For many people, the main concern in a yoga class is whether they are breathing correctly or their legs are aligned. But for others, there are lingering doubts about whether they should be there at all, or whether they are betraying their religion.
Farida Hamza, a Muslim woman living in the US (pictured above), had been doing yoga for two or three years when she decided she wanted to teach it.
“When I told my family and a few friends, they did not react positively,” she recalls. “They were very confused as to why I wanted to do it – that it might be going against Islam.”
Their suspicions about yoga are shared by many Muslims, Christians and Jews around the world and relate to yoga’s history as an ancient spiritual practice with connections to Hinduism and Buddhism.
One answer to the question of whether yoga really is a religious activity will soon be given by the Supreme Court in the country of its birth, India.
Last month, a pro-yoga group petitioned the court to make it a compulsory part of the school syllabus on health grounds – but state schools in India are avowedly secular. The court said it was uncomfortable with the idea, and will gather the views of minority groups in the coming weeks.
So is yoga fundamentally a religious activity?
“Yoga is such a broad term – that’s what causes a difficulty,” says Rebecca Ffrench, the co-founder YogaLondon – a yoga teacher academy – and the philosophy tutor at the school.
Yoga classes vary. While some feature the chanting of Hindu sutras, others will make vaguer references to a “life force” or “cosmic energy”. A session might end with a greeting of “namaste” and a gesture of prayer. There will probably be a moment for meditation, at which point participants may be encouraged to repeat the sacred word “Om”, which Buddhists and Hindus regard as a primordial sound which brought the universe into being.
But other classes may make no overt reference to spirituality at all.
That’s the way things are in Iran, where yoga is very popular. It has managed to flourish in a country with Sharia law and an Islamist political system, by divesting itself of anything that could be construed as blasphemy. Yoga teachers are careful to always refer to “the sport of yoga” and are accredited by the Yoga Federation, which operates in the same way as a tennis or football organisation.
Similar prohibitions on spiritual yoga exist in Malaysia, where a 2008 fatwa – a religious ruling – resulted in a yoga ban in five states. In the capital Kuala Lumpur, the physical activity is permitted but chanting and meditation are forbidden. Clerics in the world’s most populous Islamic nation – Indonesia – make a similar distinction.
Yoga has been repackaged in the US as well.
Children at nine primary schools in Encinitas, California, take part in classes twice a week based on a style of yoga called ashtanga yoga. After some parents complained – US schools, like Indian ones, are secular – the Sanskrit names for the postures were replaced with standard English names and some special child-friendly ones, such as “kangaroo” “surfer” and “washing machine”. The lotus position has been rebranded “criss-cross apple sauce”, the Surya namaskar has become the “opening sequence” and the organisers insist that it is all just a form of physical exercise.
Excerpts from BBC article Does Doing Yoga Make You a Hindu? by William Kremmer
Find out more
- Yoga and Islam appeared on Heart and Soul on the BBC World Service, presented by Azadeh Moaveni
- Listen again to Part One about Iran or Part Two about Malaysia
- Get the Heart and Soul podcast