On the morning of June 21, the gardens near India Gate will fill up with throngs of yoga enthusiasts to celebrate the first International Yoga Day and the Prime Minister himself will perform some asanas, supported by a bevy of our select paunchy politicians. Why not? An international day to commemorate yoga was the PM’s pet project and he rallied to get the United Nations to do so.
Now, as a build-up to the actual event, the PM has been providing yoga tips every day on Twitter. He even intends to set a Guinness World Record for the largest congregational yoga at Rajpath.
Yoga has evolved over the years to become a brand and a lifestyle choice. It now sells mats, towels, socks, balls and even pants. Even if yoga had packed its bags and migrated to the West much before the techies from the country, we Indians are proud of our rich culture that brought such a form to life.
One of the few dissident voices in this celebration of yoga is a narrow spectrum of Muslims, among whom is All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) Chief Asaduddin Owaisi. He was quick to denounce the PM’s order to rope in the central government staff for International Yoga Day.
While it is true that the morning exercise should not be made compulsory for anyone, as the Modi government has rightfully stated, the main bone of contention for the Hyderabad politico is yoga’s connection to Hinduism.
This is not the first time that someone has raised a question on whether yoga is a form of Hindu worship. Two months ago, Stephen and Jennifer Sedlock from San Diego appealed to the US court against their children’s school district for incorporating yoga in their daily gym classes. Like Owaisi, they feared that teaching yoga would promote Hinduism and inhibit Christianity, their religion. A California appeals court, however, ruled that yoga was not a gateway to Hinduism.
A catholic priest in Northern Ireland was in the news earlier this year forwarning that practising yoga could lead to Satanism. He admonished that yoga could lead men into the “Kingdom of Darkness”. The National fatwa Council of Malaysia in 2008 declared yoga as Haram and confused the matter further by stating that the physical part of yoga is not Haram, but any chanting of the mantras is an act against Islamic practices. On a second reading, it should be inferred that Hatha Yoga is allowed but other schools that are more inclined to the Hindu religion are forbidden.
Despite the diktats of religious leaders, yoga attracts thousands every year at the Times Square Solstice event in New York and many celebrities in the West vouch for the exercise form. This popularity can also be attributed to the simplicity of the exercise regime. There are no weights, machines or memberships involved, unless you want to practice yoga in a class. With a minor investment on a yoga mat, anyone is good to start a healthy lifestyle. As an Indian staying in the United States, I see the inroads this Indian phenomenon has made in this country. A stroll through the Greenlake Park, an urban oasis in my city of Seattle, can never be complete without sighting at least a dozen of yoga enthusiasts, sprawling on their mats and shaking away their rainy day slumber.
For Huma Arshad, a mother of three and an immigrant like me to this famously grey city, a modified and simplified form of yoga, accessed through YouTube, is the only exercise she could possibly get in the busy weekdays. “Some days, I wish I could just go for a walk. But I can hardly accommodate it in my busy schedule and I resort to doing some simple yoga poses after my daily prayers. I feel that this combination has been really beneficial for me,” she adds.
I could not agree more with Huma. My initial days as an immigrant had been rife with self-doubt, a feeling of inertia and worthlessness, owing to the absence of full-time work that I was used to in India. From the bustle and the sweet chaos of my life in India, I was uprooted to a place with rows of tall fir trees and eerie quiet. One of those days when I switched the radio just to add some noise to my apartment, I learnt that the Pacific Northwest has higher cases of depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) than other parts of the US.
Worried for my sanity, I frantically searched Meetup for activities and social groups to engage me. It was by chance that I discovered yoga. Nowadays, the quiet doesn’t bother me. In fact, I have embraced it as much as I have embraced this beautiful city and its grey weather.
As a Muslim myself and as a person who first-handedly experienced the benefits of yoga, I find it hard to digest this disdain. The major anti-yoga weapon in the hands of the Muslim clerics is the Surya Namaskar or the Sun Worship. According to most of them, this highly-effective technique is a form of veneration of the Sun and since Muslims are supposed to bow down to only one God, the act will be un-Islamic. But intention plays a crucial part in the business of religion and, especially so, in Islam.
A deeper look into the basic Muslim prayer or salah will actually point to many similarities to yoga. The salah is a combination of postures that are also chronicled in yoga. The salah also activates the chakras akin to yoga and a person who performs the five obligatory prayers every single day benefits by the rigour and discipline of the technique. Even so, blindly performing a combination of those postures without intent do not constitute a salah. In the same way, doing certain yoga asanas merely to attain better health should not make it a Hindu worship.
All I know is that there are two lifestyle choices for a Muslim – either you pounce upon any new fad and wonder long on whether it is haram or halal before ultimately deciding to shun it, or you tip your toe a little bit and seek answers through your intuition. In the case of yoga, it is better to do someasanas and sweat it out rather than starting the day with Nihari and ending it with Paya.
The day people start using reason to make their lives better rather than thinking whether their religion "allows" doing a specific thing or not would be the day that these petty controversies will end. It goes mainly for Abrahamic religions and its followers.