Yoga and the Question of Religious Identity

By Deeksha Sivakumar

Is yoga Hindu? Both categories (yoga, Hindu) are, of course, highly problematic on both conceptual and historical grounds. If we were to ask whether yoga is Indian, more people may feel comfortable answering in the affirmative, though “Indian” is no less so. Indeed, recent discussions of yoga’s widespread popularity among many non-Hindu Americans, who pick up their yoga mats each day as easily as they pick up a can of Coca-Cola, have spurred debates about yoga practice and claims to religious and/or cultural identity.

Such concerns are to be expected. To neglect yoga’s Hindu roots would be tantamount to forgetting about one’s own place of birth and the influence such particularities exert. Yoga was born in Sanskrit (the language of the gods according to Hindus-devanāgiri), and the term (yoga) is derived from the verb yuj meaning “to yoke”. Yoking, as to a bull or chariot, is often described as ‘disciplining the mind and body through a set of mental, physical, and perhaps spiritual exercises.’ First in the epics and in later Sanskrit texts, this concept ultimately takes an identity of its own, influenced by moral teachings (e.g., in the Mahabharata), Tantrics (in medieval India), and also modern Indians hoping to commodify the practice. Not only could a complex genealogy be drawn for the term, but rooted in these practices was a much larger worldview embraced by many Hindus.

Yoga identity politics are, however, by no means limited to yoga’s American reception. Some Hindus in America and India are reclaiming the practice as inescapably Hindu based on its place of birth. The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) argues that the Americanization of yoga has stripped the practice of essential notions, e.g., that yogic disciplines are deeply rooted in Vedic practices of Sanskrit chanting and embracing a Hindu worldview. Torn from the Hindu worldview that produced the practice, HAF fears that yoga will be reduced to mundane daily exercise, perhaps even among Hindus. HAF worries that non-Hindu Americans embrace the practice without embracing the belief system, e.g., eating a hamburger for lunch and then taking an evening yoga class, which they claim are mutually exclusive.

At the same time, American culture extends (if selectively) another philosophy of reception, whereby (some) immigrants are able to craft new “American” identities, and (some) of the cultural resources they bring are creatively appropriated and re-contextualized. A number of American yoga teachers, for instance, shape their classes in ways that cater to their clientele, either omitting chanting altogether, or adding both “shalom” and “amen” to the sign-off of “Namaste.” Thus yoga (like immigrants themselves) is asked to live in two worlds at once, akin to a fragmented cosmopolitan self – one that is Indian and Hindu and another that is “American.”

I understand HAF’s uneasiness as much as I recognize the American flirtation with yoga. HAF’s concerns stems from a dis-ease with what they believe are core practices becoming diluted from some authentic notion of what it means to be Hindu. So, one question for us to ask is, do religious practices become irreligious when they travel across national borders? HAF would surely argue that there is something sacrilegious about stripping a practice from its’ religious belief system. But while it is worth noting that, for organizations like HAF, there is a great deal at stake in preserving what they take to represent the purity of Hindu ritual, what is far less fequently noted, however, is that something equally significant (and no less concerned with issues of purity) is likely at stake for American and non-Hindu appropriators.

Deeksha Sivakumar is a Ph.D. student in South Asian Religions at Emory University, GA. Her current research interests surround a particular enactment of a goddess festival and its unique celebration in Southern India as Bommai Golu. Her subordinate interests include ritual performance, healing, materiality, and femininity. She is also excited to see what digital technologies can do for the Humanities and the study of ethnography. She has been an energetic TA and presented several lectures on Hindu deities, ritual practices and the Indian diaspora.

This entry was posted in Deeksha Sivakumar, Religion and Popular Culture, Religion and Society, Religion in the News, Southeast Asian Studies and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Yoga and the Question of Religious Identity

  1. Pingback: Yoga and the Protestant Public Sphere; Or, Taking Back Yoga Where? « Michael J. Altman

  2. Parasuraman says:

    Deeksha
    I am a avid reader of your blogs
    Your blog on Yoga is impressive and touches the nerve of the debate that is raging in US .I also see that this has become a controversy in India itself with minority leaders objecting to teaching of Yoga to Policemen and Sportsmen .
    Keep up your blogs on topics of relevance . Pls keep a complilation of all your blogs

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