The Christian vs. Hindu yoga debate needs more critical nuance
Tuesday, June 21 will mark the eighth International Yoga Day. This day offers an opportunity to reflect on some of the last year’s public debates around yoga in the United States, many of which are rooted in religious issues.
For example, in May 2021, Alabama lifted a 30-year ban on the teaching of yoga in public schools. The law project has been presented by certified yoga instructor and Democratic State Rep. Jeremy Gray. Some Christians felt that yoga classes in public schools violated first amendment rights around religious freedom and feared that yoga would encourage students to convert to Hinduism. This prompted an “opt-out” option for classes (which are not required).
Others have argued that yoga is a purely physical practice that does not contradict the teachings of Christianity. Still others have pointed out that yoga has been “christianized“, quoting Indian Christian yoga practitioners.
But the debate around yoga is far from this summary binary between Christian and Hindu.
Yes, it is crucial to criticize the blatant racism in these debates around yoga at school. They are part of a long line of yogaphobic tropes of “swarthy Hindu priests” launching a “pagan invasion” in the United States, accused of hypnotizing and enslaving unsuspecting white women.
However, it is important to think about the religious politics of yoga with a more critical nuance, especially in relation to the politics of Hindu nationalism in India. The right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been in political power in India since 2014, when Narendra Modi was elected prime minister; in 2015 it was declared the political party of the world with the most registered memberswith 88 million.
Modi’s administration, and the BJP party more broadly, has a long history of Islamophobia, caste oppression and land theft.
On September 27, 2014, Modi delivered a speech to the United Nations calling for a new internationally recognized day to commemorate yoga:
Yoga is an invaluable gift from the ancient tradition of India. It embodies the unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfillment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and wellness. It is not about exercise but about discovering the meaning of oneness with oneself, the world and nature. By changing our way of life and creating awareness, it can help us deal with climate change. Let’s work towards adopting an international yoga day.
Less than three months after that speech, a resolution was passed and the United Nations officially adopted International Yoga Day for June 21, in recognition of the summer solstice. One hundred and seventy-five nations joined India in co-sponsoring the bill – the highest number of any General Assembly resolution. It was also the first time that a UN resolution had gone from proposal to implementation in less than 90 days.
International Yoga Day has been described by analysts as ‘yoga diplomacy’ and an important exercise in the Indian state”sweet power.”
Recognizing the profitability of yoga, in November 2014 the Indian government expanded the Ministry of Ayush (Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy) into its own ministry, prompting journalists to identify it as a “ministry of yoga “. Researchers pointed out that the political adoption of yoga in India is partly due to the competition between India and China to be the world leader in alternative medicine.
International Yoga Day was greeted with both widespread celebration and CONTESTATIONsome associating it with Sweet power of Hindutvaand imposing hinduism on a technically secular country. Modi’s administration tried to distance himself from the controversy, saying that “the event is not religious, despite the tradition’s deep roots in the Hindu faith”.
The global power and possibility of International Yoga Day has not been lost on diasporic organizations like the Hindu Foundation of America. After four years of International Yoga Day celebrations that included closing bridges and busy centralized areas like Times Square, the first Conference on Soft Power took place in New Delhi, India in 2018. Suhak Shukla, co-founder and executive director of the Hindu America Foundation, gave a speech titled “Yoga, India’s Soft Power: Balancing the Sacred and the Secular”, in which she argued that the Indian government had missed an opportunity to use International Yoga Day to situate yoga more explicitly as Hindu.
The Hindu America Foundation has been criticized as pro-Hindutva for campaigns like that of lift visa ban on Modi, which was set up in response to his role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, which killed more than 2,000 people, mostly Muslims; destroyed 20,000 Muslim homes and businesses and 360 places of worship; and displaced around 150,000 people.
In this international context, it is logical to see yoga as inextricably linked to Hindu nationalist “soft power”, even though it has long been the target of racist and orientalist suspicion on the part of the Christian right. Andrea Jain Remarks that Christian “yogaphobia” is in fact compatible with Hindu arguments for the “Hindu origins” of yoga, as both of these arguments seek to situate yoga as Hindu.
There are more layers. Naturally, there have been various movements in the United States to counter the whiteness of yoga and the erasure of South Asian voices from debates about yoga. These include South Asian American Perspectives on Yoga in America, Decolonizing Yoga and Take up yoga again.
However, South Asian activists in the United States have also pointed to problems with defining yoga as an “Indian” practice. Prachi Patankar, for example, argue that debates around the Indian or Hindu roots of yoga erase the fact that yoga is in fact associated with mainstream caste Hinduism.
In recent years, there has also been a growing yoga movement among black and brown women for healing and body positivity, pushing back on the racism and exclusivity within the practice. by Jessamyn Stanley Every Body Yoga: Let go of fear, get on the mat, love your body and Yoke: my yoga of self-acceptance offer a body-positive and interfaith narrative of yoga. Other black yoga practitioners have been drawn to Kemetic Yogawhose roots go back to Egypt.
One can simultaneously criticize the racist attacks on yoga and critique how yoga is mobilized for Hindu nationalist agendas. This critical goal is important, given the explosion in popularity of yoga in recent years. As of 2018there were approximately 300 million yoga practitioners worldwide, 29 million of whom live in the United States, with 6,000 yoga studios in the United States and 16 billion industry.
To add a more critical nuance to the “Christian versus Hindu” yoga debate, we need to be able to hold all of these things together: the Christian pathologization of yoga, the use of yoga for the soft power of Hindutva, and the uses popular practice of yoga for health and healing outside of institutional religious spaces.