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Change My Mind: Yoga Is A Hindu Practice

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Yoga is a Hindu practice.

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Suhag A. Shukla, Esq. Co-Founder/Executive Director, Hindu American Foundation

"We are of the view that yoga, which originates from Hinduism, combines physical exercise, religious elements, chanting and worshipping for the purpose of achieving inner peace and ultimately to be one with god."

"The bare fact is that yoga is a spiritual discipline by which the adherent is trained to use the body as a vehicle for achieving consciousness of the divine."

As a Hindu advocate and one of the several brains behind the Hindu American Foundation's Take Back Yoga Project, these statements could easily be mine or those of my colleagues' in our quest to bring to light yoga's Hindu roots. But they are not. These acknowledgements of yoga being a spiritual and Hindu discipline are actually from the most ironic of bedfellows -- Abdul Shukor Husin, chairman of Malaysia's top Islamic body, and Dr. Albert Mohler, the President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Granted, Husin and Mohler do not represent or speak for all Muslims and Christians, respectively, but their conclusions are worth considering.

As a Hindu, the answer to "Is yoga a Hindu practice?" is obvious, and demands a more important question: Why are we even having this debate? I offer three reasons: 1) The billion yoga industry's cater-to-the-masses, bottom-line delinking of yoga from Hinduism has significantly secularized, plagiarized or mutated yoga, almost beyond recognition; 2) many of the Hindu yoga gurus who have traveled to America, over-emphasized the "universal" and de-emphasized the "Hindu," in their hopes of sharing, and perhaps making more palatable for Westerners, their own profound experiences of Self-realization and the systems by which anyone could strive for the same; and 3) our American tendency to "reduce, reuse, recycle" combined with cafeteria-style spirituality and an unhealthy serving of religious illiteracy has played its part as well in muddying the waters unnecessarily. With that out of the way, onto my offering to this debate's question.

Yoga is a Hindu practice and how one arrives at this conclusion depends a great deal on how one defines yoga. I've said here before, yoga is the practice of preparing oneself to yoke, unite or experience the Divine within (i.e. Consciousness). Yoga is about attaining chitta-vritti-nirodha (cessation of mental fluctuations), and ultimately, moksha, or liberation from worldly suffering and the cycle of birth and rebirth. Yoga is a combination of both physical and spiritual discipline, the key word being "combination," with an emphasis on the spiritual. The popular understanding of yoga, however, too often begins and ends with asana (physical posture). The truth is that asana accounts for only a small sliver of yoga. Nonetheless, asanas, named as they are after the many avatars of the Hindu pantheon and with their tremendous psycho-physiological and psycho-spiritual effects, have proven to be the gateway for millions into the heart of yoga, which is a seeker-lifestyle defined by a specific philosophy and purpose.

The inter-connected, metaphysical principles that form the core of yoga are the core of Hinduism. While these principles have informed other Dharma traditions, they are quite different from the central principles of the Abrahamic traditions. First, karma, a universal law of cause and effect, is the mechanism by which we create karmic debits and credits through our actions (thoughts, words, deeds). Some may argue, "Well, every tradition has this 'do unto others' type Golden Rule." One of the key difference for the law of karma is that one's karmic balance sheet is zeroed out over many lifetimes.

Integral to the belief and understanding of karma then is the second principle of samsara, or reincarnation. Hindus believe that the immortal soul or Consciousness evolves by experiencing varied lives through a process wherein the soul takes on different physical bodies through cycles of birth and death. Any notions of eternal hells, heavens or salvation do not fit in this transcendental equation.

These two related concepts feed into a third metaphysical principle which is that Consciousness is present in all living things. What does that really mean? It means no promised land, no chosen people, no requirement to accept any one prophet, no my way or the highway --- it's just each and every one of us, regardless of how we identify our outer-selves, owning our potential to realize or experience the Divine within on a spiritual path to which we are inclined.

Christianizing, Judeo-fying or secularizing the Sanskrit terminology, or even cutting out the Oms and Namastes isn't enough of a twist to cleanse yoga of its guiding principles. Yes, the beauty of yoga is that it can be both flexible and fluid, but without its metaphysical, Hindu bones, yoga falls flat on its face.

Tara Stiles Named Yoga Rebel by the New York Times, founder of Strala Yoga.

When I got an e-mail from Paul Raushenbush asking if I'd participate in a debate on yoga and Hinduism, my first instinct was, I thought we were past that. Deepak Chopra sort of took care of that one last December when the Hindu/exclusive/origin of yoga conflict surfaced into the consciousness of a few concerned members across several faith and non-faith based practices. And then there was the Politics of Yoga panel/debate hosted at Princeton, which I participated in and shared from my point of view how yoga exists inside all of us. We simply need to get quiet, pay attention and remember. Loads of other bloggers joined in the ranting and gave everyone something unproductive to do for a few months. And then it was over and the yoga world moved on for a moment, until the next scandal worthy of sinking its teeth into bubbled up.

When we remember, expansion of consciousness sparks and cultivates the union of the self with the union of everyone's self, the collective. Yoga for me has always felt like plugging into the cosmic mainframe and downloading infinite secrets and wonders of the universe as we dive further and further inward. The further we dive the more we understand that the big "out there" is really the big "in there." We discover that the external exists internally and everything is expanding. If we expand along with it, we stay in the flow. If we stop expanding, we get stuck, tense and off track. Every inhale creates space, every exhale moves you into that new space. And when we connect with a sense of ease of flow, anything is possible.

The Princeton panel saddened me to know that there was actual anger and tension surrounding yoga, same as we've seen in the great religious wars throughout history. I actually got a major migraine during the event. Tension in the room has to go somewhere. We just can't seem to move past religion, owning religion, forcing our beliefs on others in a rigid way and not tolerating difference. We can't seem to move past styles, gurus, teachers and systems competing with each other. Why are we so rigid? Why are we, the ones who practice yoga, so rigid? Aren't we supposed to be the open ones, who are compassionate and caring toward all beings? Why are yoga people so crazy? Why does the practice of yoga make people defensive? Maybe it has something to do with how powerful the practice is.

The funny thing about power is when you find it, if you hold onto it, it shrinks and squishes you in the process. If you share it openly without ego, the power thrives and is available for all. The practice of yoga has the capability to empower, cure, prevent and heal so many people on this planet. Why would anyone want to keep that for themselves? Probably for the same reason Biff went Back to the Future and swiped the horse race book so he could be rich. Silly Biff.

When people are rigid while practicing yoga, tension builds, dis-ease builds, frustration builds and injuries happen. When people are rigid in life, the same result happens. When we find a sense of ease in our bodies and minds we are able to cultivate the strength we need to accomplish hard things (and easy things) with ease. We leave space to deal with ourselves and others with ease. We begin to ask, "How can I help?" instead of "What can I gain?"

What I took away from Princeton was that Sheetal Shah wanted respect. Yoga is a serious part of her ritual, her upbringing, and for her means what it means. That's great and we all I think can respect that. She wanted to be friends also, which I thought was very sweet. After the panel was over we chit-chatted like just a couple of regular girls. See we aren't really all that different after all.

The error is in exclusivity and ownership. Of course this isn't the first time that we humans have been messing up what we own and what we don't own. Look at what we've done with water. By bottling it and owning it, we are close to destroying its flow. We all once owned water together, but we've given it up to the bottled water industry that claims to filter, color, increase the flavor, energy, and vitamin quality and sell it right back to us. Why have we put up with it? We get used to it. Why would we put up with the ownership of yoga? We don't have to. To put ownership where it belongs -- not as divisive and separating, but shared equally in each one of us -- we have to participate and contribute, practice, invite others into the practice and share it freely.

Remembering Yoga

I was leading yoga classes at Sages & Scientists a couple weeks ago in San Diego and I was softened by a super tall dude practicing yoga in the front of the room in one of my super-early 6 a.m. classes. Super tall guys usually have trouble with flexibility, range of motion, and a general sense of ease in their bodies. I know that's a broad generalization, but that's just how most of them are built. We all have natural ability and something to work on. Keeps life interesting. This tall guy was also very open, warm, but not in a boundary-less way. The dude was humble and radiating in a very natural way. I had a conversation with him after class and asked him where he learned yoga, because that is a common ice breaker after class when you meet someone new. I have always thought that question is terribly flawed, because we all, at some point, remember yoga. We all learn some physical moves here and there from teachers, that ultimately guide us deeper inward, hopefully with a sense of grace and ease so we can expand.

This has been my experience with yoga. It was my first memory and consumed all of my childhood memories. I remembered yoga as I meditated in trees. I remembered yoga as I conversed with animals and nature. I remembered yoga as I moved my body in tune with the universal pulse that I felt so strongly. I also saw a lot of intense colors that surrounded all of the objects that most everyone else agreed were "real." Later, I found out that it's not such an uncommon experience among long-time meditators, and probably people living in nature for a long time who feel a sense of peace. This is inside us all.

So maybe the real question is not who owns yoga, but who remembers yoga? Possibly the point of remembrance is the point of ownership for each individual, where we claim our birthright, begin our path of being awake in the world and decide how to navigate. And possibly the responsibility of those who remember is to remind others how to plug in and remember for themselves.

It's not that the Hindus who practice yoga aren't special, it's that everyone else is too. And without acceptance, softness and ease of flow, yoga isn't possible, even for the "spiritual elite."

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