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Yoga Beyond Asana: Hindu Thought in Practice

“There is no physical yoga and spiritual yoga.  If it is exclusively physical, it won’t be yoga.  Yoga is dealing with the entirety; it is a union.” – Prashant Iyengar, son of B.K.S Iyengar
 
Yoga, from the word “yuj” (Sanskrit, “to yoke” or “to unite”), refers to spiritual practices that are essential to the understanding and practice of Hinduism.  Yoga and yogic practices date back more than 5,000 years — the Indus Valley seals depict a number of figures in postures identical to various asanas. The term covers a wide array of practices, embodied in eight “limbs,” which range from ethical and moral guidelines to meditation on the Ultimate Reality. Yoga is a combination of both physical and spiritual exercises, entails mastery over the body, mind and emotional self, and transcendence of desire.  The ultimate goal is moksha, the attainment of liberation from worldly suffering and the cycle of birth and rebirth.
 
With the popularity of Yoga skyrocketing throughout the world, particularly in the West, there arise two main points in need of clarification.  First, that which is practiced as “Hatha Yoga” - a form of Raja Yoga - in much of the Western world is but merely a focus on a single limb of Yoga: asana (posture).  From Yoga studios that recommend room temperatures to be maintained at 105 degrees to 90 minute Vinyasa flow classes that prescribe one Suryanamaskar (Sun Salutation) sequence after another, this “asana heavy” form of Yoga – sometimes complemented with pranayama (breathing) – is only a form of exercise to control, tone and stretch muscles.  Ignored are both the moral basis of the practice and the ultimate spiritual goal.
 
Second, there is the concerning trend of disassociating Yoga from its Hindu roots.  Both Yoga magazines and studios assiduously present Yoga as an ancient practice independent and disembodied from the Hinduism that gave forth this immense contribution to humanity. With the intense focus on asana, magazines and studios have seemingly "gotten away" with this mischaracterization.  Yet, even when Yoga is practiced solely in the form of an exercise, it cannot be completely delinked from its Hindu roots.  As the legendary Yoga guru B.K.S Iyengar aptly points out in his famous Light on Yoga, "Some asanas are also called after Gods of the Hindu pantheon and some recall the Avataras, or incarnations of Divine Power."  It is disappointing to know that many of the yogis regularly practicing Hanumanasana or Natarajasana continue to deny the Hindu roots of their Yoga practice.
 
In a time where Hindus around the globe face discrimination and hate because of their religious identity, and Hindu belief and practice continue to be widely misunderstood due to exoticized portrayals of it being caricaturized in “caste, cows and curry” fashion, recognition of Yoga as a tremendous contribution of ancient Hindus to the world is imperative. Yoga is inextricable from Hindu traditions, and a better awareness of this fact is reached only if one understands that “Yoga” and “Asana” are not interchangeable terms.
 
Asana aka Yoga
 
A perusal of a few of the best known Yoga texts, such as Swami Svatmarama’s Hatha Yoga Pradipika or Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, will quickly demonstrate that asana (posture) is only one component of Yoga.  The Pradipika is divided into four main sections, of which 25% of only the first section focuses on asana.  The Yoga Sutras are also divided into four parts, with a total of 196 sutras.  The second part, composed of 55 sutras, briefly mentions asana as one of the eight limbs [1] of Raja Yoga.
 
In a 2005 interview published in Namarupa magazine [3], Prashant Iyengar, son of B.K.S. Iyengar, clearly espouses a similar view when he said, “We cannot expect that millions are practicing real yoga just because millions of people claim to be doing yoga all over the globe.  What has spread all over the world is not yoga.  It is not even non-yoga; it is un-yoga.”  The undue emphasis, particularly in the West, on asana as the crux of Yoga dilutes the essence of the spiritual practice and its ultimate goal of moksha.
 
B.K.S. Iyengar again reminds readers of the purpose of asanas in his Light on Yoga, when he states, "Their [Asanas] real importance lies in the way they train and discipline the mind...The yogi conquers the body by the practice of asanas and make it a fit vehicle for the spirit...He does not consider it [the body] his property...The yogi realizes that his life and all its activities are part of the divine action in nature" [4].
 
The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) concludes from its research that Yoga, as an integral part of Hindu philosophy, is not simply physical exercise in the form of various asanas and pranayama, but is in fact a Hindu way of life.  The ubiquitous use of the word “Yoga” to describe what in fact is simply an asana exercise is not only misleading, but has lead to and is fueling a problematic delinking of Yoga and Hinduism, as described further in the section below.
 
This attempt to clarify Yoga as far more complex than just asanas is not intended to discount the array of health benefits gained by practicing asanas alone.  Beyond increasing muscle tone and flexibility, regular practice of asana has been associated with lower blood pressure, relief of back pain and arthritis, and boosting of the immune system [5]. Increasingly, many believe asana practice to reduce Attention Deficit Disorder (AD/HD) [6] in children, and recent studies have shown it improves general behavior and grades [7].  But the Foundation argues that the full potential of the physiological, intellectual and spiritual benefits of asana would be increased manifold if practiced as a component of the holistic practice of Yoga.
 
Reversing the Efforts to Decouple Yoga from Hinduism
 
Although the Western Yoga community fully acknowledges Yoga’s Indian roots, and even requires study of Hindu philosophy and scripture in most of its teacher certification programs, much of it openly disassociates Yoga’s Hindu roots. While HAF affirms that one does not have to profess faith in Hinduism in order to practice Yoga or asana, it firmly holds that Yoga is an essential part of Hindu philosophy and the two cannot be delinked, despite efforts to do so.
 
Shyam Ranganathan's [9] analysis gets to the crux of the issue when he writes, “Though some modern atheistic minds and aspiring yogis may disagree, textually there is no getting around the fact that Patanjali uses words, that in the context of Hindu culture, have obvious theological implications” [10]. Patanjali describes the goal of Yoga  as chitta-vritti-nirodha or “the cessation of mental fluctuations”, a core concept also expounded in Hinduism’s Bhagavad Gita: “Thus always absorbing one’s self in yoga, the yogi, whose mind is subdued, achieves peace that culminates in the highest state of Nirvana, which rests in me [Lord Krishna/Brahman/Supreme Reality]” [11].
 
Similarly, Swami Svatmarama’s opening line in the Pradipika is in honor of the Hindu God Shiva (Siva): “Reverence to Siva the Lord of Yoga, who taught Parvati hatha wisdom as the first step to the pinnacle of raja yoga.”
 
In the same 2005 interview cited previously, Prashant Iyengar expounds upon Yoga with references to both Hindu epics and Hindu philosophy: “Mahabharat has so many aspects of yoga like yama (restraint), niyama (observance), sama (calmness)…Ramayana gives us so many beautiful aspects of bhakti yoga and karma yoga. Essential yoga starts with karma yoga…Without karma-consciousness, there will be no progress in yoga.”
 
The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) reaffirms that Yoga, “an inward journey, where you explore your mind, your awareness, your consciousness, your conscience” [12], is an essential part of Hindu belief and practice. But the science of yoga and the immense benefits its practice affords are for the benefit of all of humanity regardless of personal faith.  Hinduism itself is a family of pluralistic doctrines and ways of life that acknowledge the existence of other spiritual and religious traditions.  Hinduism, as a non-proselytizing religion, never compels practitioners of yoga to profess allegiance to the faith or convert. Yoga is a means of spiritual attainment for any and all seekers. 

Yoga in Public Schools: An Addendum

Following the highly publicized lawsuit in Encinitas, CA in 2013, HAF was asked to clarify its views on yoga as a Hindu practice and the teaching of yoga in public schools.  Please click here to read the addendum. 
 
[1] The remaining seven limbs are Yama, Niyama, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi.
[3] http://www.namarupa.org/magazine/nr04.php
[4] Iyengar, B.K.S. Light on Yoga. p.40-1
[5] http://www.webmd.com/balance/the-health-benefits-of-yoga?page=2
[6] http://articles.latimes.com/2007/mar/04/news/adme-yoga4
[7] http://articles.latimes.com/2007/mar/04/news/adme-yoga4?pg=1
[9] Author of Ethics and the History of Indian Philosophy and translator of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras
[10] http://www.namarupa.org/magazine/nr04.php
[11]  The Bhagavad Gita 6.15
[12] http://www.namarupa.org/magazine/nr04.php