Yoga has become more popular in the United States in recent years, with the share of people taking part in the discipline almost doubling between 2002 and 2012. Today, nearly 10 percent of Americans have tried it, and few of us have to travel farther than a neighborhood strip mall to practice our chaturangas. Yoga’s burgeoning trendiness isn’t restricted to the United States, either. In December, the United Nations declared June 21 the International Day of Yoga. The first celebration saw colossal gatherings of yogis worldwide, as hundreds, sometimes thousands, contorted their bodies into downward dogs and other postures en masse. Yoga has become one of the most fashionable practices in the world, yet it’s also one of the most misunderstood and mythologized.
1. Yoga is exclusively of Hindu origin.
Yoga’s advocates and critics alike perpetuate the myth of its ancient Hindu origins. High-profile conservative pastors have warned of Christians’ inevitable Hinduization should they take up yoga, asserting that “when Christians practice yoga, they must either deny the reality of what yoga represents or fail to see the contradictions between their Christian commitments and their embrace of yoga.” The Hindu American Foundation has made similar arguments, criticizing Americans for failing to acknowledge yoga’s Hindu origins — calling it “one of the greatest gifts of Hinduism to mankind” — and explaining that practitioners subject themselves to Hindu influences, whether intentionally or not.
Although there are countless Hindu forms of yoga, the notion that it is originally or definitively Hindu ignores its historical diversity. Throughout its ancient history, yoga was shaped by an array of South Asian practices, ideas and aims widespread among not only Hindus but also Buddhists, Jains and adherents of other religions. Examples include the 3rd-to-4th-century Buddhist yogacara, or “yoga practice” school, and the 6th-century Jain thinker Virahanka Haribhadra and his text, the “Yoga Bindu,” or “seeds of yoga.”
Modern postural yoga — that popular fitness regimen made up of sequences of challenging poses — has more varied origins. It is a result of cross-cultural exchanges and influences from modern medicine, sports and exercise programs. In the 1930s, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, for example, became one of the first postural yoga gurus. He was a Hindu but taught a form of yoga partly shaped by British calisthenics. Practitioners from India, Europe and the United States, with a wide array of religious convictions or none at all, created the yoga that Americans began adopting widely in the 20th century.
2. Yoga is not religious.
In many parts of the world, yoga aficionados tend to avoid describing the practice as religious. Yoga studios, conferences and journals prefer to define it as a regimen for nonsectarian “spiritual growth” or physical “fitness.” But while yoga isn’t specifically Hindu, that doesn’t mean it can’t be religious.
Some forms of modern yoga have explicitly religious aims, from Hindu schools such as siddha yoga, which promotes the “strength and delight that come from the certainty of the divine presence within you,” to Christian varieties such as holy yoga, which describes its mission as “experiential worship . . . to deepen people’s connection to Christ.” Even in other forms, yoga has implicit spiritual dimensions, though they’re not limited to one particular religious tradition. Practitioners participate in scripted rituals requiring movement through a sequence of postures meant to reorient them away from the day’s business and stresses and toward the goal of self-improvement.
Yoga classes in secular contexts have qualities that set a religious mood. B.K.S. Iyengar, a significant figure in the creation of modern postural yoga, tied his form of the practice to the ancient “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali,” which emphasize the exalted aim of enlightenment. K. Pattabhi Jois, another 20th-century influencer of modern yoga, taught that the nine positions of the sun salutation sequence delineate from the earliest Hindu texts, the Vedas. Continue reading >>