Recent debate surrounding the spiritual nature of yoga has introduced a frequent question: "Are Muslims not allowed to practice yoga?" The question is a difficult one in the sense that depending on who you ask, you will likely receive different answers.
Yoga's Religious Roots
Yoga is an ancient Indian practice, and is linked to Hinduism.Yoga is not only a series of stretches and exercises, it is also a spiritual practice. In traditional Indian yoga practice, yoga asanas and prayers come together into a meditative practice. Of course, in most modern contexts, practicing yoga means connecting to your own personal inner energy, with no mention whatsoever of a particular religion, spiritual domain, or a particular god.
Yoga has spread quickly throughout the world in the last 25 years, partially due to its universal appeal. It can be performed by people of all religious beliefs, because the intent is to enhance an individual's personal spirituality. While some people may choose a deeply devout path of Kundalini Yoga with its Hindu foundation, others may enhance their Christian views with a specialized yoga practice featuring asanas and psalms together, such as the practice offered by Nancy Roth.
In the Middle East, many Muslim women practice yoga safely and without being hassled.
In recent years, developments in Malaysia and Egypt have been publicized, revealing religious edicts proclaiming that Muslims should not practice yoga. The reasoning behind this is that yoga is a Hindu tradition, and because of this, cannot be practiced by Muslims.
Many opponents to this line of thinking claim that in yoga classes where the religious roots are not discussed and not emphasized, that yoga practitioners have no reason to even know that yoga stems from a Hindu religious tradition. If yogis do not even realize that yoga has religious roots, many argue that there is no harm in practicing yoga, even as a believer in a different religion other than Hinduism.
Conservatives opposed to yoga believe Muslims practicing it perform a sacrilegious act, even if individuals are unaware of yoga's Hindu roots.
Are Muslims Not Allowed to Practice Yoga?
The 2008 article, Should Pious Muslims Practice Yoga, printed in The Times, offers an interesting insider view from the Middle East. The writer, having practiced yoga for years, speculates on what might happen in Muslim communities with yoga studios following the controversy surrounding the conservative religious view that Muslims should not practice yoga. This view could cause harassment of yogis and yoga teachers, not to mention destruction or defacement of properties where yoga studios have been established. To date, the religious edicts claiming that Muslims should not practice yoga have caused very little violence and damage.
In 2009, the yoga guru Swami Ramdev made a revolutionary statement regarding Muslims practicing yoga. He suggests a 'fill-in-the-blank' approach: yogis of any faith can chant whatever they wish during yoga meditation, which is the part of practice considered by most to be religious. Ramdev maintains that Christians can chant "God" instead of "Om" and that Muslims, likewise, can chant "Allah". While many yogis and yoga spokespeople claim that yoga can simply be practiced without the meditation and chanting elements, Ramdev states that the chanting is not definitively Hindu.
More of his philosophy concerning Muslims practicing yoga can be found on the blog Yoga Dork and further elaborates on the non-denominational aspect of yoga. His encouraging yogis to choose their chant really highlights the non-religious nature of yoga, despite its religious origins.
It is still a common question though to hear one ask, "Are Muslims not allowed to practice yoga?" Because of the recent press on the question, many people inquire about the issue, simply out of curiosity. The fact of the matter is that many Muslims do indeed practice yoga, and consider themselves pious in their beliefs.