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is yoga Hindu?

There’s a debate on about yoga’s origins, and it’s gone viral “—or as viral as things can get in a narrow Web corridor frequented by yoga enthusiasts, Hindu Americans and religion scholars.” This is the buzz covered in the November 27, 2010 article, “Hindu Group Stirs a Debate Over Yoga’s Soul,” by Paul Vitello. What I found most fascinating about the article is that it interested enough readers to be near the top of the NYT top emailed list. I think it was #2 last night.

The gist is that Hindu-Americans want Hinduism to be credited with yoga. To be asked, “Oh! Do you do yoga?” instead of, “Oh, do you worship cows?” when a non-Hindu American learns of their religion. And because they want credit where they feel credit is due. Understandable. But the argument about yoga as religion is not new. It depends how you define Hinduism, which is a touchy subject. Do you ask scholars? Do you ask believers? Would you ask a Christian-American if you wanted to learn the facts about history? Would you ask a scholar, well, anything? (Relax, I’m teasing.) Do you ask Deepak Chopra? I, personally, would ask everyone and believe no one. I love that Hindu scholar, Diana Eck, is quoted in this article, but she doesn’t say what her opinion about the matter is. I’ve sneaked in her book as the image, because I’m probably not going to mention her again and that is a fantastic book. One of my undergrad religion professors gave it to me before I went off to India way back when (1998).

Yoga is one of the six astikas, or orthodox schools of Indian philosophy, though hatha yoga likely existed long before it was adopted as part of this tradition. Orthodoxy here means that they accept the authority of the sacred Vedas. Does that mean yoga is Hindu? Not necessarily. The yoga practiced in the West is arguably related to the Yoga astika only as a cognate. Again, It depends how you define Hinduism, and it depends who you ask. Because the answer isn’t that important to me, I’m not going to go further into this topic because I think the only answer is subjective. Those who say yoga is Hindu are coming from a very different place than those who say that it is not. As I find myself between those places, there is no convenient answer.

Paul Vitello

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what is yoga

relax

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Yoga Breeze, Yakuin Studio, Fukuoka, Japan. Photo: ©Govinda Kai

Often I mention articles in class that, if not about yoga, are yogic in nature. Yoga, we know, is everywhere. More and more frequently scientists and other “experts” are coming around to what strikes me as common sense. But if you’ve lost touch with common sense (who hasn’t?) and instead look to experts for your answers, there’s plenty of support out there. A quick search of yoga in PubMed yields 1,496 results, and about 206,000 in Google Scholar. Slowly, the ideas behind yoga are becoming more accepted, most especially when they aren’t identified as yoga.

Often I get the feeling that students don’t want to relax and just release into the slower, more restorative poses toward the end of the class. It might not be that they don’t want to—perhaps they simply can’t. Or they feel if they do, they’ll hear something they don’t want to hear from themselves, or lose that edge, or become weak. Or they are so far away from relaxation, they are just learning how.

Because it seems difficult, I try to encourage students to rest and relax, and to find time for it in their lives. In case my ramblings don’t convince, I sometimes share others’ thoughts on the matter. Recently I drew on a New York Times article about “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction” by Matt Richtel:

At the University of California, San Francisco, scientists have found that when rats have a new experience, like exploring an unfamiliar area, their brains show new patterns of activity. But only when the rats take a break from their exploration do they process those patterns in a way that seems to create a persistent memory.

In that vein, recent imaging studies of people have found that major cross sections of the brain become surprisingly active during downtime. These brain studies suggest to researchers that periods of rest are critical in allowing the brain to synthesize information, make connections between ideas and even develop the sense of self….

“Downtime is to the brain what sleep is to the body,” said Dr. Rich of Harvard Medical School. “But kids are in a constant mode of stimulation.”

Did you get that? “Downtime is to the brain, what sleep is to the body.” Oh, you don’t sleep, either? The brain needs sleep, too.

From the New York Times science section, “When the Mind Wanders, Happiness Also Strays,” by John Tierney: You want happiness? Focus on something. It “is now, at long last, scientifically guaranteed to improve your mood.” I find it depressing that we need “science” to verify the obvious—or what was once obvious to those in touch with their humanity.

What is yoga? The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Book One, Sutra Two: “Yogas chitta vritti nirodha. The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga.” You know, focus.

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