Yoga in America: Where Bowing to God Is Not Religious

11/08/2013 06:25 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Over the last decade yoga has become more popular than ever, just not in India. There, yoga is an unassuming, spiritual, and for some, a faithful religious practice.

Yoga in America, however, is a secular, multi-billion dollar industry. It is only a philosophical or spiritual practice when we want it to be, and we certainly don't accept it as a religion.

American-Hindu organizations such as Take Back Yoga will keep trying, but will keep failing to reinsert the religious aspects of Hinduism into American yoga because yoga in the US is exactly what America wants it to be. If they really want to take back yoga, they might just have to buy it back.

In July 2013, Judge John Meyer from California, deemed yoga as an American sensation when settling a court case involving disgruntled parents of students at a school in Encinitas. Feeling like yoga should not be taught in schools because of its spiritual and religious connotations, parents wanted yoga completely removed from the curriculum. However, the judge on the case said, "At its roots yoga is religious," but continued to say that even though yoga is a Hindu practice, it is now "a distinctly American cultural phenomenon."

America has won again. This time it's not about the possession of oil, it is about blanching the culture out of something to make it fit our needs.

How did this happen?

Americans are comfortable with yoga as a non-religious physical endeavor. It is acceptable when portrayed through the homespun, educated and refreshingly freethinking, familiar girl next door. If we didn't homogenize the face of yoga this way, yoga in America would be a closet activity, deemed inappropriate for Christians. For some, practicing yoga the way we do in America is sacrilege, but not if we keep standing by the ruling that yoga isn't a religion.

Today's new yoga teachers might excite people by offering a chant, an om, or show up to class with a wrist wrapped in mala beads because dancing with spirituality is relatively benign. Diving deep into a true yoga practice, however, is too precarious. It threatens our American standards and Christian values.

Americans have transformed yoga to epitomize an anodyne interpretation, because it's better to play it safe. God forbid we lose the accessibility of this life-changing practice.

Is this so terrible, and if so why?

Thanks to ingenious marketing, yoga is no longer weird, foreign, and seemingly cult-like here in the West. The average American yoga teacher might flaunt a Hindu name, and even be heard reciting verses from the Yoga Sutras, the foundational text of yoga, but rarely in Sanskrit. Instead, the teachings of yoga will be expressed through semantics that can easily be absorbed by our secular filter. For example, Dharma isn't religious. It's about taking what we want by the horns and holding on long enough to own it.

What is yoga?

The word Namaste, translated to mean, "I bow to the God within you," is spoken at the end of thousands of yoga classes across the country, but yoga classes rarely speak of God because yoga isn't religious. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines religion as the belief in a god or a group of gods.

The American Yoga Association believes religion is based upon the worship of a God that exist outside oneself. Calling yoga a philosophy or a spiritual belief is more acceptable, but religion, philosophy and spirituality are all immersed in life's biggest question: What is God?

The concept of God is a shaky subject. Add to it the yoga-inspired faith in the God within us all, and you have a huge mess on your hands. Calling yoga non-religious isn't just about altering yoga to make a buck. It is to avoid starting a war. Anyone who can amiably define God and unite the world's religions and spiritual beliefs without causing bloodshed will clearly prove to be the next messiah.

America has chosen to dilute, reinterpret, and turn a blind eye to what yoga actually is, and ultimately, who we actually are. It is not within anybody's means to comprehend all nations under one God. America will always be one nation under God, but it has to be our interpretation of God, just as it is with yoga.

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