Wrapping Our Western Minds around Yoga . . . and Bindis and Other Things Hindu

2608411576_a9f08dd22c_mI’ve been collecting links to stories about yoga—its acceptance, and rejection, in Western culture—and have been content to let my list grow.

Then, several weeks ago, one of my sons joined  a local Color Run, and I couldn’t help but see the connection between the tossing of all that colored powder and the Hindu celebration of Holi. And later, I saw that singer/actress Selena Gomez had gotten some negative attention for wearing a bindi (a decorative dot on the forehead) at the MTV Movie Awards.

That last news item put me over the edge. I’m stretched beyond limit. I need to take a cleansing breath . . . and empty my browser of its yoga bookmarks, before the next wave of Hindu-inspired trends washes through our consciousness.

Can yoga be simply a physical exercise? Or is it unquestionably Hindu? Or does yoga have an inherent Hinduishness that’s more difficult to define?

Yoga: Changing The Brain’s Stressful Habits

It may sound like magic that posing like a proud warrior or a crow could have such extensive effects, but it’s not magic.  It’s neurobiology.  This next statement may sound to you either profound or extremely obvious, but it comes down to this: the things you do and the thoughts you have change the firing patterns and chemical composition of your brain.  Even actions as simple as changing your posture, relaxing the muscles on your face, or slowing your breathing rate, can affect the activity in your brain (beyond, of course, the required activity to make the action).  These changes are often transient, but can be long-lasting, particularly if they entail changing a habit.”

As a neuroscientist, despite my initial incredulity, I came to realize that yoga works not because the poses are relaxing, but because they are stressful.  It is your attempts to remain calm during this stress that create yoga’s greatest neurobiological benefit.

(Alex Korb, Psychology Today, September 7, 2011)

Genetic Evidence of Yoga’s Impact on the Immune System

Newly published research from Norway suggests that a comprehensive yoga program rapidly produces internal changes on a genetic level. . . .

The University of Oslo experiment featured 10 participants who attended a week-long yoga retreat in Germany. For the first two days, participants spent two hours practicing a comprehensive yoga program including yogic postures (asanas), yogic breathing exercises (in particular Sudarshan Kriya), and meditation. For the next two days, they spent that same time period going on an hour-long nature walk and then listening to either jazz or classical music. . . .

Fourteen genes were affected by both exercises, which suggests “the two regimens, to some degree, affect similar biological processes,” the researchers write. That said, they note that yoga’s impact was far more widespread, which indicates the practice “may have additional effects over exercise plus simple relaxation in inducing health benefits through differential changes at the molecular level.”

(Tom Jacobs, Pacific Standard, April 23, 2013)

Suit Eyed over Yoga in Public Schools

Last month, half of the students attending classes in the Encinitas Union School District K-6 elementary schools in San Diego North County began taking Ashtanga (Sanskrit for “eight-limbed”) yoga for 30 minutes twice per week. In January, the other half will begin the lessons.

Concerned parents have now retained constitutional first amendment attorney Dean Broyles, who says that Ashtanga yoga is a religious form of yoga, and that religious aspects have been introduced into the schools. . . .

Broyles says that it has been argued that the in-school yoga programs have been stripped of their spirituality. But he says that kids in EUSD are being exposed to Hindu thought and belief within the school.

“On the wall there was a poster that showed the Ashtanga, or 8-limbed deity. There are words showing what the limbs are,” he said. “The ultimate goal is to be absorbed into the universe, which is called Samadhi. They had a poster depicting that. Fundamentally it is a Hindu religion being taught through Ashtanga yoga.”

(Kevin Dolak, ABC News, October 24, 2012)

Yoga Has More to Offer Than Traditional Classes

“Yoga is constantly evolving,” said Kaitlin Quistgaard, editor in chief of Yoga Journal. “Variety gives people an opportunity to approach yoga from different perspectives.” . . .

Want to hold side crow to some classic Notorious B.I.G.? At YogaHop, with studios in Santa Monica and Pasadena, you can do just that. . . .

Stand-up paddle boarding has grown exponentially popular in recent years. So why not try some yoga while balancing on a paddle board? That was Sarah Tiefenthaler’s logic after taking her yoga-teaching course in Costa Rica and getting introduced to paddle boarding soon after her certification.

(Mikaela Conley, Los Angeles Times, April 13, 2013)

Wary of Eastern Spirituality, Christians Try Yoga with a Twist

“Everybody has their own path that they have in terms of their spiritual journey, and my point of view is that I would want everybody’s path to eventually merge into the Christian path,” said Nancy Harvey, who leads the PraiseMoves group at Huntington Court United Methodist Church in Roanoke. “But it’s not my judgment to make one way or the other.” . . .

Kristy DiGeronimo is a certified yoga instructor who teaches classes at two Virginia Beach churches. She said she understands the concerns but thinks yoga allows her to honor God and gives her a calm that makes her more receptive to biblical teachings.

“It really is a tool,” she said. “Anyone of any faith or background can apply it to their life.”

(Jorge Valencia, The Roanoke Times, March 22, 2011)

Seeking to Clear a Path between Yoga and Islam

As a community activist in Queens, Muhammad Rashid has fought for the rights of immigrants held in detention, sought the preservation of local movie theaters and held a street fair to promote diversity.But few of those causes brought him anywhere near as much grief and controversy as his stance on yoga.

Mr. Rashid, a Muslim, said he had long believed that practicing yoga was tantamount to “denouncing my religion.” . . .

But after moving to New York in 1997 from Bahrain, he slowly began to rethink his stance. Now Mr. Rashid, 56, has come full circle: not only has he adopted yoga into his daily routine, but he has also encouraged other Muslims to do so—putting himself squarely against those who consider yoga a sin against Islam.

(Sarah Maslin Nir, The New York Times, April 8, 2012)

To Some Hindus, Modern Yoga Has Lost Its Way

One group, the Hindu American Foundation, has launched a “Take Back Yoga” campaign to address what they see as a fundamental disconnect between yoga and Hinduism.

Sheetal Shah, senior director at the foundation, says the group started the campaign when it noticed that while “Vedic,” “tantric” and many other words appeared regularly in yoga magazines, the word “Hindu” was never mentioned.

So, the foundation called up one of the country’s most popular magazines to ask why.

“They said the word ‘Hinduism’ has a lot of baggage,” Shah says. “And we were like, ‘Excuse me?’ “

(Margot Adler, NPR, April 11, 2012)

The Theft of Yoga

Nearly 20 million people in the United States gather together routinely, fold their hands and utter the Hindu greeting of Namaste—the Divine in me bows to the same Divine in you. . . .

Christians, Jews, Muslims, Pagans, agnostics and atheists they may be, but they partake in the spiritual heritage of a faith tradition with a vigor often unmatched by even among the two-and-a half-million Hindu Americans here. The Yoga Journal found that the industry generates more than $6 billion each year and continues on an incredible trajectory of popularity. It would seem that yoga’s mother tradition, Hinduism, would be shining in the brilliant glow of dedicated disciples seeking more from the very font of their passion.

Yet the reality is very different. . . .

Hindus must take back yoga and reclaim the intellectual property of their spiritual heritage—not sell out for the expediency of winning more clients for the yoga studio down the street.

(Aseem Shukla, On FaithThe Washington Post, April 18, 2010)

The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America

After writing about yoga as part of the White House’s Easter celebrations, the author adds,

There certainly was no better proof that Americans had assimilated this spiritual discipline. We had turned a technique for God realization that had, at various points in time, enjoined its adherents to reduce their diet to rice, milk, and a few vegetables, fix their minds on a set of, to us, incomprehensible syllables, and self-administer daily enemas (without the benefit of equipment), to name just a few of its prerequisites, into an activity suitable for children. Though yoga has no coherent tradition in India, being preserved instead by thousands of gurus and hundreds of lineages, each of which makes a unique claim to authenticity, we had managed to turn it into a singular thing: a way to stay healthy and relaxed.

(Stefanie Syman, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010)

The Subtle Body—Should Christians Practice Yoga?

The president of The Baptist Theological Seminary, after quoting the above passage, responds to The Subtle Body in this way,


Syman describes yoga as a varied practice, but she makes clear that yoga cannot be fully extricated from its spiritual roots in Hinduism and Buddhism. She is also straightforward in explaining the role of sexual energy in virtually all forms of yoga and of ritualized sex in some yoga traditions. She also explains that yoga “is one of the first and most successful products of globalization, and it has augured a truly post-Christian, spiritually polyglot country.” . . .

When Christians practice yoga, they must either deny the reality of what yoga represents or fail to see the contradictions between their Christian commitments and their embrace of yoga. The contradictions are not few, nor are they peripheral. The bare fact is that yoga is a spiritual discipline by which the adherent is trained to use the body as a vehicle for achieving consciousness of the divine. Christians are called to look to Christ for all that we need and to obey Christ through obeying his Word. We are not called to escape the consciousness of this world by achieving an elevated state of consciousness, but to follow Christ in the way of faithfulness.

(Albert Mohler, AlbertMohler.com, September 20, 2010)

Now that I’ve seen all these pieces on yoga, I’ll be looking to see if anything more pops up about Holi celebrations and the wearing of bindis. For now. . .

Hindu Spring Festivals Increase in Popularity and Welcome Non-Hindus

“All of this is related to our culture—our Krishna consciousness. This is a very fun lifestyle, it’s a very vibrant lifestyle,” said Ramdas Shingdia, 25, moments before Chaitanya Prakash, 25, ambushed him with a smear of green powder to the cheeks. “And love!” he added. “This is love.” . . .

In recent years, as social media and colorful fanfare have helped Holi festivals gain traction in the United States, some say American Holi festivals are downplaying Holi’s religious and spiritual history, putting more emphasis on its allure as a lively social event.

An increasing number of Holi-inspired color throws on American college campuses is also seen as a sign that Holi may be adopting more of a secular tone.

(Chris Lyford, The Washington Post, April 5, 2013)

Indian-Inspired Bindis a Hot Trend in Winter Bling

“As a fashion impulse it makes perfect sense,” Anya Kurennaya, a faculty member in Parsons’s fashion studies department, told The Daily Beast’ “A bindi is going to attract interest and has that level of sparkle, but it’s not a big style commitment, and demonstrates a level of culture and spirituality.”

But the flirtation with bindis also may have something to do with a heightened attention to India, with many in today’s Internet-inclined generation heading to the country during their school recesses. “There is so much more global perspective today that it’s only natural that you would find these cultures more appealing than the typical European cultures that are more canonized in our history books,” Kurennaya explained, “It’s kind of a rejection of traditional Western education.”

(Misty White Sidell, The Daily Beast, January 4, 2013)

Selena Gomez under Fire for Wearing Bindi at MTV Movie Awards

“The bindi on the forehead is an ancient tradition in Hinduism and has religious significance,” Rajan Zed, a spokesman for the Universal Society of Hinduism, said. “It is also sometimes referred to as the third eye and the flame, and it is an auspicious religious and spiritual symbol. . . .  It is not meant to be thrown around loosely for seductive effects or as a fashion accessory aiming at mercantile greed. Selena should apologize and then she should get acquainted with the basics of world religions.”

(Sadie Gennis, TV Guide, April 16, 2013)

[photo: “Strobist CTO Exercise 2,” by Sami Taipale, used under a Creative Commons license]