RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Let's turn to another voice that wants to be heard. Something like 20 million people in the United States are practicing some form of yoga, from the very formalized Iyengar and Ashtanga forms to the much less formal Yoga Butt. But some Hindus want recognition that yoga is more than exercise, that it is part of a larger philosophy, one with deeps Hindu roots. NPR's Margot Adler reports.
MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: The forms of yoga go back centuries. Even here in this young country, the United States, the transcendentalists were doing yoga. New York Times Science reporter William Broad, who just wrote "The Science of Yoga," has been a practitioner since 1970. He says it's an antidote for our chaotic world.
WILLIAM BROAD: You see a wild correlation between yoga studios and the most stressful places on the planet - lower Manhattan or areas of Los Angeles, you know, where the traffic, you just want to - road rage is like, out there, right? Ding, ding, ding, ding; one yoga studio after another.
ADLER: People go into yoga for all kinds of reasons - health, fitness, spirituality, energy, creativity.
BROAD: It's because yoga works. Yoga works to unplug, to relax, to help tense urbanites deal with that tension.
ADLER: But some Hindus have been taken aback seeing much yoga practice in the United States emphasizing only the physical.
Sheetal Shah is one of the leaders of the Hindu American Foundation's campaign Take Back Yoga. It all started, she says, when they noticed the word Hindu was never mentioned in yoga magazines. You saw vedic, tantric - all kinds of other words except Hindu. So they called up one of the most popular magazines and asked why.
SHEETAL SHAH: And they said well, the word Hinduism has a lot of baggage. And so we were like, excuse me?
ADLER: Shah says she understands why some people have a problem. When people think of yoga, they think of something pure and serene. When they think of Hinduism, she says, they think...
SHAH: Multiple gods, with multiple heads and multiple arms and colorful, you know; ritualistic. It seems like, how do these two things fit together?
ADLER: She says the Take Back Yoga campaign wants to acknowledge the Hindu philosophical roots of yoga, while at the same time emphasizing that yoga is universal and appropriate for everyone.
SHAH: What we're trying to say is that the holistic practice of yoga goes beyond just a couple of asanas on a mat. It's a lifestyle, and it's a philosophy. How do you lead your life in terms of truthfulness and nonviolence and purity? The lifestyle aspect of yoga, I think, has been lost.
ADLER: Now, there's all kinds of scholarly debate about yoga's origins. Certainly, it goes back to a time before the name Hindu was used to describe a spiritual tradition based on the Vedas, although Shah would argue vedic, Hindu - it's all the same thing. But science reporter William Broad says yoga was really reinvented in the 1920s and '30s. Some of the tantric and sexual aspects were taken out, and more health and exercise put in. It was kind of cleaned up.
BROAD: There is no yoga. There are hundreds and thousand of things that are labeled yoga.
ADLER: He remembers practicing laughter yoga in Bombay, and having a great time.
BROAD: But in truth, there is nothing yogic about laughter yoga.
ADLER: Alison West has been teaching yoga since the 1980s. West says it's important that yoga be accessible to Jews, Christians, atheists - people who have no affinity with Hindu spiritual traditions but who use it for personal satisfaction, even emotional and mental awakening.
ALISON WEST: The genius of yoga is to be accessible to all. It's very important to not overstress the Hindu origins of yoga and at the same time, nobody should dismiss the vast importance that Hinduism has played in the evolution of yoga over the centuries.
GENNY KAPULER: I do feel that it is Hindu in my understanding, in my sensitivity of it.
ADLER: For Iyengar Yoga instructor Genny Kapuler, what is that understanding? I ask?
KAPULER: Every thought, every action has a ramification; that there is this moral responsibility to own what you do.
ADLER: Sheetal Shah argues the campaign is working because it has brought about this discussion. Many practitioners would argue they are going far beyond a few poses and breaths. Ginny Kapuler says she is amazed at how the practice she does has led to emotional stability, happiness, and a deepening of human kindness.
KAPULER: And I still am amazed, all the time, that this practice of even your weight on your feet - you know, bring your thighs back; over and over and over. I practice it over and over, and I think it and I teach it, and I change.
ADLER: Margot Adler, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.