“You can’t throw a yoga mat in New York without hitting someone coming out of a yoga session”. This quote by writer JR Thorpe in Bustle.com says it all. The ancient Indian-engineered system is today found all over the world. From serious practitioners to fad followers, everyone is attempting to figure out their own versions of yoga.
On top of it comes India’s BJP government which finds yoga a readymade platform to deploy its Hindutva worldwide, trumpet it as India’s “Hindu” contribution to the world and proudly proclaim it as yet another ancient invention of Bharatvarsha. Lest anyone still has doubts or lays claim to this ancient practice, the Modi government in September 2014 pushed the United Nations to declare June 21 as International Yoga Day, and in the last few years has organised public yogasana performances to garner global attention.
Fact however is that yoga has been an old Indian export that is already well rooted in many parts of the world, especially the West, even before the BJP came anywhere near power. So deeply entrenched that there are several versions ranging from pop yoga, alternative yoga to hot yoga to even a Church-friendly yoga. And, believe it or not, Islamic yoga.
In pop yoga, the aasanas are performed to an appropriately modified beat of music. Hot yoga creates tropical heat as in India where one will have to literally sweat it out doing the exercises. Islamic yoga is linked to mental, physical and spiritual practices that are in accordance with Quranic teachings.
In most cases, yoga has been pared to its bare essentials – that of stretching exercises with breathing to match the movements. To make it look exotic, esoteric and even arcane, some foreign instructors typically throw in Hindu ingredients like chanting “Om”, greet one another with folded hands saying “Namaste” besides using mats that have ancient Hindu symbols printed like the “Swastika” or the “Chakras”
Now, there are hardcore religious folks everywhere. Christians and even the church in some instances, have darkly wondered whether yoga is an attempt to “Hinduise” Christianity, whether it is alright for a devout Jesus-follower to use the term Namaste. According to a practitioner Megan Holstein in Medium.com, Namaste is not just a greeting but means “the god in me bows to the god in you”. So her advice to devout Christians is – “no problem, do your aasanas, but don’t say Namaste”.
Remember, these are not fresh warnings but part of a subterranean discomfiture about yoga and its practice in the West for many years. The earliest documented history of yoga for the Westerner was in the 1800s when the aasanas were displayed to the white folks by “fakirs” who, in public street corner shows in colonial India, contorted their bodies in seemingly impossible ways hoping to get paid for their effort.
Much later, Hollywood took over and popularised a more glamorous form of yoga in the US, Britain and elsewhere — Elvis Presley’s “Come Easy Go Easy” among them in the 60’s. Right through the 20th century, yoga was a frontrunner in promoting and packaging Hindu practices among the secular-minded in the West who wouldn’t mind dipping their bodies into an ancient Eastern system to experience what it was like.
Ideally, most foreign practitioners of yoga would prefer to have just the baby without the bathwater. In other words, the aasanas without the religious baggage. It may sound simple, but the neo-practitioners have generally found it difficult to separate yoga’s association with the Hindu and Buddhist religions of the East. In the Ayotollah’s Iran, police in May this year arrested 30 people for engaging in yoga at a private residence in the city of Gorgan. A report quoting the public prosecutor called it an activity that involved women and men who wore “inappropriate clothing engaged in indecent activities”. A rights activist said the government was suspicious of yoga and rarely permitted it even as a sport. While this may be an extreme reaction to yoga, it illustrates how an outsider can respond to what Indians would like to believe is a benign feel-good wellness practice.
Even if non-Indians would like to de-Hinduise yoga and view it as purely a stretching-breathing exercise the increasing rightwing religious shift makes that difficult. The RSS-BJP network is going all out to prevent that possibility, making sure yoga will have an “in your face” Hindu stamp all over it. International Yoga Day being one of them. The more sensibly-inclined, however, should ideally opt to go ahead and practice it as any other form of exercise, notwithstanding the buzz about yoga’s antecedents and hoary associations.