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Is yoga Hindu?

Given that we see yoga practically everywhere we turn, from strip-mall yoga studios to advertisements for the Gap, one might assume a blanket acceptance of yoga as an acceptable consumer choice.

Yet, a growing movement courts fear of the popularization of yoga, warning that yoga is essentially Hindu. Some Christians, including Albert Mohler (President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), Pat Robertson (television evangelist and founder of the Christian Coalition of America), and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the Roman Catholic Church, warn about the dangers of yoga given the perceived incompatibility between what they believe is its Hindu essence and Christianity. Some well-known Americans, such as Mohler, add that yoga’s popularization threatens the Christian essence of American culture. Hindu protesters, most notably represented by the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), criticize yoga insiders for failing to recognize yoga’s so-called Hindu origins and illegitimately co-opting yoga for the sake of profit.

Protesters rely on revisionist histories that essentialize yoga as Hindu, ignoring its historical and lived heterogeneity. By the end of the first millennium C.E., however, a variety of yoga systems were widespread in South Asia as Hindu, Buddhist, Jains, and others prescribed them. Following the twelfth-century Muslim incursions into South Asia and the establishment of Islam as a South Asian religion, even Muslim Sufis appropri­ated elements of yoga. Therefore, throughout its premodern history, yoga was culturally South Asian but did not belong to any single religious tradition. Rather than essentializing premodern yoga by reifying its content and aims, it is more accurate to identify it as heterogeneous in practice and characteristic of the doctrin­ally diverse culture of South Asia.

Antoinettes Yoga Garden. Photo by Robert Begil. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.
Antoinettes Yoga Garden. Photo by Robert Begil. CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

The history of modern postural yoga, a fitness reg­imen made up of sequences of often-onerous bodily postures, the movement through which is synchronized with the breath, also problematizes the identification of yoga as Hindu. That history is a paragon of cultural encounters in the process of constructing something new in response to transnational ideas and movements, including military calisthenics, modern medicine, and the Western European and North American physical culture of gymnasts, bodybuilders, martial experts, and contortionists. Yoga proponents constructed new postural yoga systems in the twentieth century, and nothing like them appeared in the historical record up to that time. In other words, the methods of postural yoga were specific to the twentieth century and would not have been considered yoga prior.

In short, recent scholarship has shown that the type of yoga that dominates the yoga industry today—modern postural yoga—does not have its so-called “origins” in some static, “classical,” Hindu yoga system; rather, it is a twentieth-century transnational product, the aims of which include modern conceptions of physical fitness, stress reduction, beauty, and overall well-being. Hence recent scholarship on yoga, both historical and lived, attends to the particularities of different yoga traditions, which vary based largely on social context.

Nevertheless, protesters against the popularization of yoga, in strikingly similar ways, are polemical, prescriptive, and share misguiding orientalist and reformist strategies that essentialize yoga as Hindu. Interestingly though, the two protesting positions emerge as much from the cultural context—that is, consumer culture—that they share with popularized yoga as from a desire to erect boundaries between themselves and yoga insiders. For example, protesters participate in the same consumer dialect, assuming the importance of “choosing” a fitness regimen that fits one’s personal lifestyle and serves the goal of self-perfection. The protesters positions, in other words, are as much the products of the social context they share with postural yoga advocates as popularized yoga itself.

Image Credit: Yoga. Photo by Matt Madd. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Raja

    Pathanjali, a Hindu sage, is the originator of Yoga. The author would do well to read the original work of the sage. Yoga asanas start with chanting “Ohm” which is the very symbol of Hinduism. Instead of appropriating Yoga as belonging to every other religion/culture, give credit to Hindus for inventing it for the sake of the world!

  2. India Kern

    This controversy is the very reason I created Faithful Warrior Christian yoga

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  3. Daniel

    I don’t claim to be an authority on the origins of yoga, but the traditions you had mentioned ie. Jainism, Buddhism and Sufism (specifically in India) adopted the ideals of yoga, not the current system of westernized gymnastics, but the philosophy.

    Our friend Raja above feels that Patanjali is the architect of yoga, but this is not true, because there is evidence that yoga has been around much earlier during pre-vedic periods as evident by carvings of Pashupata or Shiva in padmasana.

    To call yoga Hindu would be accurate, because as a philosophical system it roughly began the region of India. I can understand why other religions such as Christianity would be upset with the system, because it does promote monism or mono-cum-dualism, because Christianity is monotheistic and the idea that there really is no individual soul goes against everything Christianity touts.

    Thanks for letting me share my two cents.

  4. rishi

    Pathanjali himself was not the originator of yoga but more of a compiler. Yoga has been around from the Vedic periods (which can go back in time as far as or even earlier than 5000 BC) in ancient India. Now please note that Vedic is the precursor of Hinduism. So please do not distort the facts by stating that yoga is not hindu in origin. It is another fact that other religions have borrowed from the philosophies of yoga.

  5. BRN

    Author nicely obfuscates that what is called “Hinduism” today is itself an “historical and lived heterogeneity”. Hinduism is a forest of interconnected trees and indeed Yoga is a fruit of some trees and not the entire forest. But every tree of the forest is linked hence owns the fruits of the forest. And to credit Muslims as owners of yoga, is to credit an invasive species which cut stems and shoots from Hinduism to grow hybrid Sufism. So on the whole “manure”. But still Hinduism does not own Yoga or any such wisdom, Hinduism as I know it believes, knowledge and traditions are owned by everyone who respects its values and roots, enriches and propagates it. Unfortunately “the west” has a poor track record in that.

  6. Padmasana

    This author is very dishonest in this piece. What a shame she considers herself an academic. Hindus are not in the business of revising their religious scriptures which contain the philosophy of yoga…but the author twists basic facts to then say Hindus are the revisionists! What the…?!?
    Pray tell, whose scriptures contain yoga? Is it talked about in the Koran? Torah? Bible? Guess what, prof? Yoga as a religious philosophy is in the HINDU (read: Vedic) scriptures: Bhagavad Gita for starters. Author talks about history. Which religious philosophy predates all others? Clue: it’s ain’t trendy Buddhism! What’s next? This so-called academic is going to co-opt Hinduism’s holy scriptures? Unreal.

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