The second article listed under the “Top Read” section on the BBC News website a week ago was, “Does doing yoga make you a Hindu?” I imagine the bizarre implication in the title was too alluring to ignore for BBC news browsers, and thus it made its way up to the most-clicked-on article of the week.
Anyway, the answer is no: doing yoga does not make you a Hindu. But intentionally praying to a Hindu deity, trying to lead your life in accordance with the Bhagavad Gita, and visiting mandirs to perform or participate in religious ceremonies, might.
Many Christian organizations are trying to get yoga class banned in some U.S. public schools, but the peaceful discipline has ironically been an issue on a much larger scale. In Iran and Indonesia, it is allowed strictly as sport but prohibited as a spiritual exercise for Muslims. It has previously been banned in several Malaysian states, and even in its own birthplace, yoga as part of school curriculums is now being weighed in the Indian Supreme Court.
Undoubtedly, yoga in its original form is a religious exercise. Even the basic cycle of steps in Surya Namaskara is a greeting to the sun god, Surya — but only if you see it that way.
When my mother started having lower back pain many years ago, she started attending yoga classes and would sometimes drag me along. These classes were taught by legit yogis who had come from the motherland to spread their immense knowledge about the discipline.
Each class was as much a lecture as it was physical exercise; the spiritual meaning of each posture and each breathing exercise was explained, as well as their individual benefits to the mind and body.
Emphasis was placed on focusing on oneself and one’s internal energy.
But yoga does not have to be a spiritual exercise at all, if you don’t want it to be. You may not be Hindu, but chances are that the yoga instructor at the 24 Hour Fitness you go to who plays African tribal music in the background isn’t, either.
Regardless, there are many advantages of practicing yoga. Besides making you stronger and more flexible, it has been known to ward off osteoporosis and arthritis, improve mood and concentration, increase lymph circulation so your body can fight infections better, reduce stress, give you amazing posture, and normalize your blood sugar and blood pressure levels. Plus, you look hotter.
As a Hindu, I may have my biases, but considering that it has been in practice for over 5,000 years, it seems that yoga is one discipline everyone can benefit from. My mother will vouch for it; she has been doing Surya Namaskara every morning for the last several years and has felt a dramatic reduction in her back pain. I’ve noticed she also yells a lot less. So fear not, yoga class attendees — just because you are in downward-facing dog position does not mean that you are involuntarily offering prayer to a Hindu god or unconsciously being inspired to do such a thing, I assure you. But always be inspired by yoga to be fit, healthy and happy.
Seema Wadhwani is a fourth-year biological sciences major, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.