here we go again, part 1

Hindu blessing of cow, Rameswaram beach, 2006

Getting on the yoga merry-go-round again of the old debate on “who owns yoga?” and whether yoga springs from Hinduism.

There’s lots of stuff going on in the world but it must be a slow news day when the New York Times publishes another article with a dramatic title on the Hindu group that is stirring up the debate over yoga’s soul.

Then there was the USA Today article, “Take Back Yoga Campaign: Back Where?”

Lisa Miller in Newsweek asked whether yoga’s Hindu roots matter. I thought her article was a breath of fresh prana in this debate, but I still think she is mistaken about some things.

And after the debate burned through the yoga blogosphere and Facebook this week, Deepak Chopra finally weighed in on the yoga yada yada in HuffPo.

I thought his article was a bit amusing, since in Miller’s article he claims to have “sanitized” Hinduism in order to make it more palatable: “The reason I sanitized it is there’s a lot of junk in [Hinduism],” explains Deepak Chopra, the New Age guru….“We’ve got to evolve to a secular spirituality that still addresses our deepest longings … Most religion is culture and mythology.  Read any religious text, and there’s a lot of nonsense there.  Yet the religious experience is beautiful.”   But in his HuffPo article he states that  “the nobility of Indian spirituality elevates Hinduism to a unique place in the world.”

Uh, which part of that nobility did he sanitize? OK, whatever…Deepak is a zillionaire guru and I’m not. He must know what he’s talking about because he’s written a ton of books. And is a zillionaire guru. Did I mention that already?

STOP THE PRESSES! I’ve always wanted to say that….

One would think Chopra would be the last word on this but no, I don’t think so…gather ’round, kiddies, and I’ll tell y’all a story. I will preface this by saying that I’m not a yoga scholar and have never written a book. I have no fancy advanced college degrees (yet.) I’m a yoga student first and then a teacher but I’ve been around the yoga block a few times and have taken a workshop or two.  My only claim to yoga fame is studying four times (soon to be five) at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, Desikachar’s school in Chennai, India — two intensives and private classes. That’s all.  Like Tao Porchon-Lynch, “I don’t tell you these things from ego, but because it’s what I know.” Be advised that I pulled out my notes from KYM. And I take damn good notes.

But I want to say to the Hindu American Foundation referenced in the NY Times article that I feel your pain. I understand why they are verklempt. As Lisa Miller wrote in Newsweek, “You can’t stop people from using and transforming yoga.  But you have to honor and credit the source….know where yoga came from and respect those origins.” I’m getting very tired of yoga articles written in terms of “fighting” and “owning”, but I don’t blame Indians one bit for wanting reverence and respect paid to an art and science that originated in India. Don’t get me started on OM tattoos on feet but I digress.

But yoga doesn’t come from Hinduism and Hindus don’t own yoga.

Yoga is much older. What I learned at KYM was that yoga was part of the six systems of philosophy in India called the saddarsanas, darsana meaning “to see”:

1. Nyaya — logic; using analysis to look a problem;

2. Vaisesika — evolution; what is the evolution of something to discover its reality. EX: a desk comes from wood which came from a tree which came from a seed.

3. Mimamsa — rituals and rites (doing something in order to get something.) EX: animal and human sacrifice; fire rituals.

4. Sankyha — closely related to yoga; our problems arise because of “seer” and what is seen; there is confusion between the “I” and the rest of the world. “Sankyha” means knowledge of Self through right discrimination. (See the Samkyha Karika of Isvara Krsna.)

5. Vedanta — school of philosophy that interpreted the Upanishads (advaita vedanta is a subset of this philosophy.)

6. Yoga — school of philosophy that holds that the mind is the problem; focus the mind and we solve our problems.

The above information is from my Yoga Philosophy class notes, 2005. The next line I wrote was: “Hinduism actually rejects yoga.” As a legal assistant for 20 years I sat in many a lawyer’s office and wrote their words verbatim to transcribe into letters and legal documents.

So no, I did not make that up and I suppose those words shock some of you. When long-held beliefs are challenged it can be quite painful. Let me try to explain the yoga and Hinduism connection (or non-connection as the case may be) in part 2 after I finish reading the scholarly essay “Brahmanism, Buddhism and Hinduism: An Essay on Their Origins and Interactions” by Lal Mani Joshi of the Department of Religious Studies, Punjabi University, 1970.

This essay was sent to me by a long-time reader and is an essay that Stephen Cope of Kripalu used for his book on the Sutra-s. When I did the Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Training at Spirit Rock in California, Stephen Cope used many of the points in the essay in his talk to us on the history of yoga.

The gist of the essay is that many of the things Westerners and contemporary Indian Hindus think of as “classically Hindu” actually come from the shramanical tradition generally (the sramanas being the ancient yogis, the ascetics who lived in the Vedic era which is pre-Hinduism) and Buddhism specifically and were incorporated very late in Indian history.

Stay tuned.

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6 thoughts on “here we go again, part 1

  1. Great post, and I look forward to the next part!

    The key points you learned at KYM sound very much like some of the teachings I've learned from my own teacher (with a side exploration into the differences between Tantra, Advaita Vedanta, Hiniyana and Terravada Buddhism).

    So, hardly surprising we see things similarly! 😉

    Re: Buddhism and Hinduism, my understanding is that they influenced each other at various points in history. And then, the Buddhism that originated in India then influenced Tibetan Buddhism. Or something like that anyway…

    That said, I'd be happy to learn more, so thanks for sending me the article. Looking forward to reading it! 🙂


  2. What is “Hinduism” anyway? According to this article by Sadhguru, it's just a geographic identity rather than a religious one:

    Which would mean that if yoga has Hindu roots, it's only because it was developed in the region now known as India. “Being a Hindu does not mean having a particular belief system; there is no particular God or ideology which one can call as the Hindu way of life.”–Sadhguru


  3. Thanks, Linda. Very interesting. I'd like to hear a more robust definition of “Hinduism,” however – the word has a big history to it and of course people are using it now in different ways at all. I checked Feuerstein last night (The Yoga Tradition) and he sees yoga and Hinduism as very much connected – but also Buddhism, Jainism, etc.

    It seems to me that “Hinduism” can be defined in ways that either give it a fundamental tie with yoga – or don't. Clearing up the key differences in these definitions would clarify things tremendously.


  4. Great questions raised Linda – Who's to say where Yoga actually originated? Did it come from ancient Egypt? Another planet? And then “land” in India? Then who takes credit?


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