The War on Yoga Gets Namasty


Forget the war on Christmas. It’s the war on yoga that’s causing consternation these days, as a “Take Back Yoga” movement takes root.

Proponents argue that yoga has been commercialized, running a bit like a Mastercard commercial — Lululemon pants: $100. Gaiam iPod-wired mat: $40. Group class: $20. Inner peace: priceless.

That commercialization and celebrity-fueled popularity of yoga, positioning it as exercise over mindful meditation, has been causing a deficit of inner peace in the minds of religious leaders across the country, some of whom have found allies in the unlikeliest of places.[more] 

Earlier this year, Reverend Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, called for an end to the practice of yoga by Americans, saying the popular exercise is dangerous for Christianity as it “is fundamentally a Hindu spiritual practice that claims to offer a path to inner peace that doesn’t include Christ.”

As far as Aseem Shukla, co-founder of Hindu American Foundation (HAF), is concerned, Rev. Mohler hit the nail on the head. He recently wrote for the Washington Post, “Hinduism, as a faith tradition, stands at this pass a victim of overt intellectual property theft, absence of trademark protections and the facile complicity of generations of Hindu yogis, gurus, swamis and others that offered up a religion’s spiritual wealth at the altar of crass commercialism.”

This frustration has prompted HAF to launch a “Take Yoga Back” campaign, which gained national prominence on November 28th, when the New York Times published an article on the front page of its Sunday edition. According to the article, the HAF does not desire to convert followers or to ban yoga in the US but hopes “only that people become more aware of yoga’s debt to the faith’s ancient traditions.”

Other religious figures believe Mr. Shukla would benefit from some calming exercises himself. Dr. Deepak Chopra, a celebrity spiritual brand in his own right, responded with an op-ed column that argued, “Beneath Shukla’s complaints one detects the resentment of an inventor who discovered Coca-Cola or Teflon but neglected to patent it.”

America’s blissfully ignorant adoption of yoga is less sinister than Shukla believes. According to Pew research, only 45% of Americans know that the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday or can name the Bible’s Four Gospels. The lack of religious knowledge the HAF sees spreading isn’t only Hinduism-centric — it’s an equal-opportunity malaise.

If it helps ease Shukla’s mind, several New York yoga studios have dropped any pretense of Hinduism and created “Christian yoga,” a practice which emphasizes physical and spiritual health and pairs traditional yoga postures with Christian psalms and prayers.

“Christians have been engaged in yoga-like practices for centuries,” observes the divinely-named Serene Jones, president of the Union Theological Seminary. “It’s not as if a Christian never stood on their head before.”

Someone, somewhere, is designing a Santa-inspired stretchy red suit. Ho-Ho-Yoga can’t be far behind.