I began my Hatha Yoga practice later in life – at the age of 27. I initially began yoga, as so many do, to tone my body. But as I progress through this journey – and yes, I have come to believe that yoga is a journey of the body and mind (I’m still working on the atman part) – yoga is no longer only about toning my body; it has become the most important tool to develop my powers of concentration and focus. Yoga possesses the unique ability to force me to focus on myself alone. In only 90 minutes, my stamina, flexibility, balance and most importantly, concentration are tested as never before. Instead of thinking in pain, as I used to, “How long is my instructor going to make me hold Vasistasana?,” I have now learned to focus on my breath. I now understand that balancing is the art of intense focusing and a momentary loss of concentration leads me to fall out of Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III). Instead of finding a way to avoid Rajakapotasana (Pigeon pose), I now use it as way to focus on my breath and direct my breath to alleviate the aching in my hip.
As I slowly continue to discover the true beauty of yoga, I find myself increasingly proud to be Hindu; to be able to claim the religion that has brought this amazing practice to the world as my own is truly empowering. Yet through my work with the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), a nonprofit advocacy organization, I have become keenly aware of an alarming trend that disassociates yoga from its Hindu origins. I regularly read Yoga Journal at my gym and am continuously amazed at how many times its editors blatantly avoid using the word “Hindu.” As I perused the April 09 issue, I found the Upanishads described as “Tantric yoga texts.” Exactly one year ago, HAF wrote to the editors of Yoga Journal about the clear disregard for Hinduism. Our letter was never published, and upon following up with them, HAF was informed that the journal does intentionally avoid using the word “Hindu” because it carries too much baggage, and ultimately, their goal is to sell magazines! I immediately requested my parents to discontinue their subscription.
These issues plagued me, but it wasn’t until I began furthering my own yoga practice that I found this disassociation so stark. When I look around the yoga studios I frequent, I am almost always the only Indian Hindu in the room. If I lived in a small mid-Western town, this observation may not be so surprising. But I reside in Manhattan, one of the most diverse cities in the US, where Hindus abound and yet, I can’t seem to find any in my yoga classes.
During the course of a project for HAF, I reached out to my personal yoga instructor, an Iyengar practitioner who is well networked in the Western yoga world and actively practices in Rishikesh yearly, if she could point me in the direction of a yoga instructor in the US who is Hindu. She could not. I then turned to one of my studio instructors and posed the same question. She had no idea either. Immediately, I scanned the names of instructors of five well-known and successful yoga studios in Manhattan…from approximately 90 instructors, I found only four Hindus, as well as a handful of instructors who had given themselves Hindu names such as “Ganesh Das”. I was stunned. Where are all the Hindu American yogis?
So, perhaps it’s time for the Hindu community to look inward and accept our share of the blame in losing the affiliation between Hinduism and yoga. How can we maintain and promote the Hindu origin of yoga if the majority of yoga studios don’t have Hindu students, forget the idea of Hindu yoga teachers? Our Hindu forefathers understood the unique benefits of yoga and shared yoga with the Western world. The West understood, fell in love with yoga, morphed it into a physical and “spiritual” practice – thereby removing any religious association – and proclaimed their expertise. And while so many non-Hindu Americans delve into yoga with passion, the majority of Hindu Americans seem to have forgotten its importance in uniting their mind, body, and soul and relinquished their knowledge and ownership of this life changing practice. As yoga seems to move further and further away from is Hindu origins, I am fearful of the day when instructors will altogether stop naming the various asanas in Sanskrit or ending class with the traditional ‘Namaste‘ – that is the day yoga as a Hindu practice will truly be lost.
In an effort to avoid such a catastrophe, I urge you, as a Hindu American, to reclaim yoga by once again becoming an expert in its practice. We cannot lay claim to a practice if we as a community don’t follow it ourselves. As a proud Hindu, it is a humbling experience to learn a practice originating in Hinduism from so many non-Hindus. But it encourages me to push forth with my yoga practice and perhaps, teach it to others one day. I urge you to take a beginners’ yoga class at a local studio and encourage your children, siblings, parents and friends to do the same. Many of our local Hindu temples offer free yoga classes taught by instructors who are born Hindu, and some of you already attend them…next week, bring a friend or family member with you. If you practice basic asanas at home, move your practice to the next level and take an intermediate yoga class at a studio. Swami Ramdev’s yoga has surged in popularity with Hindus in America and around the world…continue to strengthen that practice and share that knowledge with others. I am not denying that many Hindu Americans are regular yoga practitioners – but that number is still a fraction of the strength of our two million strong Hindu American community. We can and should do more. Yoga is one of Hinduism’s greatest gifts to world – something that can be practiced by anyone, without relinquishing the religion of one’s birth, and is beneficial to everyone. As you practice yoga, you too will find an immense pride in being Hindu and once again, the world will credit the practice of yoga to its rightful mother – Hinduism.