too “tribal” and “self-enclosed” to claim ownership of yoga.

The fight went viral — or as viral as things can get in a narrow Web corridor frequented by yoga enthusiasts, Hindu Americans and religion scholars.

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, including meditation, belief in karma and reincarnation, and even cremation.

This excerpt is from the New York Times. Read the entire article, here.

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16 Responses to Who Owns Yoga?

  1. I was quite bewildered by this article. When I came in contact with yoga before hearing about bhakti-yoga, I never for a second thought it was dissociated from Indian culture. Funny how things have changed in a few years of marketing.
    While reading, at first I thought that people don’t know what yoga is, then that they don’t know what Hinduism is, lastly that I don’t know what Hinduism is. That Debby teacher says it is Vedic and predates Hinduism??
    I know that Hindu is a name given by the Persians to the followers of Sanatana Dharma that lived beyond the Sindhu river, but what do people think Hinduism is now??

    • Namasthe:

      1—–If the true intention is to educate the world about the true meaning of Yoga and its Hindu roots, I am all for it.

      2—–But to copyright or take patent on yoga is silly. Nobody can monopolize Yoga. It is universal.

      3—–The greatest as well as the very best book of Yoga by sage Patanjali states

      ” Yoga Chitta Vrithi Nirodha” means

      ” SALVATION OR UNION WITH GOD MEANS STOPPAGE OF ALL THOUGHTS” which is a very universal idea which can be accepted and respected by every one, irrespective of one is a Hindu or not.

      4–—–If some one is praying to Krishna, he/she is practicing BHAKTI YOGA [ path of devotion]; if some one is praying to Jesus, he/she also is practicing BHAKTI YOGA [ path of devotion] since there is ONLY ONE GOD which expresses itself in trillions of names and in trillions of forms.

      5—–Many in the west have false ideas about Hinduism and Yoga. It is the duty of every one to eradicate those false ideas. Ignorance is the root cause of all evils and hatred and it is our duty [DHARMA] to eradicate ignorance.

      6——To begin with Hinduism is NOT an organized religion like Islam or Christianity. It is a CULTURE with many religions in it.

      7——-Original name of Hinduism was SANATHANA DHARMA [ righteousness for ever]

      8———It was Persians who invaded India during 6th century B.C. who gave the name Hinduism meaning the religion of people living near the Indus river.

      9——-In Persian the letter H and S are pronounced almost the same so they mistook the word Sindhu (Sanskrit name for Indus) to H and then started calling Hindus and Hinduism.


  2. A local Art Gone Global, No One Has Ownership Of Yoga, It Is Part Of The System, It Is Part Of GOD

  3. I own yoga, but I am selling the book for $19.95.

  4. It seems to me that before even getting into the discussion some terms would need to be defined, Hinduism and yoga to start with. If yoga is considered in its essential form as the science and practice of stilling the mind then the point of view that yoga is universal has merit. If we look at yoga just as the postural and breathing practices then of course that originated in India. Does anyone deny this? I doubt it. So what exactly is the big deal in Dr. Shukla’s mind?

    I found this quote interesting and revealing:

    “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.”

    Lost control of the brand? He’s talking exactly like the people he’s complaining about, i.e., the ones capitalizing off of yoga. I would think that anyone who has a real feeling for yoga and its benefits to humanity would be happy to see it spread all over the world and take on new forms as required. This naturally implies that there will be a wide variety of styles of practice and levels of interest in the culture out of which it arose and the philosophy behind it. The modern reinterpretation and updating of yoga begun in India by T. Krsnamacarya continues in the West, and many interpretations don’t retain the cultural trappings yoga is associated with. Does that make it no longer yoga?

  5. If this world is currently moving towards a more materially oriented situation overall, then in the mass market, it would make sense that Yoga would become a more impersonalist endeavour for “better health”.

    The way I interpret (from BG) the importance of the fundamental sanatana cultural values – the physical yogas are linked conceptually directly to the knowledge of Krsna etc…. because if the body is “designed” in such a way to reach such and such a state of consciousness – that reflects to me the same way in which the divine entities reflect their personalities, forms and rasas in humans …..

    Therefore I think that ultimately it is important that people understand where it comes from – The Eternal Culture of Sat-Cid Ananda with a hierarchy of actual beings at the helm…..Then again, I’ve realized the thing that trying to preach the seeming invisible to the faithless is actually harmful…. (It angers their materially conditioned minds and drives them to “Atheism”….maybe)

    But, like they say – No matter how awesome the material civilization may be wherein people certainly practice many forms of Yoga – If the pure disciplic devotional culture isn’t maintained somehow, then basically people won’t ever learn of the Person that is God. So, it is inevitable that institutions will degrade like “ISKCON?” – as long as there are ACTUAL PURE DEVOTEES, then it doesn’t matter how mainstream or not the information gets, because Material Nature caters for the Herd.

    By the way, isn’t the label “Hindu” a bit of an insult? Or is it actually not “necessary/worth it” to argue otherwise?

    • Yoga means to yoke, to connect, to join. If someone desires only physical health and mental wellbeing from their practice of yoga, then yoga can give them that connection. Who are we to judge that they must see yoga as a spiritual practice? Maybe they are not ready to hear that the highest joining is for us to join with God – or understand our relationship with him.

      Yoga is a generous practice – it can give you whatever you seek and it will reward you in proportion to your commitment to it. It can do no harm to let someone practice physical asanas and breath control to focus the mind. It may not be the highest truth – but everyone is at a different stage along the path and everyone will take what they need for the stage they are at.

      True preaching ultimately comes from perfecting our own practice – by us ‘being’ the truth we would recommend to others. It is not something artificial that we can produce externally. First the truth is manifest internally – and then others will see this truth – feel this truth – in their dealings with us.

      Argument is only useful to help ‘you’ enhance your understanding of the philosophy. You cannot convince someone of your truth using logic, reason or argument. When you ‘know’ this truth, it is an ontological and evolutionary necessity that this will then be distributed to others. Until this happens, your own spiritual understanding and practice should be your top priority.

      Haribol 🙂

      • You cannot convince someone of your truth using logic, reason or argument. When you ‘know’ this truth, it is an ontological and evolutionary necessity that this will then be distributed to others.

        While I appreciate the fact that realization of truth affords one a greater capacity to convey one’s experience to others more than mere theoretical knowledge of truth, this statement above does not make sense to me. Sometimes reason and argument work well and do convince others of one’s truth, and the phrase “an ontological and evolutionary necessity” seems confused.

        • It is actually quite simple I think, if it goes together with an actual realization of a facet of the “truth”.

          If you latch onto Krsna/Visnu as the Supreme Absolute Truth – ie: THE Ultimate Godhead, and you take seriously that his form is non-different from himself etc…. Then, you actually already know the destination of all knowledge – THE Transcendental Object. (Of course you can go on forever doubting this)

          From there it is simply a case of acknowledging his various energies as emanations of him. In this way, any of the elements : ego, mind, intelligence, earth, wind, fire etc…… can be used to logically and poetically justify the Ultimate Transcendental Object.

          Mind and Intelligence also emanate from him, so ALL mental emanations and calculations emanate from him as well – its just a question of discerning which ones serve a purely material conception and which touch on the attainment of this Ultimate Object.

          Look at how nicely the “Periodic Table” logically illustrates a gradient of superior to inferior energy states. Also, I’m sure you’ve heard this, but the Large Hadron Collider very recently “proved” that the “universe” was once a liquid. Causal Ocean ? I can pretty much bet on that !

          Ultimately its a very fun time to work from the angle of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, because materially we are at a very interesting place. The average mental state finds it mildly interesting because they’ve automatically been conditioned to its presence, but cosmically, the implications are potentially fantastic.

          The current technological facilities gives us a microscope to probe into the mind and intelligence of the Godhead AND manifest the findings in varieties of media. I tend to be lured by ego/mental/intellectual phenomena…..perhaps I’m saving my love for the Paravyoma ;). Also, one could think of Krsna as the ultimate logician and one could work from there…..As long as it is done in good humor.

          PS. If there is anyone who needs a giant dose of physical yoga, it is me.

        • It is real good to know some hatha-yoga. I started out with hatha-yoga before I ever found out about Krishna consciousness. So, I have that background of study and some practice.
          What I have found at this age of life (57) is that the yoga I learned before I found Krishna consciousness is now keeping me functional despite double hernias and a bad back caused from a two story fall onto a picnic table a few years ago when I worked for the city.
          Without my daily stretching and yoga type techniques there is no way that I could get by without hernia surgery. I have kept fully functional for the last 6 years despite these issues because I know hatha-yoga.

          Hatha-yoga is medicine. It is not so much a process of self-realization unless one takes it to the highest levels which hardly anyone is capable of doing in this age.
          Hatha-yoga should be taught as physical fitness not as a spiritual path. It is not a spiritual path. It is a path that might possibly help one ascend to a level of mental clarity which is helpful in all spiritual paths.

          I studied hatha-yoga deeper than I mastered it in my youth. In my old age I am finding that hatha-yoga is key to sense of well-being that I seek.
          I recommend anyone looking for a hatha-yoga book to try and track down an out of print book by Theos Bernard entitled “hatha-yoga”.
          I have seen the book available from resellers on the internet. You can find it in a google search.
          Theos Bernard was an amazing personality and his book left an indelible impression upon me even though I read about all the other hatha-yoga books around in the early 70’s.

        • It sounds confused when it is proposed as the teachings of the acharyas. Preaching by example is the best preaching, but preaching by book distribution or kirtan for the neophytes is the recommended express train to spiritual wealth for the neophyte.
          Realization for many people will be a lifelong goal that culminates in retirement from family life and a season of introspection which affords them the internal journey of self-mastery and self-discovery followed by the true bhakta-yogi.
          Until then, they don’t need to stop preaching or distributing books of spiritual knowledge because they don’t feel themselves to be pure devotees.
          Spiritually speaking though, bhakti is perfection as the path and the goal all in one. Hatha-yoga is just the first few steps on the yoga ladder that eventually culminated in the fully spiritual yoga of bhakti.

          As Sridahr Maharaja said, if one is taking medicine and feeling his health improving then he might want to recommend that medicine to another ill patient suffering from the same condition even if one himself is not fully healed or fully recovered from the illness.

  6. I was trying to say if you know something, as opposed to merely understanding it intellectually, that truth will become a part of you. Its no longer something artificial that you will pass on to others with just words. They will see that truth in your actions. So I used the word ontologically in the sense of it being a state of existence or being. Maybe I have used the word ontologically incorrectly.

    I was also thinking of the idea that some things are just a natural progression, an evolution. So, if you know Krishna Consciousness, you have it in your life, your being, your consciousness, then I think you will necessarily pass that truth on to others. You will do that without doing anything external but just by being who you are. I also think that if you become Krishna conscious, you will understand the inner heart of Krishna and so you will try to preach – to connect others with Krishna.

    Devotion (bhakti) can only be given to others by someone who has bhakti. Logic, reason and argument are not sufficient to distribute Krishna consciousness to others. They are only useful tools. Bhakti is essential.

  7. Also, one could think of Krsna as the ultimate logician and one could work from there

    Nimai Pandita in Navadwipa demonstrated this quite nicely.

  8. I don’t want to sound stupid or rude, but i don’t know how this is yoga. no ofnfese to anyone, but just bc you call it yoga jogging/Jacks doesn’t mean it’s yoga. Yoga is meant to be relaxing and to stretch the body, to yes purge your body of negativity and bring up energy levels but not by making you sweat and do a regular work out. I can take a weight lifting class and get this workout, but I like my yoga slow relaxing. Props to anyone who likes this tho, I just couldn’t get into it.

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