Mike Kueber's Blog

April 10, 2012

Yoga, Islam, and Namaste

Filed under: Culture,Fitness,Religion — Mike Kueber @ 9:48 am
Tags: , , ,

Most people consider yoga to be some exotic, mystical, even quasi-religious experience, and that turns them off.  To avoid this turn-off, yoga in America has evolved into a form of physical exercise that focuses on building strength, increasing flexibility, and improving balance.  There is still a minimal amount of attention to stress relief and meditation (the concluding shavasana), but chanting is almost always excluded.  I have one new instructor at Lifetime Fitness who likes to throw in a few chants even though she acknowledges that some participants object because of its religious implications.

According to a recent article in the NY Times (attached below), the practice of yoga in New York City is experiencing a similar narrative, especially in Muslim dominated areas, such as Jackson Heights in Queens, an area that I have visited several times.  Muslims are much more sensitive to avoiding anything that might be inconsistent with their fealty to Islam, and the article examines how practitioners of yoga are “Seeking to Clear a Path Between Yoga and Islam.


Incidentally, Wikipedia says the following about Namaste:

  • Namaste is a common spoken valediction or salutation originating from the Indian subcontinent. It is a customary greeting when individuals meet, and a valediction upon their parting. A non-contact form of salutation is traditionally preferred in India and Namaste is the most common form of such a salutation….  When spoken to another person, it is commonly accompanied by a slight bow made with hands pressed together, palms touching and fingers pointed upwards, in front of the chest. This gesture, called Añjali Mudrā or Pranamasana, can also be performed wordlessly and carries the same meaning….  Namaste is derived from Sanskrit and is a combination of two words, “Namaḥ” and “te.  Namaḥ means ‘bow’, ‘obeisance’, ‘reverential salutation’ or ‘adoration’ and te means ‘to you.’  Therefore, Namaste literally means “bow to you” translated as “I bow to you.”

Another internet website provides essentially the same information – “Nama” means bow, “as” means I, and “te” means you. Therefore, Namaste literally means “bow me you” or “I bow to you.”

All of which makes me wonder why all of the yogis at Lifetime Fitness conclude practice by saying some variation of, “We finish yoga practice by saying Namaste, which means that the divine in me bows to the divine in you.  Namaste.”  According to Wikipedia, this is a modern extrapolation.  Sounds like they have all been programmed by some yoga sensei in their corporate headquarters.   

In Queens, Seeking to Clear a Path Between Yoga and Islam


Published: April 8, 2012

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.”

“Yoga is not for Muslims,” he said. “It was forbidden.”

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.

In New York City, where yoga has become as secular an activity as spinning or step aerobics, the potential sins of yoga are not typically debated by those clad in Lululemon leggings. But in some predominantly Muslim pockets like Jackson Heights, Queens, yoga has been slow to catch on, especially among first-generation immigrants, newly arrived from cultures where yoga is considered Hindu worship.

When Mr. Rashid, who also tutors children, had his students learn yoga to help improve their concentration, three Muslim students quit after a few sessions, he said, in part, he believed, because of their families’ stance toward the practice. “I am putting them in something extra that is not in the Muslim religion,” he said. “The parents did not accept it.”

The religious opposition to yoga also extends to some Christian sects. One widely publicized clash came in 2010, when R. Albert Mohler Jr., an evangelical leader and the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, declared the practice of yoga blasphemous because of what he said were its pantheistic roots.

In India, near-annual pushes by members of Parliament to make yoga compulsory in schools have riled Muslim parents who feel it bridges on indoctrination. When a Parliament member proposed to insert yoga into most curriculums in 2010, wording was included to exempt things like madrasas, or Islamic schools. Four years ago, a council of Malaysian Muslim clerics issued a fatwa against yoga, declaring it haram, or forbidden by Islamic law. The ruling followed similar edicts in Egypt and Singapore, where one of the earliest bans was issued in the early 1980s.

The fatwas typically cited the Sanskrit chants that often flowed through yoga sessions, and which can be considered Hindu prayer by some in the Muslim faith. According to  “Yoga in the Hindu Scriptures” by H. Kumar Kaul, who has written numerous books on yoga, yogic principles were first described in the Vedas, the Sanskrit scriptures that form the backbone of Hinduism, and are considered to be over 10,000 years old.

Even the word “namaste,” for example, invokes the divine.

Given that cultural history, it was understandable that when Mohd A. Qayyoom, an imam who runs the Muhammadi Community Center of Jackson Heights, joined a large yoga demonstration at an open-air interfaith festival in Jackson Heights last summer, it would not go unnoticed.

His participation drew instant reproach from the community, he said. “As soon as we finished our event, they said, ‘Imam, what is that, why are you doing that?’ ” he said. “ ‘This is not within our Islam.’ ”

But Imam Qayyoom said he had come to believe that Islam and yoga could be compatible — if the Sanskrit benedictions are left out, he said, and women’s skin-tight yoga gear is traded for more conservative garments. “Reformed, it will be more popular” among Muslims, he said. “It will not contradict with Islamic religion.”

Others are less convinced.

Anwar Hassan, 27, who is from Bangladesh and works in the Queen of Sheba grocery in Jackson Heights, says yoga’s roots are irreconcilable with his faith.

“When I came here, I see there is yoga and everything, but we don’t go,” Mr. Hassan said. “A lot of people, they are new to it so they think it’s a gym class, or something. But Hindu people started it, and I think it’s Hindu religion, so I don’t go.”

When Dr. Alex Eingorn prescribed yoga recently to a Bangladeshi woman who came to him with spinal pain at his Better Health Chiropractic clinic in Midtown Manhattan, “she looked at me in horror,” he said. “She said, ‘I’m a Muslim, I can’t practice a different religion.’ ” Dr. Eingorn persuaded her to try it, he said, by saying that in New York, it is viewed as a secular, or at the most, spiritual practice.

Mimi Bord, 46, who runs Mi-mi-for-Me Yoga, a tidy and serene studio in Jackson Heights that is one of the neighborhood’s only yoga centers, has had to make similar allowances. “If there is a little chanting going on, right away this is a turn- off” for some of the Muslims who sign up for her sessions, she said. “Often they won’t come back.”

In response, Ms. Bord has tailored certain classes, cutting out Sanskrit chants if she thinks it will upset certain students. “Emphasizing the physical, they’re kind of cool with it,” she says. “They feel safe.”

For Ms. Bord, who has taught yoga to a variety of audiences, including Hasidic women in Brooklyn, it came as a shock, when shortly after opening a studio in the area eight years ago she was approached by a Muslim student who voiced concerns with customary chants like “ohm.” She found herself fielding questions like “ ‘Is ‘ohm’ God? Is ‘ohm’ Allah?’ ” she said.

Ms. Bord adapted her classes for her new clientele, either omitting chanting, or adding both “shalom” and “amen” to the traditional sign-off of namaste, to indicate that a plurality of religions were being represented.

“A lot of us in the Western world, we look at it as anything that is going to enhance the way we look aesthetically,” she said. She said that some Muslim students were “not looking at the physical aspect, they’re looking at the spiritual aspect.”

For many immersed in a culture where vinyasa yoga is more readily associated with a New York Sports Club than a Hindu temple, the origin matters little. And for some of the devout living here, the American conception has overridden the beliefs with which they were raised.

When Mr. Rashid finally took up yoga, he said there were more similarities with his faith than contradictions. In salat, the five-times daily Muslim prayers, which entail a meditation-like centering of focus and several kneeling bows, he felt there were echoes of yogic poses.

“I discovered whatever I’m doing in yoga, I’m doing five times a day in prayer,” said Mr. Rashid, who is originally from Dhaka, Bangladesh.

During the daylong yoga class at the festival that Mr. Rashid helped organize in Jackson Heights last summer, classes were halted for salat.  Imam Qayyoom and others performed those prayers on their yoga mats.

It dawned on him then, the imam said, that many Muslims, in a sense, practice yogic postures several times a day. “Maybe they’re getting that same benefit in their prayers,” he said. “Maybe they don’t need to do yoga.”