Thursday, December 2, 2010

Yoga, Hinduism, and Contemporary American Culture

I’ve been ruminating on the Hindu American Foundation’s (HAF) “Take Back Yoga” campaign ever since the New York Times shot it to media stardom last weekend. Given my rather weird background as a political-science-professor-turned-yoga-teacher, this story’s combination of yoga and identity politics (the HAF being a self-proclaimed Hindu-American advocacy group) really got me going.

The question at stake is whether the American yoga community is (in the words of the HAF) “disassociating Yoga from its Hindu roots” – and, if so, whether this is problematic.

While I suspect that it runs counter to the views of many if not most of my fellow practitioners, after much reflection my conclusion is that:
  1. It’s quite true that there’s an odd silence surrounding Hinduism in the American yoga community. In 15 years of involvement, I’ve heard a lot about Tantra (not to get that started again!), as well as much less well-known (in the U.S. context) traditions such as Advaita Vedanta and Kashmir Shavism. Yet, what’s by far the most familiar term to most Americans – “Hinduism” – is rarely uttered, either in print or conversation.
  2.  And yes, I do think that this is problematic. In fact, the more I reflect on it, the more I find that I feel this way.
The reason that I think this, however, is not because I believe that “yoga” sprang directly from some mythical set of ancient “Hindu roots.” Both conceptually and historically, this seems hugely over-simplistic to me. Both “yoga” and “Hinduism” are words that refer to vast, diverse, and complex traditions. And as such, the reality is that both have always been understood and practiced in a huge variety of ways.

To make much sense of the “yoga and Hinduism” debate, I think, it’s crucial to define your terms. What type of yoga are you talking about? When and where? As practiced by whom? And precisely what do you mean by “Hinduism”? This is such vast terrain that it’s impossible to navigate it in non-specific terms for very long without getting hopelessly confused and lost.

The Cosmic Ocean Reveals Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, 1835

Talking ‘Bout America, Yo

So let me be clear: What I’m thinking about in terms of this debate is the state of contemporary American culture.

I’m thinking about the 15 million or so mostly white Americans who go to (or teach) yoga classes at gyms or studios, who read (or reject) Yoga Journal (but in any case are familiar with it), who buy yoga books and DVDs, and who perhaps shell out for trainings and conferences when inspired (and solvent).

I’m also thinking about the 2.29 million Hindus of Indian origin living in the U.S. today, and the larger Hindu diaspora they’re a part of.

Just to be clear, I myself have no personal ties to either India or Hinduism. No, I’m pretty much your run-of-the-mill left-liberal WASP (although I did have one Grandmother who was an observant Jew and one who was a devout Southern Baptist, which helps explain why I’m drawn to religious and spiritual syncretism). I’ve had a few close Hindu friends (interestingly including one Latina convert Hindu from Detroit), but our discussions of yoga and/or Hinduism have been cursory, if they occurred at all. We have a big Indian community here in Chicago, but when I go to Devon Avenue to shop or eat out, I’m really just a local tourist.

I do, however, have a professional background writing and teaching about racial and ethnic politics in the U.S. So for better or worse, that’s the lens through which I view this debate.

Many of my interested, involved, and knowledgeable practitioner friends, in contrast, enter into it thinking about ancient Indian history. Some have explained that yoga and Hinduism really have little to do with each other at all. And I’m very interested in what they have to say. But I also think that it’s obvious that this issue is too big to be treated as a simple, open-and-shut case.

Meanwhile, however, I’m thinking about the Civil Rights and Black Power movements and how revolutionary it was for African American culture to get any respect in this country. I’m thinking about how certain Native American advocacy groups have protested against what they see as the exploitative appropriation of their sacred symbols and traditions, and how important it is to at least listen respectfully to their POV.

Mexico City Olympics, 1968: Black Power salute

When I read over the HAF website, I’m thinking about the NAACP and MALDEF. I know the history; I know how important racial/ethnic advocacy groups with some legal/political savvy have been in moving this country closer to ideals of civic equality and individual opportunity that I very much support.

Which is not to say that I think that we non-Hindu practitioners should scramble to follow some arbitrary “politically correct” line about yoga and Hinduism just because the HAF is promoting it. They are only one organization. And while they are apparently the first professionally run Hindu-American advocacy group, it’s always true that no single group ever speaks for all of its purported members.

And even if they did, it’s also true there are now millions of non-Hindu yoga practitioners who have their own experience of yoga and lots of interesting and worthwhile things to say about it. All voices are valuable. No one should be silenced.

What’s at Stake?

It’s important to remember no one is suggesting that you need to be Hindu to practice yoga. On the contrary, everyone agrees that Hindu gurus have been telling us Westerners that yoga is a universal practice since it was first taught to us by Swami Vivekanada back in the late 19th century.

Nor is the question at stake “who owns yoga.” Framed in these terms (as done by both the Times and Deepak Chopra), it’s far too easy to dismissively respond that no one “owns” yoga. Again, most Hindu yoga teachers have been telling us that for over a century now.

What’s at stake, I think, is whether it’s valuable to start a new conversation that acknowledges – and respects – the historical and contemporary connections between yoga and Hinduism.

Personally, I think this sounds wonderful. I know that I don’t have a good understanding of Hinduism, and that it’s a huge and complex subject. I also know that I love yoga and want to deepen my knowledge of it – which certainly includes its relationship with Hinduism! This all sounds completely fascinating and enriching to me . . .

So I’ve been surprised that there seems to be so much resistance to opening up this dialog among my compatriots in the yoga community. Most everyone seems to agree that Hinduism is generally neither acknowledged nor discussed in the mainstream American yoga scene. Yet the dominant response seems to be: Yes, and that’s entirely appropriate.

Why? Some of the responses include: Because no one “owns” yoga. (But again, that’s not the issue.) Or because yoga predates Hinduism. (Fine, but what about the next few thousand years?) Or because “Hinduism” is essentially a modern term pushed by colonial Britain. (True, but contemporary asana practice is modern too. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know more about how both developed in tandem?)

Now, I recognize that by naming their campaign “Take Back Yoga,” the HAF took an aggressive, proprietary tone that some may find off-putting, or even offensive. But let’s remember that they are an advocacy group – their job is to get attention for their cause.

Controversial bumper sticker slogans attract attention in ways that nuanced, considerate discussions do not. Such is the nature of cultural and identity politics, not to mention politics in general – that’s just the way that it goes.

But the slogan “Take Back Yoga” accomplished its essential purpose: that is, calling attention to the almost eerie silence surrounding the subject of Hinduism in the American yoga community. Now that this is on the table, I think that it’s up to others interested in seeing a new discussion develop to step up and get started.

I, for one, would love to see it happen. Anyone else out there willing to join me?

Note: "Cosmic Ocean" image from


  1. I am very much a tyro when it comes to the history of India and Hinduism. I am working my way through Wendy Doniger's book ("The Hindus: an Alternative History) right now and find it both easy-to-read but not simplistic, entertaining and well-researched. What is interesting is that yoga doesn't show up a whole lot. It might be a good place to start:

    (the comment section gets angry and confrontational careful what you wish for!;-))

  2. Yes, you may be all too right. I know that Wendy Doniger is a lightning rod - but maybe the honest answer is that we North American yoga practitioners should stay far away from the subject of Hinduism because it's just too volatile to discuss. This would be sad but maybe it's true. The comments on that post you cited would certainly suggest so.

  3. I am writing part 2 and I make it very clear that I will not entertain any debates on religion, what Hinduism is or what makes a Hindu. plenty of other forums to take that noise.

  4. OK, sorry, did not mean to mislead. Looking forward to reading.

  5. Carol, when I teach the history and philosophy of the Yoga Traditions, I start with ten fundamental principles of Yoga that have nothing to do with the later cultures influenced by Yoga (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism). I don't think it necessary to talk about Hinduism (or the other two) in any general Yoga Class for a variety of reasons. One most pertinent to many students is that they are not interested in religion or the religious aspects. To speak about Hinduism (or the others) in a Yoga class would deflect attention from what is most important about what Yoga has to offer contemporary human beings.

    In appropriate venues, I do address the fact that three 'religious/social' cultural "matrices" are influenced or inflected by Yoga and that these three (including two that became 'world religions') in turn influenced Yoga.

    Finally, and most personally, I find little need to discuss Hinduism because I practice and teach Buddhist Yoga. If anything, a cogent argument can be made against those Hindus claiming to 'take back Yoga' that the Buddha and Mahavira presented coherent, fully integrated models of Yoga practice and doctrine before any such cultural phenomenon called "Hinduism" had yet arisen.

  6. I am seriously unsure about how this kind of a debate came up at the very first. Don't we know from the start that Yoga is a knowledge with roots in India. But like every good knowledge, this too spread throughout the world, especially in America. So what's the problem now. Can someone come up with a list of conversions that happened after coming in contact with Yoga.

  7. Thanks, Frank, for your comment. That's very helpful, as was Linda's recent blog post. I understand your viewpoint better now and it does address the concerns that I raised in this post. I'm learning a lot in this discussion.

  8. One point is visible here from this article is the author lack clear understanding of antiquity of Vedic aka Hindu concepts
    He says Hinduism is simply used by the British,even then it wont change qualitatively historical antiquity of Vedic aka Sanadhan Dharmic concepts.
    Simply,ancient Khemet was called by the name Egypt by those visiting Greeks, will change the antiquity and civilization of Egypt?Is it?
    Modern archeology and genetics provide much much antiquity to Vedas and concept of Hinduism than one thought previously.
    Yoga predates Hinduism is an argument simply by those who lacks real historical knowledge on History of Vedas and antiquity of concepts of Hinduism.
    So,many details on Hinduism not taught in the western and American schools because of many biases.So,many misconceptions created on Hinduism even educated people of the west also know little!!

    The problem here is not practicing yoga by all as Vedic Rishis created everything for the benefits of Human race at large,but,usurping and hijacking it legitimate roots entirely to different direction and delink yogas historical roots from Hindu concepts for which it was created is totally unacceptable!
    There is no necessity to change one religion which Hinduism never stood for.
    Yoga is for the well being of the Human race!
    But,due respect and recognition to the creators of this Yoga and it roots is enough!!
    No more hijacking of the truth!!

  9. If you really want to get specific about it, the original Vedic culture (upon which modern Hinduism is 'based') came from the North Pole, as can be seen in the description of the night sky in the original Vedas. Furthermore, there exist both ancient Mayan descriptions and recorded comments from Indian Rishis which state that it was actually the ancient Mayan culture that taught the 'Indians' yoga. This is not wild conjecture or conspiracy theory-do the research, you'll find it.