Who Owns Yoga

Newspapers used to keep morgues of old clippings (I suppose the Web has largely replaced them), and I had the feeling of being dusted off, if not revived from the dead, when my name appeared in a New York Times article about the current kerfuffle over Yoga. The Hindu American Foundation is as mad about the “brand” running out as they were a year or two ago, and their claim is just as unfounded. There was bread and wine before the Last Supper, flies and frogs before the curses that Jehovah visited on Egypt and Yoga before Hinduism.

The text usually cited as the definitive source for Yoga is Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, but the familiar poses that are part of Hatha Yoga are generally traced to Shiva cults, the god Shiva being its founder. The problem that is being swept aside is that exact dates cannot be assigned to any of these texts. Nevertheless, what is certain is that ancient Vedic culture, which lays claim to being the first written spiritual tradition in the world, is much older than the loosely formed religion, Hinduism, that sprang from it. The spiritual practice of Yoga was part of Vedic culture long before Hinduism. In the interests of generosity, maybe we should refer to a famous Sanskrit aphorism, Vasudev Kutumbukam: “the world is my family.” Yoga is India’s gift to the world, and it would be a shame to bring back the phrase Indian giver, now banished from polite conversation, with a new meaning.

I don’t know to what extent the “Take Back Yoga” campaign is an innocent attempt by the Indian diaspora to get some respect. I sympathize with them taking offense at the “caste, cows and curry” stereotype. Polish Americans want us to know that they are a group with dignity who are offended by Polish jokes; Italian Americans hate the Mafia stereotype. I suppose the price of a pluralistic society like America’s is that it’s an equal-opportunity offender. Indians would do well to lighten up. With a burgeoning economy at home and a return to importance on the world stage, Indian pride is getting more than its share of strokes.

Having written about spirituality for many years, I’d like to point out that the whole point of Yoga is to achieve enlightenment, and that the most revered practitioners, whether known as yogis, swamis or mahatmas, transcend religion. In fact, even if Yoga were granted a patent or copyright by the U.S. Patent Office, there is no denying that enlightenment has always been outside the bounds of religion. That’s where the spiritual path leads, not into the arms of priests or Yoga instructors. Before Hindu Americans complain about Hatha Yoga being deracinated, they might want to promote the ideas that are the very essence of Indian spirituality, which preceded Shiva, Krishna, cows and castes. The nobility of Indian spirituality elevates Hinduism to a unique place in the world, something that religious partisans forget all too quickly.

Published in the HuffingtonPost