Conservative clerics are wary of a popular pastime
SOUTH of the gold-domed shrine of Fatima, one of Shia Islam’s most venerated places of pilgrimage in the holy city of Qom, near the old home of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s founder, stands an inconspicuous house in traditional Iranian style. In its central courtyard Masoumeh, a female yoga teacher, assumes a tree pose. Half a dozen other women, wearing the maghnaeh, the hood common to Iranian office workers, follow her example, scooping their right feet up into their hands and placing them on their left thighs. “Ladies! This position is very good for your concentration,” Masoumeh enthusiastically assures her class.
But not so good in the eyes of Iran’s stricter Muslims. Miss Mahdavi, a female commander of Qom’s baseej, the republic’s voluntary militia which—among other things—enforces propriety and political loyalty, recently organised a conference to raise awareness of “satanic plots” and to “safeguard the values and ideals of the revolution and religion.” Indeed, Hamid Reza Mazaheri-Seif, head of the Spiritual Health Institute in Qom, said that yoga’s new-age spiritualism was corrupting Islam and urged all decent Iranians, particularly members of the baseej, to protect the Islamic Republic against the “irreversible damages” yoga could cause. “The new teachers of yoga are often not even Indian,” he warned with bleak foreboding. “They’re European or American.”
According to Iran’s Yoga Association, the country has around 200 yoga centres, a quarter of them in Tehran, the capital, where groups can often be seen practising in parks—to the chagrin of religious hardliners. In 2006, during a conference of intelligence and security chiefs in Qom, yoga was named glumly as a threat to Islam.
Since then the debate over yoga has waxed and waned. But since the latest conference in Qom, Iran’s media have run several articles on yoga’s perils. Hamza Sharifi, a cleric who has written a book called “Half a Glance at Spirituality in the Yoga Cult”, believes the state should keep a watchful eye on it. “Its practitioners never accept that yoga is just a sport and insist that it is the road to happiness,” he informed the semi-official Fars News.
“It’s just talk,” says Masoumeh at the yoga centre in Qom, brushing off such criticism with an expressive wave of her hand. “They know perfectly well that the revolution will not be overturned by headstands.”