Why It's Important To Remember Yoga's Hindu Roots

The Hindu American Foundation has started a “Take Back Yoga” campaign as an attempt to educate the American public on yoga’s Hindu roots. The group is not asking for yoga practitioners to become Hindu or even further study the religion, but just to be aware that many of yoga’s practices are linked to Hinduism. They feel that yoga has been sucked into this rootless, ahistorical “spiritual” category, when in fact is a tradition that is connected to a religion.

I have always been slightly allergic to this notion of spirituality casually tossed around by New Agers. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard someone say “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” when referring to their great trip to a meditation center of yoga retreat. It takes a lot of self-restraint on my part to refrain from reminding them that their vague notion of Eastern spirituality actually comes from codified and demanding religious systems like Hinduism and Buddhism. I guess I feel, having been raised a Jew, that a big part of spirituality vis à vis religion are the rules — including the ones that are inconvenient or slightly illogical. For me, those are the elements that create a sense of community and humility.

I know that this notion of shopping cart religion, where people pick and choose different elements from different traditions, is inevitable with globalization and what-not, but I am skeptical that real spiritual takeaway can occur if people only pick the easy parts without learning about the history or complicated systems they come from.

So when it comes to yoga, I understand and sympathize with the Hindu American Foundation’s desire for yoga to be returned to a Hindu context, even if the practice itself isn’t necessarily a religious act. In fact, by viewing yoga as part of a larger tradition yogis might feel obligated to think a little harder when they chant a mantra, or press their hands together in front of their heart and chant “Om.”