Is yoga religious? Not in Iran, although maybe in the U.S. and India

The BBC has what may be the best look at the “is yoga religious” question. Our friend, and Namarupa founder and yatra leader, Robert Moses, sent this on to me, so hat tip his way. (Also, if you haven’t, check out the video at the “Reunion” blog post from a few days back.)

Two forms of prayer? Via the BBC

What I think really sets this report apart is its focus on Iran, where yoga is popular. I’ll be the first to say it: Who knew? Here’s the link and some choice parts:

One answer to the question of whether yoga really is a religious activity will soon be given by the Supreme Court in the country of its birth, India.

Last month, a pro-yoga group petitioned the court to make it a compulsory part of the school syllabus on health grounds – but state schools in India are avowedly secular. The court said it was uncomfortable with the idea, and will gather the views of minority groups in the coming weeks.


But other classes may make no overt reference to spirituality at all.

That’s the way things are in Iran, where yoga is very popular. It has managed to flourish in a country with Sharia law and an Islamist political system, by divesting itself of anything that could be construed as blasphemy. Yoga teachers are careful to always refer to “the sport of yoga” and are accredited by the Yoga Federation, which operates in the same way as a tennis or football organisation.

Classes tend to be slower than in the West with much discussion about the physical benefits of each position. As with other sports, yoga competitions are held, judged by specially invited international yoga teachers.

The piece then focuses on our favorite yoga controversy: the Encinitas yoga-in-schools program, funded by the Sonima Foundation. The Broyles in the following is the NCLP’s Dean Broyles, lead lawyer on the suit against the Encinitas program:
The reason many people in the West think yoga is non-religious, Broyles says, is that it falls into a theological blind-spot. “Whereas Protestant Christianity focuses on words and beliefs, ashtanga yoga’s focus is practice and experience,” he says. Religious intentions may not be there to begin with but practising yoga might lead them to develop.
To an extent, this point of view is endorsed by Hindus themselves. The Hindu American Foundation recently ran a campaign called “Take Back Yoga”. Sheetal Shah, from the organisation, says someone raised in an “exclusivist” tradition like Islam or Christianity who becomes very interested in yoga may eventually experience some conflict with their religious beliefs.So, for American Christians who don’t like the idea of yoga, there are alternatives, including PraiseMoves.This exercise regime combines Christian worship with stretching exercises. As the class adopts a posture, they recite a verse from the Bible. In this way, bhujangasana or the cobra pose becomes the vine posture, with a corresponding verse from John 15:5. “I am the vine and you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”

The piece also checks in with Jewish practitioners and has a great graphic of a few yoga poses — and their various names in a yoga, Encinitas school and Christian setting.

Posted by Steve