Yoga, Hinduism and Judaism again

I want to return to the issue in the comments from a few weeks ago. The question of Yoga. Are religious warnings crazy and fundamentalist? I actually liked Albert Mohler’s Evangelical critique of Yoga.

Before I start, a few details.

The Hatha Yoga of back bends and head stands taught by Richard Hittleman and Lilas in the 1970’s was entirely physical education. Anyone who practices those- do not even know that there is more. In the 1990’s, Yoga was combined with Buddhist insight meditation and new age. Now, much of the original Hinduism is returning for some, a small number. Some are practicing gym class Yoga and others, a much smaller number, are chanting to the monkey God or invoking Hindu deities. Not all of the latter is permitted according to Judaism. I do not think that is very reactionary position. The question is where are the lines? There are responsa permitting yoga and meditation as a physical activity with caveats not to bow, offer flowers, or worship. But what of asanas that have a reference back to a Vedic deity? What of the Sun salutation, where the sun in our culture has none of the original Helios worship references?

Now, that Hindus are moving to America, they are complaining that Americans, especially Jews, are robbing their religion by not acknowledging that Yoga was Hindu. In their practice, the asanas are connected to their worship. There are Jews claiming to do Jewish Yoga- either giving Jewish context, or coming up with Hebrew letter positions, or just delusional claiming it was the teachings of the prophets.

Stefanie Syman published The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2010) showing that American Yoga has been sanitized, de-religioned, marketed, and made Yoga a fluffy cure all. She noted that there was protest by Evangelicals against the Hindu practice of Yoga in the Nineteenth century. She notes that Transcendentalism and the counterculture helped make Yoga acceptable. The book was reviewed by the NYT.

In turn, Albert Mohler reviewed the book pointing out the idolatrous nature of Yoga and many who practice the gym version wrote in to complain.

“The Subtle Body — Should Christians Practice Yoga?”
Monday, September 20, 2010

No one tells the story of yoga in America better than Stefanie Syman, whose recent book, The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America, is a masterpiece of cultural history….Her book actually opens with a scene from this year’s annual White House Easter Egg Roll. President Barack Obama made a few comments and then introduced First Lady Michelle Obama, who said: “Our goal today is just to have fun. We want to focus on activity, healthy eating. We’ve got yoga, we’ve got dancing, we’ve got storytelling, we’ve got Easter-egg decorating.”

Syman describes the yoga on the White House lawn as “sanitized, sanctioned, and family-friendly,” and she noted the rather amazing fact that a practice once seen as so exotic and even dangerous was now included as an activity sufficiently safe and mainstream for children.

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.”
Christians are not called to empty the mind or to see the human body as a means of connecting to and coming to know the divine. Believers are called to meditate upon the Word of God — an external Word that comes to us by divine revelation — not to meditate by means of incomprehensible syllables.

Jews are also not called to reach Samadhi or to attain a cessations of thoughts. Jewish requires action and to listen to God’s word. But that does not mean it is forbidden.

Most seem unaware that yoga cannot be neatly separated into physical and spiritual dimensions. The physical is the spiritual in yoga, and the exercises and disciplines of yoga are meant to connect with the divine…”. “All forms of yoga involve occult assumptions,” he warns, “even hatha yoga, which is often presented as a merely physical discipline.”

This is where we differ. Side bends or the “Cobra” do not have spiritual dimensions as practiced in the gym. Not all of it is occult. The bigger question are practices like the Sun Salutation. Is that addressing the Sun as deity or only as positive force, the way we refer to Mr Sunshine in children songs? We dont follow people who find occult origins on wikipedia, our criteria is the current meaning. If the original meaning is forgotten, then it is forgotten.

Consider this — if you have to meditate intensely in order to achieve or to maintain a physical posture, it is no longer merely a physical posture.

For use, everything not physical – mental, meditative, or therapeutic is not automatically an alternate religion. Just because something it uses inner forces, does not make it forbidden.

As a response Philip Goldberg, Interfaith minister; author of the forthcoming book ‘American Veda’ assumed that the Evangelicals are worried about conversion. No, they are worried about idolatry.

I can’t help thinking: What are they afraid of? Are they that insecure? Do they think so little of their flock as to fear that they’ll convert to Hinduism because they chant some Sanskrit mantras, or say “Namaste” instead of goodnight, or hear some tidbits of Vedic philosophy while stretching?

Based on my research for my book, American Veda, the Christians and Jews who have leaped body and soul into Hinduism or Buddhism were not seduced away from their ancestral religions; they were already out the door and searching for alternatives…. In fact, the current revival of Christian and Jewish mystical practices was triggered by the popularity of Eastern meditation forms in the 1970s.

This should comfort most Christians, although it might alarm fundamentalists all the more. The truth is, Christians who believe that theirs is the one true religion, that Jesus is the one and only savior of all humankind and that the Bible is to be taken literally as God’s only revealed word, will always feel threatened by a spiritual tradition that recognizes many pathways to the divine and many ways to engage in any particular religion.

Another response by Josh Schrei who argues for the pop American version. He shows how far our Yoga is from the original, so much so that Mohler should calm now. I think the factors necessary for a Jewish response lies somewhere in Schrei’s presentation.

Historically, yoga is a rigorous process of self-transformation that requires continual practice over decades and decades. In one of the many branches of Tibetan Buddhist yoga historically practiced by the yogins of Ladakh, there were three pre-requisites for initiate yogis to begin on the path: 1) You must be willing to spend many years alone in a cave. 2) You must be willing to spend many years alone in a cave and probably die there. 3) You must be willing to spend many years alone in a cave, probably die there, and have no one remember your name. This certainly is not the feel-good yoga practiced at countless studios and gyms around America. It is an extreme example but it highlights a key point. Yoga as historical practice had a severe starting point, and was certainly not designed to make practitioners feel better about themselves. In fact it was quite often extremely uncomfortable.

In historic yoga, the individual with a capital I, as we in the West often view ourselves, is nowhere in the picture… Which means that yoga, at its core has absolutely nothing to do with individual feelings of fabulousness, or well being, or individual happiness, or satisfaction.
So is modern yoga “dangerous?” Of course not. Certainly Mohler and his cohorts — and orthodox Hindus for that matter — have nothing to fear from the modern yogis who practice only asana and chant a few words of Sanskrit they don’t understand.

I am still looking to find the good post by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman on Yoga that he took down when the ignorant began to attack him.

From GetRelgion on the controversy:

I’m always surprised at how many people don’t know the relationship of yoga to Hinduism…I subscribe to the Hindu American Foundation news and this is a common theme. They really want non-Hindus to understand that yoga is a Hindu practice. They send out quotes, announcements about temple openings — complete with an explanation of and workshops for yoga and its philosophy — and snippets of stories where Hindus are defending the practice of yoga.

I think the topic of whether the exercises can be secularized and adopted by non-Hindus is tremendously important and fascinating. But I was still shocked that no Hindus were quoted in the piece. Many would say that removing the religious aspect from the exercise makes it something completely different — something like rigorous stretching exercises.

9 responses to “Yoga, Hinduism and Judaism again

  1. As far as I know, most Hindus recognize their various deities as manifestations of Brahman. How do you then draw such a clear halachic distinction between yoga and, say, meditation on a sefira?
    (siteowner- please use a real email- your fake email sent you to my spam catcher.)

  2. First: I see Hinduism’s ownership of yoga, in the present world, in the same way that I see Shaolin’s ownership of QiGong, Kung Fu, Japanese karate and all the other practices they spawned. And, for that matter, in the same way I see Judaism’s owernship of the Christianity that grew out of it. It’s proper to appreciate the roots, and it’s fair not to be bound by them.

    Second: if the practices are done in a gym, but done correctly — whether in Yoga, Kung Fu or whatever — they have the same results, regardless of whether they’re called spiritiually-oriented. The degree of kashrut is a matter of a) compentency — the more competent, the less kosher; and b) branding — the more one calls awareness to the spirituality of the practices, the less kosher they appear.

  3. It seems to me that the problem with yoga from an organized religion’s perspective is that these exercises are part of a larger group of activities to which the yoga practitioner is drawn. For example, not smoking, healthy eating, homeopathy and alternative medicines, jogging and running, gym classes from pilates to Nia and Zumba, as well as meditation, and outdoor activities like hiking and climbing. But we’re not done. There is alternative travel, like to Papua New Guinea, Bhutan and Peru, shaman healing practices, chanting, drumming. There are detoxifying diets, no alcholol, no coffee, no white flour, no meat, no foods with high glycemic index, and preferably no milk or wheat products. The center of this culture is the yoga studio and Whole Foods aka Whole Paycheck.

    As a gedanken-experiment let us imagine 2 groups of Jews, say each with a 1000 people. Both work full time. The first leads the yoga-Whole Food style, the second davens, learns, sees a therapist if necessary, and goes on a treadmill 2-3 times a week. Fast forward 20 years and both groups are now in their 50-60s. The yoga crowd will be stronger, more flexible, in better health with fewer incidents of the killing diseases than the davening learning crowd. No longer can people say gashmiyus leads to decadence and sickness. Just the opposite. This is a problem for organized religion.

    • EJ-
      Back to the thought experiment- How do you see the spiritual difference after 20 years and where do you see the Judaism of both groups?
      Is there a middle ground? Does Jerusalem have anything to offer Mumbai?

      • An interesting place to look for an answer to that question might be in the Kabbala circles attracting non-Jews. Are the celebrity adherents of the entirely Westerners? Or are there people of Indian descent who know yoga, don’t like it, and would prefer to cleave to Phillip Berg?

  4. I have no serious answers to your questions. I don’t really understand the spiritual/material dichotomy.

  5. I grew up Jewish in Bombay till I was 19 and then made aliya. We were proud Jews in India and it was always clear what idolatry consisted of – we Indian Jews have always had an instinctive sense of it. All the stuff from Masechet Avoda Zarah is still living tradition out there. But India is a good place to learn how to refine one’s beliefs precisely because of the multiplicity of devout (and sometimes gullible) pathways to worship. And you can’t help but love the Indian amcha.

    Personally, it was precisely these kinds of experiences in India (and Israel for that matter) which led me to find circuitous affinity with mystics like Abraham Maimonides and Abulafia, the Jewish Yogis of yore.

    Jerusalem does have something to offer Mumbai – it is simply the study of Torah and the Kabbalah. I don’t have high hopes that they will listen though:)

  6. None of the Yoga that I practiced in the 1990s with my teacher Bonnie West at the Northwest Tennis and Swim Club in Minneapolis had anything of substance to do with its roots in Hindu culture. It was an entirely demanding and rewarding regimen of exercise of the body and relaxation and training of the mind.

  7. Namasthe: It is true that YOGA came from Hinduism [ I like to call it HINDU CULTURE since it is a culture]

    But YOGA is beyond Hinduism.

    YOGA is a practice of taking care of body and mind for mental peace as well as for “Spiritual Maturity.”

    The word Yoga is FIRST defined by sage Patanjali in his book Patanjali Yoga Sutra.
    He summarized YOGA as CHITTA VRITHI NIRODHA.

    CHITTA means MIND

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