By Marcus J Freed
Yoga has traditionally been associated with peace and love, until now.
There have been a series of controversies rocking the yoga world and now that the latest series of arguments is in full flow, bringing a whole new meaning to Warrior Pose.
The ruckus began on the Washington Post’s On Faith blog when the co-founder of the American Hindu Alliance took the first shot. To the best of my knowledge this was somewhat ironic for the media spokesperson of an avowedly non-violent religion, but he was no longer prepared to turn the other cheek. Aseem Shukla’s article was titled ‘The Theft of Yoga‘ and lamented the fact that Hindus hadn’t paid closer attention to ‘trademark protections’ for yoga postures and included a call to action for Hindus to take back their intellectual heritage.
(Classes at Yoga District, housed in a spartan space above a furniture store.)
Yoga has transformed society in the last few years and in metropolitan cities across the USA, it’s rare to walk down certain streets without seeing someone carry a yoga mat.
What may have once had sharp religious connotations has now evolved into a flexible system (no pun intended) that has increased the health and wellbeing of many people. 20 million Americans, according to Yoga Journal magazine, practice yoga every year and it has grown into a mammoth $6 billion industry.
Jews are doing yoga. Christians are doing yoga. Even Muslims are doing yoga, although unsurprisingly there was a fatwa placed upon the practice because of its Hindu connotations. There are Christian websites who denounce yoga postures because the release ‘demons’ and over the years various rabbis have forbidden me to teach my Bibliyoga practice in case I lead people to the dark side.
The popularity of yoga is due to its ability to appeal to nearly everyone. If you can stand and focus your breathing then you are completing Mountain posture. If you can lie on your back with your palms facing upwards, you’re in Corpse Pose. If you can prostrate on the ground you’re in Extended Child (interestingly, a key part of Muslim prayer) and there are superb health benefits to all of the above.
Most importantly, yoga helps us to lift us beyond ourselves. My yoga teacher, the internationally-renowned guru Edward Clark of Tripsichore Yoga, teaches that it is as simple as matching one movement to one breath, and finding stillness in that moment. By practicing a mindful action-based breath, we tap into our higher consciousness and begin to experience a sense of God through our body.
Was yoga every truly a Hindu domain? Apparently not. Dr Deepak Chopra has argued this case and in the 1950’s a yogic historian Merce Eliade pointed to some key evidence that changes the game. The discovery of the Mohinjo-Daro seals, showed Bronze-Age casts depicting early yoga postures. These came before the development of modern Hinduism and were possibly brought to the Indus Valley by Aryan traders who had travelled from what is now the Middle East.
Mr Shukla needn’t be concerned about publicizing the Hindu influence on today’s asana practice. If he speaks with any Jewish practitioner, he’ll know that there’s a huge fear of foreign idolatrous influences that make yoga sometimes uncomfortable for knowledgeable Jews.
One of the first stories taught to children in Hebrew school is the midrash of how Abraham took a hammer and smashed all of the polytheistic statues in his father’s idol shop. Thus, sitting at the front of a yoga studio before images of Buddha, Shiva and Ganesh, make many of us squirm, precisely when we should be breathing our way to enlightenment.
But here’s the most powerful thing about yoga. The Talmud is replete with references to prayer postures and ‘raising your back like a cobra’ during meditation (sound familiar?). This Jewish oral tradition explains that each of the vertebrae in the spine correspond to the Amidah prayer which must be done three times a day in, wait for it, something that exactly resembles Mountain Posture. King David wrote in psalms ‘let all my bones praise the Creator’ and the 13th-century kabbalist called Abraham Abulafia wrote a precise movement sequence that tied in breath with movement. This is the essence of vinyasa yoga.
To the American Hindu Association, I say this: let’s be friends. Your remarkable heritage has brought some beautiful ideas into the world and we are exceptionally grateful. If you really want to go down the litigation line, I’ll happily recommend a good patent lawyer. The
People of the Yoga Mat and the People of the Book will get along just fine.
Marcus J Freed is the creator of Bibliyoga and the President of Yoga Mosaic USA – an international association for Jewish yoga teachers & practitioners, and a world-renowned yoga teacher who writes the weekly Kosher Sutras, a long-running series of essays that combine yogic spirituality with Hebrew wisdom. Freed is a frequent broadcaster on UK’s BBC Radio 2 with over 80 broadcasts to date, and he has been published in internationally. The Jerusalem Post recently said that Freed is ‘a yoga guru in the making…truly a wealth of knowledge’ (28th November, 2010).