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Recognize yoga's Hindu roots

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When it comes to yoga, there are lots of different kinds being practised by North Americans these days -- hot yoga, power yoga, prenatal yoga, Catholic yoga, restorative yoga, Christian yoga, Jewish yoga, and even naked yoga, to name just a few.

One thing you don't find is Hindu yoga -- which is strange, since yoga originated with that 6,000-year-old religion.

It's estimated about 1.4 million Canadians, and between 16 million to 20 million Americans, do yoga. Locally, there are over 40 places offering yoga classes. North America-wide, yoga generated about $6 billion in sales in 2008, once all the yoga-related clothing and other accoutrements were included.

For most people, yoga is a way to promote physical and mental health through stretching, postures and breathing techniques. Attaining moksha -- the Hindu ideal of liberation from worldly suffering and the cycle of birth and rebirth -- isn't usually one of the goals. In fact, many yoga practitioners might be unaware of its ancient religious roots.

That is something the Hindu American Foundation would like to change.

In 2010, the foundation launched "Take Back Yoga," a campaign designed to help people become more aware of yoga's debt to that ancient faith.

The campaign began with an essay posted on the foundation's website that lamented how North American yoga culture, magazines and studios had divorced yoga from "the Hinduism that gave forth this immense contribution to humanity."

According to Suhag Shukla, managing director of the foundation, the campaign was started to call attention to the "commercial appropriation and misappropriation of yoga which purposefully delinks yoga from its roots in Hinduism."

While emphasizing Hindus are glad to share yoga with anyone, she added, "we simply cannot ignore, contrary to what's done by many Western yoga practitioners, the fact that yoga is rooted in core Hindu concepts of divinity in all of existence, karma, reincarnation and moksha."

In fact, the kind of yoga practised by most people in the West today has no real basis in traditional Hindu teaching says Ian Whicher, who teaches religious and philosophical thought of India, Hinduism and the Yoga tradition at the University of Manitoba.

"There is no real evidence in the Indian tradition for the kind of health- and fitness-oriented practice that dominates the global yoga scene of the 21st century," he said in an interview in The Manitoban.

Whicher would also like to see more people understand and appreciate yoga's deep spiritual roots in Hinduism

"Yoga has a very profound philosophical understanding which links up with our psychological natures, our ethical capacities and our physiological being," he said. "Yoga is really about liberating our energy and attention to know more and more what life is, who [we are] and what all this universe is."

And what do local Hindus think of all this?

"Yoga is a gift from Hindus to the world," says Narendra Mathur, president of the Hindu Society of Manitoba.

In fact, the Hindu Temple on St. Mary's Road is offering yoga classes to anyone who wants them -- free of charge.

"It's a service to the community," he says.

At the same time, he would be happy if people who do yoga decided to learn more about Hinduism.

"Hinduism is linked to yoga," he says. "We invite people to come to the temple to learn more about it."

For Loriliai Biernacki, a professor of Indian religions at the University of Colorado, the debate about yoga is raising important issues about how Hindu concepts are permeating North American culture -- things like meditation, belief in karma and reincarnation and even cremation.

"All these ideas are Hindu in origin, and they are spreading," she was quoted as saying in the New York Times. "But they are doing it in a way that leaves behind the proper name, the box that classifies them as 'Hinduism.' "

In the end, can anyone own yoga? Maybe it's become the Hindu equivalent of the Christian Christmas and Easter -- a popular but thoroughly secularized and commercialized activity divorced from its traditional religious meaning and significance. As Aseem Shukla, the foundation's co-founder put it: "Our issue is that yoga has thrived, but Hinduism has lost control of the brand."

As for those who practise yoga, maybe the least they can do while doing their bandha, mudra and pranayama poses is acknowledge that yoga has Hindu roots. As Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero says, yoga practitioners should "know where yoga came from and respect those origins. Then, when you chant 'om,' it will resonate not only in the room but down through the ages."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 31, 2012 J13

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