Has Yoga Strayed Too Far From Its Hindu Roots?

For centuries in India, yoga has been a practice rooted in the Hindu faith. Today, it is a massively popular fitness tradition in the United States, part of a wellness lifestyle for some 15 million Americans. And some Hindus are not happy with the way yoga is treated in the US. The Hindu American Foundation claims the tradition has strayed too far from its Hindu roots and has launched a campaign called 'Take Back Yoga.' In Tell Me More's weekly "Faith Matters" conversation, guest host Farai Chideya puts the question, "who owns yoga?" to Sheetal Shah of the Hindu American Foundation, and Virginia Cowen, a yoga instructor and body trainer.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Now it's time for "Faith Matters," the part of the program when we talk about matters of spirituality.

Today, a practice that has its roots in India but has become part of a health and wellness lifestyle for some 15 million Americans: yoga. Yoga has been practiced as part of the Hindu faith for centuries. But in the U.S. and other Western countries, it has evolved.

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CHIDEYA: Now, one group says this has gone too far. The Hindu-American Foundation claims yoga in the United States has strayed too far from its roots in Hindu philosophy and religion. They've launched a campaign called Take Back Yoga, which asks Americans to appreciate yoga's debt to Hinduism.

The issue has sparked a heated debate within the tranquil world of yoga, and we wanted to know more about it. So we've called on Sheetal Shah of the Hindu-American Foundation. She heads the Take Back Yoga campaign.

And we are also joined by Virginia Cowen. She's an associate professor of health, physical education and dance at Queensborough Community College in New York. She's also a board member of Yoga Alliance, a group that works to encourage a standard for yoga instruction. They're both in our New York bureau. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Professor VIRGINIA COWEN (Board Member, Yoga Alliance; Queensborough Community College): Thank you.

Ms. SHEETAL SHAH (Director of Development, Hindu-American Foundation): Happy to be here.

CHIDEYA: So Sheetal, let me begin with you. When you talk about this campaign, Take Back Yoga, what - specifically - is it asking people to do, and who is it asking to change?

Ms. SHAH: The impetus of this campaign really began a couple years ago, when we noticed in countless yoga magazines, and specifically Yoga Journal, the lack of reference to Hindu or Hinduism. But it was full of references to other faiths, particularly Buddhism - and even mystical Christianity, for example.

So ultimately, when we got a hold of somebody at Yoga Journal and they told us that yes, in fact, we avoid using the terms Hindu and Hinduism because they carry too much baggage, we, as an advocacy organization for the Hindu-American community, obviously felt compelled to speak up.

CHIDEYA: Let me bring in Virginia Cowen. You teach health and physical education; you're a yoga instructor. So do you agree with Sheetal's perspective on the practice of yoga in this country, and what Take Back Yoga is trying to do?

Prof. COWEN: I'm not Hindu. I am a body worker so I practice massage, Pilates, personal training, in addition to yoga. And my training in yoga included instruction in yoga philosophy. And I will, as a practitioner, do anything that's legal to get people to stretch, because I think it's very good for them.

I think people need to practice stress reduction, and however people do that is great by me. But many of the classes, I think, have evolved into something else, and then yoga is just the sales tool rather than something that's an intact practice.

CHIDEYA: And so, what about this hybrid fitness genres? I want to ask both of you about this, but Virginia first. You know, we heard about lip yoga and, you know, Mommy and Me Yoga, and power yoga. I mean, do you think that it's been over-marketed or over-specified?

Prof. COWEN: A spa director I heard at a conference once said that she did a class called facelift yoga because she just wanted to get people in the door. And so when you get that extreme - disco yoga, for example, or yoga with loud music totally defeats the purpose of withdrawing your senses and turning the attention inward.

CHIDEYA: Sheetal, what do you think about that?

Ms. SHAH: I actually agree with a lot of what Virginia said. I think that there are spectrums that are pretty legitimate, and then there are some that you hear about - yoga and wine, yoga and chocolate, naked yoga - makes you kind of wonder exactly what's going on, and is that really yoga? Is that really serving the purpose of what yoga was meant to do?

CHIDEYA: If you're just joining us, you are listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're speaking with Sheetal Shah, of the Hindu American Foundation; and Virginia Cowen, associate professor of health, physical education and dance at the City University of New York. We're talking about a campaign by the Hindu American Foundation called Take Back Yoga, asking Americans to recognize yoga's roots in Hinduism.

Virginia, I'm going to go back to you. Do you think that it's important to explicitly talk about the link to Hinduism, the link to all of the different Vedic texts, and the gods that are incorporated, even, into the names of the poses -or is that not important to you?

Prof. COWEN: As an instructor, it's not important to me. And I guess if you look at the eight limbs of yoga, there are some basic tenants in that, that sort of apply to human nature - nonviolence, noncompetition. And that part of philosophy, I think, can be easily incorporated even into a fitness class.

There are spiritual organizations - Hindus who practice yoga, for example; Buddhists who practice yoga as part of their religious practice. There are also people who have sort of the psycho-spiritual approach, and that's the New Age approach. And there's some philosophy, I think, that has a place across everything. But you'll see it adapt and change.

I've been in classes, actually, where people have left because they perceived -when I mentioned things like contentment and being truthful to oneself, they perceived it as a religious conflict.

CHIDEYA: I want to bring in another voice. We actually spoke earlier with Pandit Rajmani Tigunait. He's the spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute, based in Pennsylvania. And we reached him in India. He believes yoga was defined and is rooted in the Hindu Vedic text, but it's also inherently inclusive. This is what he had to say; take a listen.

Dr. PANDIT RAJMANI TIGUNAIT (Spiritual Director, Himalayan Institute): People are looking for gaining access to their own core being. I don't know whether I really practice yoga because I'm Hindu, or I practice yoga because I'm a human being.

CHIDEYA: Sheetal, he said at the end: I don't know whether I practice yoga because I'm a Hindu, or because I'm a human being. So if he is saying that, why shouldn't you let people find their own spiritual connection to yoga?

Ms. SHAH: I think part of the issue that goes back is the way that Hinduism has really been defined. For most Hindus, it's more of a way of life. And yoga is something that's kind of been incorporated into our lives, day in and day out. But that being said, Hinduism is a very pluralistic faith, and it's very accepting and very universal.

And interestingly enough, I actually just read an old article by a professor Stephen Prothero, and he was referring to the Vedanta Society. And at the very end, he quoted one of the swamis and essentially, the swamis said that whether you are a Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim, if you are truly searching for the inner divine within you, you are a Hindu. Because the idea within Hinduism is that the whole world is one family, and that the divine resides within each of us. And that's, essentially, the idea of yoga as well.

CHIDEYA: Do you think that ultimately, that makes some people uncomfortable if they really are following another tradition, and then they're asked to really think deeply about what their yoga practice means on a different level?

Ms. SHAH: It's very dependent upon the individual. Are there people of faiths who believe that their path is the only way, and all others are condemned? Yes. And if they delve into a yoga practice and find something more, then at some point, I believe that they will come into a conundrum.

But again, that's very dependent upon the individual's belief as well as how far they really go into their yoga practice.

CHIDEYA: Sheetal, is there an elephant in the room here - which is ethnicity and appropriation? In the United States, there have been so many waves of appropriation of so many different peoples' culture - you know, from jazz crossing over, blues crossing over. It's kind of an American tradition to appropriate different peoples' cultures. You know, is this just part of what we do here? And if so, does it make a difference if you speak your mind?

Ms. SHAH: I think that without the marketing culture of this country, I don't think yoga would be where it is today. And I think those of us who are advocating for this Take Back Yoga program - we are as comfortable calling ourselves Indian as we are American, so I don't necessarily think it's an ethnicity-based issue.

I think the issue is the way Hinduism is perceived in the broader culture. And it tends to be stereotyped into kind of this caste, cow and karma faith - where it's very colorful; ritualistic, multiple gods with multiple heads and arms. And how, then, do you reconcile this practice, which is so pure and calming and looking inwards, with a faith that's seemingly so completely opposite?

CHIDEYA: We've been speaking with Sheetal Shah of the Hindu American Foundation. She's leading the campaign Take Back Yoga. Virginia Cowen is an associate professor of health, physical education and dance at the City University of New York. She is also a board member of Yoga Alliance, a group that works to encourage a standard for yoga instruction. They were both in our New York bureau. And thanks so much for joining us.

Prof. COWEN: Thank you.

Ms. SHAH: Thank you.

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CHIDEYA: At TELL ME MORE, we'll be celebrating National Poetry Month in April. And an occasional series, called "Muses and Metaphor," will combine two passions of this program: social media and poetry. We would like you to go on Twitter and tweet us your original poetry - using fewer than 140 characters, of course. We'll air our favorites. Tweet us using the hashtag #TMMPoetry.

You can learn more at the TELL ME MORE website. Go to npr.org, and click on the Programs menu to find TELL ME MORE. Again, the hashtag is #TMMPoetry.

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CHIDEYA: It's TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Farai Chideya.

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