Yoga & Hinduism

I have practiced yoga, on and off, for the last 20 years and grew up hearing about yoga philosophy, astrology and ayurveda. The later happened quite naturally growing up in India in a practicing Hindu household. When I first started taking yoga classes at a local gym in Calcutta, I considered it to be a form of exercise, the best recommended workout by my then yoga certified instructor. Apparently, he trained with the same guru as Bikram Chaudhury of Bikram Yoga fame. Anyway, my point is that I never consciously associated yoga to Hinduism growing up in urban India, but in retrospect, I realize the connection was always there, it just was never made explicit. By itself, yoga is not a religion to me except for the lotus pose my grandmother said was essential for meditation, and unquestioning, we sat that way every evening during prayer time. I did see my dad do pranayama during religious ceremonies. And, of course every move in our life was “supposedly” governed by the location of stars in the Universe, aka astrology. Overall though, our generation was not particularly bothered with ancient Hindu philosophy nor did our elders teach us about our long history. We were too busy following western culture! I loved my all-girl catholic school and I spent more time in church masses than in meditation!

I was reintroduced to yoga after taking a yoga class at San Francisco State University, where the instructor talked about astrology and quoted Hindu philosophers I’d heard of only in passing while growing up. It made me a little uncomfortable…it was like she was lecturing me about my own culture! I have taken a lot of different yoga classes in San Francisco and the Peninsula since then, often being the only Indian in the class and struggling to keep up with her fellow American students 🙂 I kid! Honestly I’m not that bad, thanks to my yoga training earlier on in life 🙂

I admire the dedication of a lot of yogis I met in America and honestly learned so much more about yoga here. I also met some genuinely nice people through yoga who I hold in very high regard. But, I am still baffled by the lack of acknowledgment to the country from where yoga originates and the commercialization of yoga. Have you noticed that the yoga magazines hardly ever feature any Indian faces other than the few old bearded sadhus (Indian priests) with a tower of dreadlocks on their heads? On the other hand, most yoga brands and accessories revolve around Hinduism and Indian culture. For example, pictures of Hindu gods like Ganesha and symbols like Om are abundantly used by yoga brands. I’ve even seen Sanskrit alphabets and henna designs on yoga clothing! But, people can’t make the connection with Hinduism because there is very little knowledge about it. Most still can’t tell the difference between the words “Hindi” and “Hindu”— the former is a language and the latter is the religion! Just the other day, I even overheard a lady ask the receptionist at my local Bikram yoga studio whether yoga originated in India or China?

Ganesha on yoga shirt

Ganesha on yoga pants

Hindu goddess on yoga shirt

Om, the most common symbol used by yoga brands

The 7 chakras with Sanskrit alphabets that forms an integral part of Hinduism

Henna designs on yoga brand

By now, you must be wondering why I started this controversial topic? Well, The NY Times article, Hindu Group Stirs a Debate Over Yoga’s Soul, is to blame for it 🙂 It did stir up some sentiments! I absolutely believe what Debbie Desmond, a yoga instructor in Williamsburg, Brooklyn says:

“Nobody owns yoga.”

But, then again, isn’t that the core business model of Bikram Yoga (which I now practice regularly) — owning 26 yoga poses done in a particular style?

A yoga class being held at Saraswathi Hall in Flushing, Queens.
Photo courtesy: The NY Times

On the other hand, being a parent I can also relate to Dr. Aseem Shukla’s (co-founder of Take Back Yoga) sentiments:

“We started this, really, for our kids,” said Dr. Shukla, an urologist and a second-generation Indian-American. “When our kids go to school and say they are Hindu, nobody says, ‘Oh, yeah, Hindus gave the world yoga.’ They say, ‘What caste are you?’ Or ‘Do you pray to a monkey god?’ Because that’s all Americans know about Hinduism.”

There will always be wars on patents and branding, whether it’s yoga or neem oil. It’s for the governments and corporations to fight, and honestly, whoever has more money/power will win. In the meantime, however, us Indians would definitely like a little more recognition in yoga, ayurveda and all the cool Hindu stuff! Please don’t box us into arranged marriages, outsourcing, call centers and Bollywood! We have some fun things to offer too. If you are nice to me, I might even give you the secret recipe for the herbal concoction that makes your skin glow! 🙂

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12 2010

3 Comments Add Yours ↓

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  1. Jillian #

    Hey Shari, that was a fantastic article. I loved reading it!!! So much truth in there. Keep up with it, there is still a lot of educating to be done!

  2. 2

    A lot of churches have yoga classes. But some Christians objected that it was bringing another religion into the church. So now there is a thing called Christian Yoga, whatever that could be. Check out

  3. Amar #

    Hey Shari,
    You sure about this? I thought the Vikings invented yoga; it started as a way to limber up before long pillaging expeditions. Or maybe it was the Huns. But it definitely wasn’t the Hindoos.
    Now for that secret herbal concoction. Can I have the recipe? For my wife, not me (honest).

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