Historian disputes modern-day yoga's Hindu identity claims

Yoga, as it is practiced now, is a mix of several techniques, including some Western ones, a historian has said.

Meera Nanda, visiting professor of history of science at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali, says for most Indians, yoga is a living symbol of their way of life, like apple pie is to Americans. But, she adds, they are unaware that the yoga of today can't claim Vedic antiquity.

In an article in Open magazine, she writes: "Lately, Hindus in America have started flying the saffron flag over American-style yoga, which consists largely of yogic asanas and stretches. The leading Indo-American lobby, Hindu American Foundation (HAF), has recently started a vocal campaign to remind Americans that yoga was made in India by Hindus… The purist Hindu position, articulated by the HAF, is that all yoga, including its physical or hatha yoga component, is rooted in the Hindu religion/way of life that goes all the way back to the Vedic sages and yogis."

In Nanda's words: "There is only one problem with this purist history of yoga: it is false. Yogic asanas were never ‘Vedic’ to begin with. Far from being considered the crown jewel of Hinduism, yogic asanas were in fact looked down upon by Hindu intellectuals and reformers—including the great Swami Vivekananda—as fit only for sorcerers, fakirs and jogis."

She says Western gymnastics and body-building techniques show up in the world-renowned Iyengar and Ashtanga Vinyasa schools of yoga.

"Far from honestly acknowledging the Western contributions to modern yoga, we Indians simply brand all yoga as ‘Vedic,’ a smug claim that has no intellectual integrity," she writes.        

She disputes the 'Take Back Yoga' movement, and says "Yoga is to North America what McDonald’s is to India: both are foreign implants gone native."

Nanda says, "By and large, the US yoga industry does not hide the origins of what it teaches. On the contrary, in a country that is so young and so constantly in flux, yoga’s presumed antiquity (‘the 5,000-year-old exercise system’, etcetera.) and its connections with Eastern spirituality have become part of the sales pitch."

Following articles and blog posts appearing in The New York Times and The Washington Post, HAF’s Shukla and New Age guru Deepak Chopra got into a spat. Shukla complained the yoga industry wasn't giving credit to Hinduism, and called Chopra a "philosophical profiteer", while Chopra argued that yoga existed in "consciousness and consciousness alone" much before Hinduism.

Nanda describes both views as "equally fundamentalist". She explains: "The reality is that postural yoga, as we know it in the 21st century, is neither eternal nor synonymous with the Vedas or Yoga Sutras. On the contrary, modern yoga was born in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. It is a child of the Hindu Renaissance and Indian nationalism, in which Western ideas about science, evolution eugenics, health and physical fitness played as crucial a role as the ‘mother tradition’."

By her reckoning, "the physical aspects of yoga were hybridised with drills, gymnastics and body-building techniques borrowed from Sweden, Denmark, England, the United States and other Western countries."

Nanda writes: "Contrary to the widespread impression, the vast majority of asanas taught by modern yoga gurus are not described anywhere in ancient sacred Hindu texts. Anyone who goes looking for references to popular yoga techniques like pranayam, neti, kapalbhati or suryanamaskar in classical Vedic literature will be sorely disappointed…. The four Vedas have no mention of yoga….The Upanishads and The Bhagvad Gita do, but primarily as a spiritual technique to purify the atman."

Nanda says BKS Iyengar’s Light on Yoga alone teaches 200 asanas, while the 14th century Hatha Yoga Pradipika lists only 15 asanas, as do the 17th century Gheranda Samhita and Shiva Samhita.

She also credits the Mysore palace under Krishnaraja Wodiyar IV (1884-1940) for the popular revival of yoga in India. She recalls: "The Maharaja, who ruled the state and the city of Mysore from 1902 till his death, was well known as a great promoter of Indian culture and religion. But he was also a great cultural innovator, who welcomed positive innovations from the West, incorporating them into his social programmes. Promoting physical education was one of his passions, and under his reign, Mysore became the hub of a physical culture revival in the country."

She concludes: "The HAF’s shrill claims about Westerners stealing yoga completely gloss over the tremendous amount of cross-breeding and hybridisation that has given birth to yoga as we know it. Indeed, contemporary yoga is a unique example of a truly global innovation, in which Eastern and Western practices merged to produce something that is valued and cherished around the world… Hinduism, whether ancient, medieval or modern, has no special claims on 21st century postural yoga. To assert otherwise is churlish and simply untrue."

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