Hindus want recognition of yoga’s religious roots – Press

For many of the nearly 16 million Americans who practice yoga, the ancient discipline is about shedding pounds, increasing stamina, reducing stress, finding inner peace or some combination of benefits.

For Hindus, it is an integral part of their religion, a path toward mastery over the mind and body and bringing them closer to the divine.

Some leading American Hindus don't mind the profusion of yoga classes in strip malls and on fitness-club mats in the Inland area and elsewhere, but they're asking that yoga instructors do more to explain the Hindu roots of the practice.

The Maryland-based Hindu American Society has launched a Take Back Yoga campaign to increase knowledge about yoga's importance to Hinduism.

"It's a matter of acknowledgment," said Suhag Shukla, the group's managing director.

Yet some Inland yoga instructors say emphasizing the connection with Hinduism could turn off some students.

Tracey Pilliter avoids asking her students at Riverside's Canyon Crest Athletic Club to spend extended time with their palms together in front of their hearts or foreheads, because it is a prayer position.

"I try to shy away from any of the spiritual connotations of yoga, so it can appeal to everyone in the class," she said. "I leave it up to students to get whatever spirituality they might want to get out of it."

Some dispute that yoga was developed as a Hindu religious practice and say it predates Hinduism. But there is no doubt that it is an important part of ancient Hindu texts.

"Yoga" in Hinduism encompasses a range of practices, and the yoga typically taught in suburban studios relates only to one part of a complex life philosophy that is thousands of years old, said B.V. Venkatakrishna Sastry, a professor at Hindu University of America in Orlando, Fla., which offers a doctorate in yoga philosophy and meditation.

Shukavak Dasa, a priest at Shri Lakshmi Narayan Mandir, a Hindu temple in Riverside, said most Americans know little about Hinduism and many have negative perceptions about the religion.

"Yoga is obviously something that is perceived as good, as positive," he said. "If this is something we can capitalize on because it's already in the popular culture, by all means, yes, we should do it. Anything that promotes understanding between peoples is good."

Dasa said that people of any faith can get spiritual meaning out of the mental and physical control in yoga.

"It can bring you closer to your own conception of God," he said.


The Rev. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and one of the nation's foremost evangelical theologians, said yoga cannot be separated from Hinduism. In a September essay, he called yoga un-Christian because it uses the body to achieve consciousness of the divine. Christians should rely only on Jesus to attain all they need, he wrote.

Leeza Villagomez knows an inseparable connection exists between Hinduism and yoga. Yet Villagomez said yoga deepens her Christian faith, rather than detracts from it.

"It is so beautiful and sacred," said Villagomez, owner of Yoga Den in Corona.

Villagomez trains yoga instructors and requires them to learn about its links with Hinduism. If students query her about religious aspects of yoga, she will talk about it. But she does not discuss the subject in every class.

"I don't want to force anything upon anybody," she said. "If it flows, it flows. If it's pushed, it's not going to work."

Rita Oza has taught yoga at her Hindu temple, and she's taught it to non-Hindus at a San Bernardino fitness center.

"The technique of calming the mind can be applied to any human being," she said.

But the San Bernardino woman tailored her classes to her audience. The fitness-center class focused less on the "aum" sound because of its association with Hinduism, Oza said.

"I didn't want to create a thought in anyone's mind that I was teaching religion," she said.


Heather Matinde, 30, said she would not be bothered by a discussion of yoga's Hindu roots in her class at Breathe Yoga in Redlands.

"In fact, I'd be interested in it," said Matinde, who is not affiliated with any organized religious denomination.

But Matinde, of Redlands, said other students might be uncomfortable with Hindu religious references.

Breathe Yoga owner Julie Jackson Chenoweth said she deliberately does not place Hindu or Buddhist icons in her studio to avoid distractions for students who might view them as conflicting with their religious beliefs.

Jackson Chenoweth said she encourages her students to look within themselves while practicing yoga.

"Simply by being still and quiet allows you to connect to God, yourself and your faith," she said. "The basic tenet is practicing love and kindness."

Once a week, Jackson Chenoweth has an Indian-music trio play while students practice yoga. On a recent morning, the trio sang songs in Sanskrit and English that referred to Hindu deities. But they also played "Amazing Grace," knowing that the song would connect with some students.

Students in tights and sweats stretched and swayed and slowly breathed in and out as Jackson gently asked them to let go of tensions, judgmentalism and expectations.

"This is an opportunity to be present with our body, mind and spirit ..." she said. "letting reveal the light that's always been there and always will be."

Caitlin Brown, 23, of Redlands, who is Christian, said after Jackson Chenoweth's class that she is in constant prayer while practicing yoga.

"I pray for health and wellness and for those around me and center my thoughts with God," she said. "It's a spiritual journey every time I'm here."

Reach David Olson at 951-368-9462 or dolson@PE.com

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