In January, there was a flurry of posts on Facebook regarding some anti-yoga backlash coming from the Religious Right. At its core is the accusation that teaching yoga is an attempt to convert participants to Hinduism, and in January this accusation simultaneously came up around teaching yoga to kids and also in the context of using yoga as a treatment for PTSD in returning soldiers. On the one hand, the fear was that children were being brainwashed, and on the other, that veterans were being kept out of “right” relationship with God. The reaction to this anti-yoga backlash from many I know who teach and practice yoga was to emphatically state that yoga is NOT a religion.
I’m struggling with that declaration on two grounds. I’ll tackle the second later. Here is the first: yoga is part of a religious tradition. It is deeply rooted in Hinduism. To protest that yoga is not a religion is to do what white Americans have done for centuries. Take what we like from other cultures and other people’s lived experience (especially people of color) without being accountable to those cultures and people. Yoga is part of a religion. We may not teach it from that place in the west, but to deny it feels wrong to me. In his Washington Post article “The Theft of Yoga,” Aseem Skulka says that yoga is Hinduism’s gift to the world. He is not advocating that yoga not be available in the West. He is asking that we not deny its origins or its religious roots. As with any precious gift we are given, isn’t it our responsibility to handle it with care? To honor and nurture it? To acknowledge from whom it was given to us?
I don’t understand why we cannot simply acknowledge openly that yoga is rooted in a religion. It is a sacred practice that is not inherently incompatible with another religion. When we practice yoga and especially when we teach yoga, we are called to mindful stewardship of that sacred practice as it is integrated into a Western—and particularly, into an American—context. Yoga doesn’t require conversion to Hinduism, but to deny its foundation because we are afraid to battle the Religious Right over their assumed ownership of the definition of religion violates the very foundation of the yogic principle of Ahimsa (do no harm). I’ll leave that for part two.
Read part two: Religion is Not a Dirty Word.