Battle emerges over yoga’s recognition of Hindu roots

American yoga is engaged in a battle of the spirit and body.

The Kensington, Md.-based Hindu American Foundation’s “Taking Back Yoga” movement aims to help people realize that yoga is rooted in Hindu philosophy. Despite the Westernization of the practice, it is still important to acknowledge yoga’s basic Hindu principles, said Sheetal Shah, senior director of the Hindu American Foundation.

“The idea of yoga as a largely physical practice is a very Western notion, and a lot of people who go into a yoga class ultimately find there’s something more to it beyond the physical practice,” she said. “Yes, there is something more to it, and the whole overarching philosophy is rooted in Hindu philosophy.”

But not everyone agrees.

Perhaps contemporary yoga and traditional Hindu yoga should be viewed separately, according to Gerald James Larson, professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of the 2008 book, “Yoga: India’s Philosophy of Meditation.”

Larson said there is a clear distinction between original yoga traditions in their classical formulation in Sanskrit text and contemporary yoga that developed in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Many popular contemporary yoga schools are a fusion of the ancient Hindu Mysore tradition and British gymnastic exercises, which developed when British imperialists lived in India in the 19th century. This infusion of gymnastics began the transformation of yoga from a purely spiritual practice into a fitness regimen.

Larson said it makes sense to separate contemporary yoga – largely a form of exercise – from traditional Hindu yoga, one of the oldest philosophies of India. In fact, there are two distinct yoga tracts that are practiced in India: One variety is “strictly philosophical,” Larson said, and the other was developed later and was called hatha yoga, which translates as “exertion.”

“They thought, ‘Do we really have to worry about all this philosophical stuff? What if we focused largely on breathing and postures, and went beyond or ignored the more technical stuff?” Larson said. “Some of this gets quite extreme and needs to be distinguished from the original classical yoga.”

Nowadays, the common yoga practitioner enjoys the spiritual and meditative elements of the sport but has very little knowledge of its roots and history. Yoga teachers know the basic Hindu names for certain poses and positions, but their understanding of the Hindu philosophy is basic and sometimes nonexistent.

Appealing to the average consumer, however, is important when it comes to contemporary yoga. Lisa Pickert, a yoga teacher at studios in Wicker Park, said a yoga teacher must be sensitive to the fact that each person has a different reason for attending a yoga class. She added that a teacher’s responsibility is to make sure each student’s goals are fulfilled.

“You know that some people [come to class] for the fitness component, and some people come for the mental component,” she said. “We use Sanskrit terminology as well as English terminology. We say it both ways to address the roots, but also to make it inviting and accessible to anyone.”

Still, Pickert said, spirituality is encouraged in the studio, even if religious history is not emphasized.

“You can look at it as a moving meditation, or as a way to get in touch with something inside you, which is in common with religion,” she said.  

Furthermore, yoga teachers can still convey the important spiritual messages of yoga without formal religious training, Pickert said.

“I don’t think it’s necessary to go the ‘extreme’ route,” she said. “There’s a teacher here who would say yoga works on its own: You teach people how to really breathe and find subtle sensations in places they didn’t know they had access to before.”

Larson said contemporary yoga, as a recreational sport, is perfectly acceptable, but it ought to be taken at face value. In other words, it’s a fitness regimen, and pretending it is something more is silly.

“If they try to pass off what they’re currently teaching as spiritual, then I think they need to go back to school and learn a little bit about the tradition,” he said. “If they’re going to use the tradition, they need a much more sophisticated understanding of the tradition.

“Yoga of the modern variety is like a sports program – it’s like volleyball or badminton or tennis,” he said. “It may have wellness values insofar as it’s a healthy exercise program, but it’s not the real thing.”

Shah said the goal of Taking Back Yoga is not to convince the Western world that it must alter contemporary yoga to fit ancient standards. The goal is simply to help people recognize where yoga came from.

“People are starting to put yoga and Hinduism in the same sentence, and we’ve never really seen that before,” Shah said. “We’ve planted the seed, and for some people, they may want to grow that.”