Appreciating Yoga’s relationship to Hinduism (instead of fearing it)

hanuman

People seem deathly afraid of Hinduism cropping up in the West for some strange reason. Just this week, two state legislators in Idaho protested when a Hindu prayer was said before the start of a session. One of the big debates of late is whether Yoga is a Hindu practice. There seems to even be legal rulings on whether or not Yoga should be considered a religion or a workout. In the same vein, why are we not afraid that Sufism is rooted in Islam, or that Qabbala is rooted in Judaism?

Many of the texts and concepts in Yoga are shared with people who practice Hinduism. The Bhagavad Gita (Song of God) being a good example. It the dialogue between Arjuna and Krishna on a battlefield where Arjuna is in the middle. On one side are his teachers, and the other side are his family members. Arjuna is in an awful dilemma. Krishna advises him to use Yoga to conquer the dilemma and to do his dharma as a warrior.

Other Hindu elements crop of in the names of Yoga Asanas. Bharadvaja, Vashistha, Marchi, and Hanuman just to name a few were figures in the Mahabharata. Of course in Western Yoga classes, these poses are renamed based on their body movements like “the splits” and “twists.”

My view may not be a popular one, but instead of watering down the names and concepts of Yoga that come from Hinduism, why not embrace them? I am not asking you to drop your faith and become Hindu. But I am asking that Yoga practitioners in the West more deeply explore the relationship between Yoga and Hinduism, rather than just using the parts that are convenient for them to present to a judge who will rule and decide if Yoga is considered a religion or a workout.

When you study the Yoga Sutras and read about Siddhis  (superpowers that come from Yoga practice), it is helpful to read about Hanuman who displays his mastery of all the Siddhis in his efforts to reunite Sita and Rama. These stories show how powers cultivated in Yoga can be used properly and for the good of mankind. Not to say that anyone actually will attain Siddhis in their practice, but If you woke up one day and were able to float on air, wouldn’t it be nice to have a guideline on how to use this power?

Being a New Mexico native, then moving to Hawai’i, I have seen the recurrent theme of having a rich culture be exploited by people who first try to make money off the unique attributes of the culture, then completely water it down until there is no culture left to market. They just built a Target store in my hometown of Kailua, transforming a charming beach community into Anywhere Else, USA full of traffic. I see the same thing happening in Yoga. Look no further than the Wanderlust Facebook page to see what I mean.

So my challenge to practitioners of Yoga in the West is to read some of these texts like The Bhagavad Gita and the Ramayana. Try to understand the concepts of reincarnation even though  that may not be your belief system. And minimally, use the Sanskrit terms of the Asana names instead of just calling them things like “updog.” As a deeper practice, go 30 days without buying things from those who commercialize and exploit Yoga, like the Lululemon store. Your Yoga practice will only get richer as a result.

 

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21 thoughts on “Appreciating Yoga’s relationship to Hinduism (instead of fearing it)

  1. k8macdo

    I agree that a sincere study of the main sacred texts related to the yogic tradition is a way of honouring its cultural matrix. I am a practising Christian, but I can and do delight in the Ramayana, the Yoga Sutras, and the Mahabharata. The truths within these sacred texts help to inform and deepen my practice of the religion I was born into. Using the Sanskrit names for the asanas is another way to acknowledge the origins of yoga.

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  2. Scott@SkepticMeditations

    Hoorah! This is a genuine answer to the is “yoga religious” question. The popular media and apologists are disingenuous, if not outright deceptive when they say yoga is not religious. Eastern/Asian religions are appropriated and transformed for Western consumption. Read “There’s nothing religious about mindfulness (which is a Buddhist based practice) http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/03/06/david-gelles-mindful-work-meditation-business-_n_6815118.html .

    The people who claim that there’s nothing religious about yoga (and/or mindfulness meditation) are the ones who coincidently also have the most to gain financially by selling more yoga (or meditation) classes, books, and products, and to grow their ever-expanding “religiously and culturally illiterate” consumer-base. Sooner or later the “no religion” bubble will burst, and consumers will become disenchanted when they find out that yoga and mindfulness are steeped in religious origins: entirely inseparable from cultural and religious traditions of Hinduism or Buddhism.

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    1. k8macdo

      Religion, in spite of the inevitable flaws due to it being a human institution, can certainly enchant and uplift our minds and hearts. I think it is a fear of the unknown that makes some people say that a tradition other than their own is “satanic”. I find this sad, because they then cut themselves off from experiencing the beautiful expression of truth in other religious traditions.

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  3. dondeg

    Wow! This is shocking to me. It is a very nice piece of writing, but I live in my own little world and have no contact with Westernized commercial yoga, which I do not take too seriously. What is shocking is the issue should even come up. It’s like asking if Christianity is European or something. It almost doesn’t make sense. Yoga is Hindu through and through. What else could it be? And its not just a matter of understanding the “cultural matrix” whatever that is supposed to mean. One cannot even understand basic concepts in yoga without knowing basic concepts in Hinduism. This thing in the West that people call yoga is not yoga at all. It is like calling a politician “honest”. You can say it, but it doesn’t make it so. Ugh, I am going back to my little world of real yoga now.

    Again, it was an excellent post and thank you very much for posting it. Nothing against you at all. I am just shocked that anyone would suggest yoga is not Hindu. I tell you, they don’t call this place “Maya” for nothing! The depths of avidya never cease to amaze me.

    Best to you,

    Don

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    1. yogibattle Post author

      Thanks Don!

      You would be surprised at the amount of avidya in Westernized “yoga.” I wished that people would call it something else. What people are practicing can’t even be considered “asana” because it is rajasic (blasting music and using weights whist in the posture) and does not direct the citta towards quietude.

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      1. dondeg

        Hello, Sir!

        Nice to meet you! Wow. Yeah, that’s just silly. You can’t listen to music or touch objects while you meditate…it defeats the whole purpose! Yes, it would be nice if it got a new name. Not that it’s likely to happen. It is very strange that there is such a bifurcation between “real” yoga, and these “false idol” yogas. But I suspect such has always been the case.

        If you look closely at Hinduism, this phenomenon seems to have been contained to some extent by the way the Hindu teachings are structured. The same story (or lesson, or idea) is taught in several forms: as a simple, entertaining “God” myth story that regular people can identify with, as a philosophical idea, and usually there is a corresponding advanced yoga method so a person can experience the idea under consideration. This multi-tiered way to present the message seems to put a limit around how far those who didn’t do practice (yoga) could take the material. No such limits exist in our culture and so, a couple facets of hatha yoga have been fetishized. That is what Western cultures do in general since the time of the Romans, make fetishes.

        Funny thing is, Patanjali has aphorisms for everything. The thing to do in this circumstance is ignore it and spend your time studying and doing the real thing.

        While we are on this note…can you imagine what this legion of fake yoga practitioners would think about some of the stuff I’m writing over at my blog? What? You need MATH to understand yoga?? WTF!!!!

        Haha, that would clean the cupboard real quick, if you know what I mean! 🙂

        Ok, talk to you later! Again, thanks for initiating this discussion,

        Best,

        Don

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    2. k8macdo

      Certainly the yoga practice was born in a Hindu context. But in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the yogic path is presented more like a series of practices (the 8 limbs) that I would argue can be applied in any religious (or non-religious) context as an effective way to attain enlightenment. The yogic path is therefore not closed off to atheists, or Buddhists, or Christians, etc.

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      1. dondeg

        Hi

        Thank you for replying. Just because yoga comes from Hinduism and requires some knowledge of Hinduism to understand the meaning of the Ashtanga and other aspects of yoga does not rule out anybody from practicing yoga. By your logic, Christians and so on should not eat at an Indian restaurant!

        Best wishes,

        Don

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  4. yogibattle Post author

    Thank you for your interesting discourse K8 and dondeg. As I have stated in previous posts, I like to view the ten commandments next to the yoga sutras and see how similar they are rather than different. Yoga is an infinite continuum and there are different levels of practitioners as stated in the Yoga Sutras. I consider myself a very mild practitioner as I am a householder and put my dharma there instead of to austere and higher yogic practices. That being said, any practice of Yoga, whether it be poorly executed asanas at the gym or immersion into the waters of the Ganges, is taking one step closer to seeing Purusha clearly.

    When the intention is to better oneself through yoga, I don’t mind what ever form the practice takes. When the intention is to make money, agitate the citta and spread avidya, that is when I become critical and sharp tongued in my posts.

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  5. Scott@SkepticMeditations

    I read the comments and wonder…
    @dondeg: How do you know your “yoga” or the yoga you define is the “real” yoga? And everyone else’s is “fake” yoga? Or, are you assuming only if a Hindu practices x brand of yoga then that’s real yoga? I mean how does someone come to know whether one’s practice, teaching, or system is “real” versus “fake”?
    What website do you have? You don’t mention one in your comments.

    @k8macdo: Do you think atheists get the same thing out of yoga meditation as Hindus or the spirtual-metaphysical practitioners?
    I am a skeptic and realized a few years ago I was an atheist–the god hypothesis makes no rational sense. I don’t need it anymore. I used to be a Christian/Catholic, converted to Hinduism/was a monk in Paramahansa Yogananda’s Monastic Order. I’m now a skeptic about the god hypothesis and supernatural claims such as the salvation/burning up of karma (sins), samadhi (siddhis and liberation in the body), kundalini, past lives, Brahma/Self-realization). I practice yoga meditation but no longer find anything supernatural about it, now that I can’t believe in the god hypothesis and miracles.

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    1. dondeg

      Hi.

      That is very kind of you to ask. I know there is a large variety of yoga practices. They all revolve around Patanjali’s original definition: yoga chitta vritti nirodha. If something doesn’t follow this prescription, then it is not yoga. Yoga seeks to still the mind. It is not “anything goes”. It is the opposite: still the mind. If there is any activity involved that, as our kind host said “agitate the citta”, then it is fair to call it “fake” yoga.

      My site is https://dondeg.wordpress.com. Thank you for asking.

      If you don’t mind me commenting on your skepticism. When it comes to this stuff, we must all be led by our inner truths. The real issue is self-honesty. As long as that is there, then whatever you think or believe is the right thing for you to think and believe. I constantly go through different types of skepticism. Life is change: learn, do, grow, learn some more, do some more, grow some more.

      If you are interested in an intellectual rationalization of these things, that is what I do at my blog. I have a ball mixing science, physics, yoga, math, philosophy, and all kinds of crazy stuff as I go through my own personal views of this stuff. I have a weird kind of slap stick sense of humor mixed with a teacher lecturing in class kind of style. I have fun writing this way, and I think people also enjoy reading it.

      And the irony is, I DON’T meditate. Not in the usual sense at least. I figured out how to lucid dream/astral project/OBE a long time ago, and experiment with altered states of consciousness. That is my hook into all this. In studying and trying to understand what these experiences are, I’ve been led to yoga, mainly Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, because I have found it to provide the best explanations and understandings of all these weird things I’ve experienced out of body.

      Anyway, this is all very interesting to me, and it is a real pleasure to be able to communicate with all of you about this, and share our various points of view. Thank you all for being open to communicate.

      My best wishes,

      Don

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    2. k8macdo

      I feel that … everything I see around me is a miracle. Each breath … is a miracle. Life, in all its infinite variety and endless change … is a miracle. And we are this : ) !

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  6. k8macdo

    I am not unaware that there is injustice in the world. But my point was that the miraculous presence of God is as close and intimate as the breath. God is love and compassion, and our destiny, I believe, is to open ourselves to this, allowing it to flow through ourselves to others. This will transform the injustice in the world.

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  7. chococatania

    Thanks for this post. I’m relatively new to yoga. I have “dabbled” in it – taking a few yoga classes here and there at some yoga studios where I live. In some ways it didn’t sit right. I remember seeing the yoga studio I went to selling a shirt that said, “Namaste, B*tches,” and I couldn’t wrap my head around that sentiment and what yoga should be…

    I’m a practicing Christian, and am very dedicated to Prayer and Scripture Study, but I don’t find Yoga to be challenging to my beliefs whatsoever. In fact, I think that truth cleaveth unto truth, and I”m in a constant search for truth – which is why I’ve really liked a lot of what I’ve learned about Yoga. Recently, I felt very spiritually prompted to start an at home yoga and meditation practice. It is challenging me (not my beliefs) – because I’ve always had a difficulty being still. This is an important aspect of any religion. (Be still, and know that I am God – a Christian teaching, even though many Christians may forget about that!)

    Anyway – thanks again for the post!

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    1. yogibattle Post author

      Thanks Chococatania! I’m glad you practice Yoga and feel it doesn’t interfere with your faith.

      I feel the same way as you about the “Namaste, B–ches” and #namasteeverydamnday of modern practitioners. Yoga is quite sacred to me and I feel these people don’t understand it by wearing such profanity.

      I appreciate your readership 🙂

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    2. k8macdo

      Dear Chocotania,
      I am a practising Christian too, and very devoted to the yogic path. I love to investigate Hindu scripture as well. I find that this helps to refine my understanding of Christianity. Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga practice are very applicable to any religious context : )

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