Yoga: it’s not as old (or as Hindu) as you think

yogaNo one denies that Hinduism’s most sacred and ancient texts, including the Bhagvad Gita, describe different kinds of yogic practices. But what does this ancient and sacred tradition of yoga have to do with what people all around the world do in yoga classes in gyms and fitness centres today?

To most Indians, such questions are nothing less than sacrilegious. Yoga is for them what apple pie and motherhood are for Americans: a living symbol of their way of life.

Indians tend to affirm their claims on yoga by trotting out the familiar icons of the ‘5,000-year-old Vedic tradition,’ which supposedly stretches from the Pashupati seal of the (actually very unVedic) Indus Valley civilisation to the Bhagvad Gita and the venerable Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Yoga, Indians like to solemnly declare, is ‘eternal’ and ‘timeless’ and all the great yoga masters, from Swami Vivekananda to BKS Iyengar to Baba Ramdev of our own time, have only restored or reinstituted an ancient practice. It is also commonplace to hear Indians—even those who are not particularly spiritual themselves—blame

Americans and other ‘decadent’ Westerners for reducing their spiritually rich tradition to mere calisthenics.

Lately, Hindus in America have started flying the saffron flag over American-style yoga, which consists largely of yogic asanas and stretches. The leading Indo-American lobby, Hindu American Foundation (HAF), has recently started a vocal campaign to remind Americans that yoga was made in India by Hindus. Not just any ordinary Hindus, but Sanskrit-speaking, forest-dwelling Brahmin sages who learned to discipline their bodies in order to purify their atman. The purist Hindu position, articulated by the HAF, is that all yoga, including its physical or hatha yoga component, is rooted in the Hindu religion/way of life that goes all the way back to the Vedic sages and yogis.

There is only one problem with this purist history of yoga: it is false. Yogic asanas were never ‘Vedic’ to begin with. Far from being considered the crown jewel of Hinduism, yogic asanas were in fact looked down upon…

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by Hindu intellectuals and reformers—including the great Swami Vivekananda—as fit only for sorcerers, fakirs and jogis. Moreover, what HAF calls the “rape of yoga”, referring to the separation of asanas from their spiritual underpinning, did not start in the supposedly decadent West; it began, in fact, in the akharas and gymnasiums of 19th and 20th century India run by Indian nationalists seeking to counter Western images of effete Indians. It is in this nationalistic phase that hatha yoga took on many elements of Western gymnastics and body-building, which show up in the world-renowned Iyengar and Ashtanga Vinyasa schools of yoga. Far from honestly acknowledging the Western contributions to modern yoga, we Indians simply brand all yoga as ‘Vedic,’ a smug claim that has no intellectual integrity.

It is the hidden history of modern postural yoga that is the main theme of this essay. But first, some background on the great ‘take back yoga’ movement.

Yoga is to North America what McDonald’s is to India: both are foreign implants gone native. Not unlike the golden arches that are mushrooming in Indian cities, the urban and suburban landscape of the United States is dotted with neighbourhood health clubs, spas and even churches and synagogues offering yoga classes.

Some 16 million Americans do some form of yoga, primarily as a part of their exercise and fitness routine. When everyday Americans talk about yoga, they mostly mean hatha yoga, involving stretches, breathing and bodily postures.

Many styles of postural yoga, pioneered by India-origin teachers—the Iyengar and Sivananda schools, the Ashtanga Vinyasa or ‘power yoga’ of Pattabhi Jois, and ‘hot yoga,’ recently copyrighted by Bikram Chaudhary—thrive in the United States. The more meditational forms of yoga, popularised by the disciples of Vivekananda, Sivananda and other swamis, are less popular. Americans’ preference for postural yoga over meditational yoga is not all that unique: in India, too, hundreds of millions follow Baba Ramdev, India’s most popular tele-yogi, who teaches a medicalised, asana-oriented yoga with little spiritual or meditational content.

By and large, the US yoga industry does not hide the origins of what it teaches. On the contrary, in a country that is so young and so constantly in flux, yoga’s presumed antiquity (‘the 5,000-year-old exercise system’, etcetera.) and its connections with Eastern spirituality have become part of the sales pitch. Thus, doing namastes, intoning ‘om’ and chanting Sanskrit mantras have become a part of the experience of doing yoga in America. Many yoga studios use Indian classical or kirtan music, incense, signs of ‘om’ and other paraphernalia of the Subcontinent to create a suitably spiritual ambience. Iyengar yoga schools begin their sessions with a hymn to Patanjali, the second-century composer of the Yoga Sutras, and some have even installed his icon. This Hinduisation is not entirely decorative either, as yoga instructors are required to study Hindu philosophy and scriptures to get a licence to teach yoga.

One would think that yoga’s popularity and Hinduisation would gladden the hearts of Hindu immigrants.


The leading Hindu advocacy organisation in the United States, the aforementioned Hindu American Foundation or HAF, is hardly beaming with pride. On the contrary, it has recently accused the American yoga industry of ‘stealing’—even ‘raping’—yoga by stripping it of its spiritual heritage and not acknowledging its Hindu roots. Millions of Americans will be shocked to learn that they are committing ‘intellectual property theft’ every single time they strike a yogic pose because they fail to acknowledge yoga’s ‘mother tradition,’ namely Hinduism. HAF’s co-founder and chief spokesperson, Aseem Shukla, exhorts his fellow Hindus to ‘take back yoga and reclaim the intellectual property of their spiritual heritage.’

The take-back-yoga campaigners are not impressed with the growing visibility of Hindu symbols and rituals in yoga and other cultural institutions in the US. They still find Hindu-phobia lurking everywhere they look. They want Americans to think of yoga, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the great Vedas when they think of Hinduism, instead of the old stereotypes of caste, cows and curry. They would rather, to paraphrase Shukla, that Hinduism is linked less with holy cows than Gomukhasana (a particularly arduous asana); less with colourful wandering sadhus and more with the spiritual inspiration of Patanjali. It seems this yoga-reclamation campaign is less about yoga, and more about the Indian diaspora’s strange mix of defensiveness and an exaggerated sense of the excellence of the elite, Sanskritic aspects of Hindu religion and culture.

The ‘who owns yoga’ debate gained worldwide attention last November, when The New York Times carried a front-page feature on the issue. But the dispute started earlier, with a battle of blogs, hosted online by The Washington Post, between HAF’s Shukla and New Age guru Deepak Chopra. Shukla complained of the yoga establishment shunning the ‘H-word’ while making its fortunes off Hindu ideas and practices. He accused the yoga and New Age industry, including Indian gurus like Deepak Chopra, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and others, of using euphemisms like ‘Eastern wisdom’ and ‘ancient Indian’ to repackage Hindu ideas without calling them by their proper name. Chopra, who does indeed shun the Hindu label and calls himself an ‘Advaita Vedantist’ instead, declared that Hinduism had no patent on yoga. He argued that yoga existed in ‘consciousness and consciousness alone’ much before Hinduism, just like wine and bread existed before Jesus’ Last Supper, implying that Hindus had as much claim over yoga as Christians had over bread and wine. Shukla called Chopra a “philosophical profiteer” who does not honour his Hindu heritage, while Chopra accused Shukla and HAF of a Hindu-fundamentalist bias.

This debate is really about two equally fundamentalist views of Hindu history. The underlying objective is to draw an unbroken line connecting 21st century yogic postures with the nearly 2,000-year-old Yoga Sutras, and tie both to the supposedly 5,000-year-old Vedas. The only difference is that, for Chopra, yoga existed before Hinduism, while Shukla and HAF want to claim the entire five millennia for the glory of Hinduism. For Chopra, yoga is a part of ‘timeless Eastern wisdom’. For the HAF, ‘Yoga and the Vedas are synonymous, and are as eternal as they are contemporaneous.’

The reality is that postural yoga, as we know it in the 21st century, is neither eternal nor synonymous with the Vedas or Yoga Sutras. On the contrary, modern yoga was born in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. It is a child of the Hindu Renaissance and Indian nationalism, in which Western ideas about science, evolution, eugenics, health and physical fitness played as crucial a role as the ‘mother tradition’. In the massive, multi-level hybridisation that took place during this period, the spiritual aspects of yoga and tantra were rationalised, largely along the theosophical ideas of ‘spiritual science,’ introduced to
India by the US-origin, India-based Theosophical Society, and internalised by Swami Vivekananda, who led the yoga renaissance.

In turn, the physical aspects of yoga were hybridised with drills, gymnastics and body-building techniques borrowed from Sweden, Denmark, England, the United States and other Western countries. These innovations were creatively grafted on the Yoga Sutras—which has been correctly described by Agehananda Bharati, the Austria-born Hindu monk-mystic, as ‘the yoga canon for people who have accepted Brahmin theology’—to create an impression of 5,000 years worth of continuity where none really exists. The HAF’s current insistence is thus part of a false advertising campaign about yoga’s ancient Brahminical lineage.

Contrary to the widespread impression, the vast majority of asanas taught by modern yoga gurus are not described anywhere in ancient sacred Hindu texts. Anyone who goes looking for references to popular yoga techniques like pranayam, neti, kapalbhati or suryanamaskar in classical Vedic literature will be sorely disappointed.

The four Vedas have no mention of yoga. The Upanishads and The Bhagvad Gita do, but primarily as a spiritual technique to purify the atman. The Bible of yoga, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, devotes barely three short sutras (out of 195) to physical postures, and that too only to suggest comfortable ways of sitting still for prolonged meditation. Asanas were only the means to the real goal—to still the mind to achieve the state of pure consciousness—in Patanjali’s yoga.

There are, of course, asana-centred hatha yoga texts in the Indic tradition. But they definitely do not date back 5,000 years: none of them makes an appearance till the 10th to 12th centuries. Hatha yoga was a creation of the kanphata (split-eared) Nath Siddha, who were no Sanskrit-speaking sages meditating in the Himalayas. They were (and still are) precisely those matted-hair, ash-smeared sadhus that the HAF wants to banish from the Western imagination. Indeed, if any Hindu tradition can at all claim a patent on postural yoga, it is these caste-defying, ganja-smoking, sexually permissive, Shiva- and Shakti-worshipping sorcerers, alchemists and tantriks, who were cowherds, potters and suchlike. They undertook great physical austerities not because they sought to achieve pure consciousness, unencumbered by the body and other gross matter, but because they wanted magical powers (siddhis) to become immortal and to control the rest of the natural world.

Far from being purely Vedic, hatha yoga was born a hybrid. As Amartya Sen reminded us in his recent address to the Indian Science Congress, universities like Nalanda were a melting pot where Buddhist Tantra made contact with Taoism from China. By the time Buddhism reached China through Nalanda and other centres of cultural exchange along the Silk Route in the north and the sea route in the south, Taoists were already experimenting with qigong, which involved controlled breathing and channelling of ‘vital energy’. Taoist practices bear an uncanny similarity with the yogic pranayam, leading scholars to believe that the two systems have borrowed from each other: Indians learning exercise-oriented breathing from Taoists, and Taoists in China learning breathing-oriented meditation from their Indian neighbours.

But this Taoist-Buddhist-Shaivite synthesis was only the beginning. As we see below, hatha yoga was to absorb many more influences in the modern era, this time from the West.

The problem for historians of modern yoga is that even these medieval hatha yoga texts describe only a small fraction of modern yogic postures taught today. BKS Iyengar’s Light on Yoga alone teaches 200 asanas, while the 14th century Hatha Yoga Pradipika lists only 15 asanas, as do the 17th century Gheranda Samhita and Shiva Samhita.

Given that there is so little ancient tradition upon which to stand, unverifiable claims of ancient-but-now-lost texts have been promoted. The Ashtanga Vinyasa system of Pattabhi Jois, for example, is allegedly based on a palm-leaf manuscript called the Yoga Kurunta that Jois’s teacher, renowned yoga master T Krishnamacharya (1888–1989), unearthed in a Calcutta library. But this manuscript has reportedly been eaten by ants, and not a single copy of it can be found today. Another ‘ancient’ text, the Yoga Rahasya, which no one has been able to trace, was supposedly dictated to Krishnamacharya in a trance by the ghost of an ancestor who had been dead nearly a millennium. Such are the flimsy—or rather fictional—grounds on which rest Hinduism’s claimed intellectual property rights to yoga.

This sorry attempt to create an ancient lineage for modern yoga is reminiscent of the case of Vedic mathematics. In that case, Swami Shri Bharati Krishna Tirtha, the Shankaracharya of Puri, insisted that 16 sutras in his 1965 book, titled Vedic Mathematics, are to be found in the appendix of Atharva Veda. When no one could find the said sutras, the Swami declared they appear only in his own appendix to the the Atharva Veda and not any other! This ‘logic’ has not prevented Vedic maths from emerging as a growth industry, attracting private spending by well-heeled Indians seeking to boost brainpower and public spending by state governments that have introduced it in school curriculums.

New research has brought to light historical documents and oral histories that raise serious doubts about the ‘ancient’ lineage of Pattabhi Jois’ Ashtanga Vinyasa and Iyengar yoga. Both Jois (1915–2009) and Iyengar (born 1918) learnt yoga from T Krishnamacharya from 1933 till the late 1940s, when he directed a yoga school in one wing of the Jaganmohan Palace of the Maharaja of Mysore, Krishnaraja Wodiyar IV (1884–1940).

The Maharaja, who ruled the state and the city of Mysore from 1902 till his death, was well known as a great promoter of Indian culture and religion. But he was also a great cultural innovator, who welcomed positive innovations from the West, incorporating them into his social programmes. Promoting
physical education was one of his passions, and under his reign, Mysore became the hub of a physical culture revival in the country. He had hired Krishnamacharya primarily to teach yoga to the young princes of the royal family, but he also funded the travels all over India of Krishnamacharya and his protégés to give yoga demonstrations, thereby encouraging an enormous popular revival of yoga.

Indeed, Mysore’s royal family had a long-standing interest in hatha yoga: Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar III (1799–1868), Wodeyar IV’s ancestor, is credited with composing an exquisitely illustrated manual, titled Sritattvanidhi, which was first discovered by Norman Sjoman, a Swedish yoga student, in the mid-1980s in the library of the Mysore Palace. What is remarkable about this book is its innovative combination of hatha yoga asanas with rope exercises used by Indian wrestlers and the danda push-ups developed at the vyayamasalas, the indigenous Indian gymnasiums.

Both Sjoman and Mark Singleton, a US-based scholar who has interviewed many of those associated with the Mysore Palace during its heyday in the 1930s, believe that the seeds of modern yoga lie in the innovative style of Sritattvanidhi. Krishnamacharya, who was familiar with this text and cited it in his own books, carried on the innovation by adding a variety of Western gymnastics and drills to the routines he learnt from Sritattvanidhi, which had already cross-bred hatha yoga with traditional Indian wrestling and acrobatic routines.

In addition, it is well established that Krishnamacharya had full access to a Western-style gymnastics hall in the Mysore Palace, with all the usual wall ropes and other props that he began to include in his yoga routines.

Sjoman has excerpted the gymnastics manual that was available to Krishnamacharya. He claims that many of the gymnastic techniques from that manual—for example, the cross-legged jumpback and walking the hands down a wall into a back arch—found their way into Krishnamacharya’s teachings, which he passed on to Iyengar and Jois. In addition, in the early years of the 20th century, an apparatus-free Swedish drill and gymnastic routine, developed by a Dane by the name of Niels Bukh (1880–1950), was introduced to India by the British and popularised by the YMCA. Singleton argues that “at least 28 of the exercises in the first edition of Bukh’s manual are strikingly similar (often identical) to yoga postures occurring in Pattabhi Jois’ Ashtanga sequence or in Iyengar’s Light on Yoga.” The link again is Krishnamacharya, who Singleton calls a “major player in the modern merging of gymnastic-style asana practice and the Patanjali tradition.”

The HAF’s shrill claims about Westerners stealing yoga completely gloss over the tremendous amount of cross-breeding and hybridisation that has given birth to yoga as we know it. Indeed, contemporary yoga is a unique example of a truly global innovation, in which Eastern and Western practices merged to produce something that is valued and cherished around the world.

Hinduism, whether ancient, medieval or modern, has no special claims on 21st century postural yoga. To assert otherwise is churlish and simply untrue.


Meera Nanda is a visiting professor of history of science at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali

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Self-Realization Fellowship elects Sri Mrinalini Mata as new leader (LA Times)

The organization, which follows Hindu and Christian teachings, selects Sri Mrinalini Mata, 79, to succeed longtime leader Sri Daya Mata, who died in 2010. Mrinalini Mata has been vice president of the group since 1966.

The Self-Realization Fellowship, a Los Angeles-based organization that follows a spiritual path rooted in both Hinduism and Christianity, has elected a new leader, the fourth since it was established in 1920.

The fellowship announced Tuesday that Sri Mrinalini Mata, who became a Self-Realization nun at the age of 15, was elected president last week by its eight-member board of directors. She succeeds Sri Daya Mata, the group’s longtime leader, who died in November.

The selection of Mrinalini Mata, 79, means that the fellowship will continue to be led by a woman, and by a direct disciple of its founder, Paramahansa Yogananda, an Indian yogi who is credited with helping to popularize yoga and meditation in the West. Mrinalini Mata has been vice president of the organization since 1966.

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“It shows that they’re very traditional — that they’re holding on to a tradition,” said Lola Williamson, a professor of religion at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss., and the author of “Transcendent in America: Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements as New Religion,” which examines the Self-Realization Fellowship and two other movements.

The fellowship is perhaps best known in Los Angeles for the tranquility of its temple gardens at sites that include Hollywood and Pacific Palisades. They are among more than 600 temples, meditation centers and retreat sites operated by the organization around the world.

Born Merna Brown in Wichita, Kan., Mrinalini Mata moved to Southern California as a child. In 1945, when she was a teenager, her mother took her to see Yogananda. The girl, who was clutching a Bible, according to Williamson, was initially reluctant to meet the religious leader but found herself electrified by his presence and almost immediately dedicated her life to his cause.

“I think that the transformation of feeling, the love from master, and the special relationship with master, I think that took place that instant that I walked into the temple the first time,” she was later quoted as saying of Yogananda.

Mrinalini Mata was allowed to enter the fellowship’s ashram as a nun, a practice generally discouraged for someone so young, said the movement’s spokeswoman, Lauren Landress. Mrinalini Mata later was chosen by Yogananda to oversee his publications after his death. He died in 1952.

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‘Vedanta and yoga perfect match for certain American values’

There has always been a pervasive but undocumented feeling that Indian philosophy, as manifest in Vedanta on the intellectual plain and yoga on the physical plain, has very significantly influenced the West in general and America in particular. That feeling now finds a meticulously constructed scholastic endorsement in the form of an important new book.

Author Philip Goldberg’s ‘American Veda – From Emerson to the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West’ (Harmony Books, 398 pages, $26) [available on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk] offers a comprehensive account of the inroads made by Indian philosophy since the early 19th century.

‘The combination of Vedanta and Yoga was a perfect match for certain American values: freedom of choice and religion, individuality, scientific rationality, and pragmatism. They appealed especially to well-educated Americans who were discontent with ordinary religion and unsatisfied by secularism, giving them a way to be authentically spiritual without compromising their sense of reason, their consciences or their personal inclinations,’ Goldberg told IANS in an interview.

He said Indian teachers who came to the US were conscious of the openness of American society and they adapted the teachings accordingly.

Explaining the mainstreaming of Indian philosophy in the US, Goldberg said, ‘I think the remarkable growth of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ cohort of Americans would have been unthinkable without access to the practices derived from Hinduism and Buddhism. In addition, the philosophy was presented so rationally that its premises could be regarded as…

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hypotheses, and the practices were so uniform and so widely applicable that they lent themselves to scientific experimentation.’

The book begins with a claim that is deliberately designed to be an attention grabber. ‘In February 1968 the Beatles went to India for an extended stay with their new guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It may have been the most momentous spiritual retreat since Jesus spent those 40 days in the wilderness. The media frenzy over the Fab Four made known to the sleek, sophisticated West that meek, mysterious India had something of value. Our understanding and practice of spirituality would never be the same,’ Goldberg writes.

He points out that translated Hindu texts were very much a part of the libraries of John Adams, the second president of the United States and one of its most respected statesmen and political theorists, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, an eminent poet and essayist who led the transcendentalist movement in the mid-19th century. From there those ideas permeated to author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau and poet Walt Whitman among others.

In recounting Thoreau’s perspective about the Bhagavad Gita, Goldberg refers to a much quoted passage from the book Walden. Thoreau writes, ‘In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seems puny and trivial.’

The book has two distinct trends in support of the author’s primary contention about how Indian spirituality changed the West. One trend is at the operational level where words such as mantra, guru, karma and pundits have so seamlessly become part of the mainstream lexicon. The other trend is much deeper in terms of internalising the core values of Indian philosophy. Asked if the people in the US are conscious of this, Goldberg said, ‘Some are conscious of it, and therefore grateful to the Indian legacy. Others are not: it’s seeped into the American consciousness in subtle but profound ways.’

Goldberg also talks about the ‘Vedization of America’. On whether it can be attributed to the general secularisation/pluralisation significantly caused by the rise of agnostic information technologies, he said, ‘If you mean, could the trends I describe be attributed to the growth of pluralism and other social forces, independent of the Indian influence, it is very hard to say. Certainly, the combination of factors made for a perfect storm. I tend to think that the experiential practices of meditation and yoga, and the intellectual framework of Vedanta, accelerated, deepened and broadened what might have been an inevitable but amorphous evolution.’

On whether he apprehends any organized backlash or pushback against Indian philosophy, he said ‘Not a big one, but some of it is inevitable. There has always been a backlash from both mainstream religion – conservative Christians in particular – and the anti-religious left. Vivekananda faced up to it in 1893, and all the important gurus were confronted by it. Right now, there’s an anti-yoga campaign by some Christian preachers. I’d be very pleased if my book becomes a lightning rod for such a controversy. Bring ’em on!’

On a movement in support of a ‘Christian yoga’ that may be gaining some ground Goldberg said, ‘That’s a more complicated issue than is often realised. The question, ‘Is yoga a form of Hinduism’ depends entirely on how one defines both yoga and Hinduism. That there are people teaching Christian Yoga and Jewish Yoga strikes me as a backhanded compliment to one of the great glories of the Vedic tradition: its universality and adaptability. That having been said, the idea that yoga is ‘a Hindu tool,’ i.e., a form of stealth conversion, strikes me as a projection by Christians of their own messianic drive to convert the ‘heathen’. That conversion is not in the Hindu repertoire – and that the gurus and swamis and yoga masters are content to have their students become better Christians – is hard for many to comprehend.’

(Mayank Chhaya is a US-based writer and commentator. He can be contacted at m@mayankchhaya.net)

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From Mormon teen to leader of mystics

Faye Wright was an unassuming Mormon teen in Salt Lake City until Paramahansa Yogananda, an Indian mystic, came to town in 1931, preaching a combination of yoga meditation, Hindu principles and Christian ethics.

Dazzled by what she saw as divine love, Wright, the descendant of handcart pioneers and granddaughter of an architect of Salt Lake City’s Mormon Tabernacle, gave up everything familiar to follow him to Los Angeles, where he changed her name to Sri Daya Mata. Three years after Yogananda’s death in 1952, Daya Mata succeeded him as president of Self-Realization Fellowship, an unusually important post for a woman at the time and one she held for the next 5½ decades.

Daya Mata died Tuesday of natural causes in Southern California at one of the fellowship’s monasteries for females.

She was nearly 97 and lucid to the end, Lauren Landress, the group’s spokeswoman, said Friday. Daya Mata had spent the past few years meditating and “communing with God.”

Daya Mata means “Mother of Compassion” in Sanskrit, Landress said, and that was an apt description of the leader herself.

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“She really was an exemplary disciple in giving love to all,” the spokeswoman said. “She saw every individual as a spark of the divine and devoted her life to God.”

Daya Mata also helped the fellowship expand across the globe, with 600 temples or centers attracting tens of thousands of devotees in more than 175 countries. Yogananda’s teachings still are distributed to millions in a three-year home-study course.

Nana Penrose, a Utahn and a member since 1973 of the state’s tiny Self-Realization community (typically about 15 attend weekly gatherings in Salt Lake City), saw Daya Mata in action on several occasions.

“I remember her as having a childlike quality, full of total joy,” Penrose said in a phone interview from St. George. “She was wise and full of love.”

Though devotees worldwide hold Daya Mata in highest esteem, she spoke only of Yogananda and his teachings, Penrose said, never herself. After all, he was the visionary one.

Yogananda came to the United States initially as India’s delegate to the International Congress of Religious Liberals in Boston. Throngs of Americans packed auditoriums and concert halls to hear the charismatic Indian discuss how meditation techniques could harness physical energy. Yogananda promised them that personal experience with God was possible, that human beings can evolve toward God through individual effort and that complete harmony exists between Christianity and yoga.

This optimistic philosophy was an immediate hit across the nation, but particularly in Southern California, where Yogananda established a center for Self-Realization Fellowship, complete with separate monasteries for nuns and monks.

When Yogananda stopped in Utah, he met the 17-year-old Wright who had, she said, a “deep longing to know God.”

“I had a deep hunger for something more satisfying,” Daya Mata told The Salt Lake Tribune in 1995. “I wanted something more than just going to church.”

With her mother and sister, the young Mormon joined about 4,000 people at a ballroom in the old Hotel Newhouse, which once stood on the corner of 400 South and Main Street in Salt Lake City.

“As I stood at the back of the crowded auditorium, I became transfixed, unaware of anything around me except the speaker and his words,” she later wrote in her preface to Yogananda’s collected talks and essays. “My whole being was absorbed in the wisdom and divine love that were pouring into my soul and flooding my heart and mind.”

At the time she met the guru, the young Utahn was suffering from a severe blood disorder. Her swollen face was covered with bandages. When Yogananda invited audience members to approach him for healing, she was the last in line.

He asked if she believed God could heal her.

When she said yes, he touched her between the eyebrows and said: “From this day forward you are healed. In one week the bandages will no longer be necessary; your scars will be gone.”

It happened as he predicted, she wrote, and she pledged to become the yogi’s disciple.

With the support of her mother — though not her extended Mormon family — Daya Mata moved to Los Angeles and joined the movement’s female monastic order. (Her brother and a sister later joined the fellowship, too.)

Daya Mata took vows of obedience, loyalty, chastity and living a simple life of daily meditation, vegetarian meals and constant service to others.

“I was happier than I had ever been,” she told The Tribune. “It gave me such a sense of well-being to seek God in meditation.”

It is “only in the stillness when one can withdraw from all active life and meditate deeply that we begin to feel a deep awareness and communion with God.”

Soon after joining, Daya Mata became the guru’s assistant, recording his speeches in shorthand. She helped compile the instructions on yoga meditation techniques into lessons that were distributed to eager students and members.

As the years passed, Daya Mata assumed greater administrative responsibilities for the movement. In the 1940s, she took charge of the headquarters in Mount Washington, Calif., while Yogananda retired into seclusion to write the story of his life, Autobiography of a Yogi. He died in 1952. Three years later, Daya Mata became the fellowship’s president.

Wright held on to some of her Mormon beliefs, especially the notion that humans are gods in embryo, even while following Yogananda’s teachings and practices.

She had a good life, Daya Mata said in 1995. “It is not for everyone, but it certainly was what my soul was seeking.”

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Sri Daya Mata, guiding light for U.S. Hindus, dies at 96

Sri Daya Mata, who for more than five decades was the leader of one of the most influential Hindu groups in the United States and an ardent advocate of the healing power of meditation, died on Tuesday at the group’s retreat for nuns in Los Angeles. She was 96.

Her death was confirmed by Lauren Landress, a spokeswoman for the group, the Self-Realization Fellowship/Yogoda Satsanga Society of India, which is based in what once was an elegant hotel on Mount Washington in Los Angeles.

From 1955 until her death, Sri Daya Mata — her name means “true mother of compassion” in Sanskrit — was the society’s president and spiritual leader. In her flowing ocher sari, she presided over an organization that now has more than 600 temples, centers and retreats in 60 countries, about half of them in the United States. Ms. Landress estimated that the society had “hundreds of thousands” of followers, but said she could not be more specific.

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The Dalai Lama on tolerance

When I was a boy in Tibet, I felt that my own Buddhist religion must be the best — and that other faiths were somehow inferior. Now I see how naïve I was, and how dangerous the extremes of religious intolerance can be today.

Though intolerance may be as old as religion itself, we still see vigorous signs of its virulence. In Europe, there are intense debates about newcomers wearing veils or wanting to erect minarets and episodes of violence against Muslim immigrants. Radical atheists issue blanket condemnations of those who hold to religious beliefs. In the Middle East, the flames of war are fanned by hatred of those who adhere to a different faith.

Such tensions are likely to increase as the world becomes more interconnected and cultures, peoples and religions become ever more entwined. The pressure this creates tests more than our tolerance — it demands that we promote peaceful coexistence and understanding across boundaries.

Granted, every religion has a sense of exclusivity as part of its core identity. Even so, I believe there is genuine potential for mutual understanding. While preserving faith toward one’s own tradition, one can respect, admire and appreciate other traditions.

An early eye-opener for me was my meeting with the Trappist monk Thomas Merton in India shortly before his untimely death in 1968. Merton told me he could be perfectly faithful to Christianity, yet learn in depth from other religions like Buddhism. The same is true for me as an ardent Buddhist learning from the world’s other great religions.

A main point in my discussion with Merton was how central compassion was to the message of both Christianity and Buddhism. In my readings of the New Testament, I find myself inspired by Jesus’ acts of compassion. His miracle of the loaves and fishes, his healing and his teaching are all motivated by the desire to relieve suffering.

I’m a firm believer in the power of personal contact to bridge differences, so I’ve long been drawn to dialogues with people of other religious outlooks. The focus on compassion that Merton and I observed in our two religions strikes me as a strong unifying thread among all the major faiths. And these days we need to highlight what unifies us.

Take Judaism, for instance. I first visited a synagogue in Cochin, India, in 1965, and have met with many rabbis over the years. I remember vividly the rabbi in the Netherlands who told me about the Holocaust with such intensity that we were both in tears. And I’ve learned how the Talmud and the Bible repeat the theme of compassion, as in the passage in Leviticus that admonishes, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

In my many encounters with Hindu scholars in India, I’ve come to see the centrality of selfless compassion in Hinduism too — as expressed, for instance, in the Bhagavad Gita, which praises those who “delight in the welfare of all beings.” I’m moved by the ways this value has been expressed in the life of great beings like Mahatma Gandhi, or the lesser-known Baba Amte, who founded a leper colony not far from a Tibetan settlement in Maharashtra State in India. There he fed and sheltered lepers who were otherwise shunned. When I received my Nobel Peace Prize, I made a donation to his colony.

Compassion is equally important in Islam — and recognizing that has become crucial in the years since Sept. 11, especially in answering those who paint Islam as a militant faith. On the first anniversary of 9/11, I spoke at the National Cathedral in Washington, pleading that we not blindly follow the lead of some in the news media and let the violent acts of a few individuals define an entire religion.

Let me tell you about the Islam I know. Tibet has had an Islamic community for around 400 years, although my richest contacts with Islam have been in India, which has the world’s second-largest Muslim population. An imam in Ladakh once told me that a true Muslim should love and respect all of Allah’s creatures. And in my understanding, Islam enshrines compassion as a core spiritual principle, reflected in the very name of God, the “Compassionate and Merciful,” that appears at the beginning of virtually each chapter of the Koran.

Finding common ground among faiths can help us bridge needless divides at a time when unified action is more crucial than ever. As a species, we must embrace the oneness of humanity as we face global issues like pandemics, economic crises and ecological disaster. At that scale, our response must be as one.

Harmony among the major faiths has become an essential ingredient of peaceful coexistence in our world. From this perspective, mutual understanding among these traditions is not merely the business of religious believers — it matters for the welfare of humanity as a whole.

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, is the author, most recently, of “Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World’s Religions Can Come Together.”

[via the New York Times]
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Enchanting mantra

Practitioners of kirtan, a Hindu call-and-response ritual, find it both soothing and uplifting

On a Friday evening, a few dozen people gather in the multi-purpose room of the Westminster Housing Co-op in Winnipeg’s West End. They’ve brought yoga mats and meditation cushions, but they’re not here to work on their backbends or to sit cross-legged in silence.

They’ve come to dip into the same spiritual stream that spawned both those practices, only this time they’ll be doing it by singing in a language that none of them speaks.

At the front of the room, candles flicker and plumes of incense smoke curl toward the ceiling. There is a simple melody, the gentle strumming of a guitar and hand drums offering rhythm as the guitarist sings out a line — “Om namah shivaya shiva namah om” — and the audience echoes it back.

And on it goes, back and forth, gradually building in tempo and intensity until the room is buzzing with energy. Many people have their eyes closed; some sit with their hands on their lap, others sway and/or clap to the beat of the drums. One woman seated on the floor reaches forward and upward with her hands as if kneading the air.

After 20 minutes or so, the music slows down, the singing gets softer and the room falls into a meditative silence.

This is kirtan, the yoga of sound.

Somewhere between a Sanskrit sing-along and a musical meditation, kirtan (KEER-tun) is a devotional call-and-response practice that combines mantras with live music. It has its roots in 15th-century India, but like many Eastern traditions is becoming increasingly popular in North America as spiritual seekers and yoga enthusiasts discover its uplifting and soothing effects.

“This is why I live, to fill rooms with song,” the woman with the guitar tells the crowd before moving on to the next mantra.

She is Beth Martens, a Winnipeg singer-songwriter whose fair colouring, pixie features and Mennonite roots belie her calling as a “kirtan singing yogi” devoted to spreading the Eastern vibe.

“To me, the ultimate purpose of kirtan is to build community around things that genuinely inspire, uplift and give life energy,” says Martens, 41, who has been writing and performing devotional chants for more than a decade. Her first CD, Vijaya: Living Knowledge (1999) was recorded in India, where she studied yoga, meditation and Sanskrit poetry in the ’90s.

Kirtan is a folk form that arose from the Bhakti (devotional) movement of medieval India and involves chanting the names of Hindu deities (Krishna, Shiva, etc.) to connect with the divine. As with meditation, the purpose of chanting is to quiet and focus the mind in order to experience one’s true nature, or essence.

“Mantra just seems to clear the slate so you can tune into the frequency of your being that lies beneath all the artifices that get piled up from everyday life,” says Martens, sitting in the living room of her St. Boniface home. “They pack an unusually powerful punch when the meanings are learned.”

That power was put to the test in 1999 when she was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma. At the time, she was only a chanting yogi at night — by day she was the “totally fatigued, burned-out” vice-president of her family’s public relations firm. She practised yoga — power yoga — with the same intensity.

Eleven months of chemotherapy put her in remission — she’d already quit her job, lost her house and moved in with her parents — but 18 months later, the cancer returned and she was given a 50 per cent chance of survival.

“Now it was time to put all this into practice,” Martens recalls thinking. “It’s one thing in theory to sing ‘I am blissful, I am immortal’ (Amaram hum madhuram hum) and quite another to be facing your death and looking at the meaning of those words.”

Eventually she became too weak to pick up her guitar. As her body became immobilized, Martens says, she realized how she’d been using the practices she learned in India to disconnect from it, to the point where she didn’t notice the toll that stress was taking on her health.

It was only after she made the conscious decision to live her life motivated by love rather than fear, Martens says, that things began to improve.

“It was a beautiful thing. Even when my body wasn’t available, the mantras would keep pushing through.”

In 2002, cancer-free, Martens took up music and teaching yoga full time. Her last CD, The Yoga Lullabies (2007), recorded while she was eight months pregnant with her son, is a collection of the mantras that carried her through the darkest days. She’s currently working on her fourth album.

“Now I feel like I can sing into my body, right down to the soles of my feet,” says Martens, who leads community kirtans every couple of months at various venues around town. The next one takes place April 30 at the Yoga Centre Winnipeg (915 Grosvenor Ave.). A fireside kirtan will also be held May 28 at the St. Norbert Arts Centre.

[via Winnipeg Free Press]
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The theft of yoga

Aseem Shukla (co-founder, Hindu American Foundation), Washington Post: 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. Then they close their eyes and focus their minds with chants of “Om,” the Hindu representation of the first and eternal vibration of creation. Arrayed in linear patterns, they stretch, bend, contort and control their respirations as a mentor calls out names of Hindu divinity linked to various postures: Natarajaasana (Lord Shiva) or Hanumanasana (Lord Hanuman) among many others. They chant their assigned “mantra of the month,” taken as they are from lines directly from the Vedas, Hinduism’s holiest scripture. Welcome to the practice of yoga in today’s western world.

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. Hinduism in common parlance is identified more with holy cows than Gomukhasana, the notoriously arduous twisting posture; with millions of warring gods rather than the unity of divinity of Hindu tradition–that God may manifest and be worshiped in infinite ways; as a tradition of colorful and harrowing wandering ascetics more than the spiritual inspiration of Patanjali, the second century BCE commentator and composer of the Yoga Sutras, that form the philosophical basis of Yoga practice today.

Why is yoga severed in America’s collective consciousness from Hinduism? Yoga, meditation, ayurvedic natural healing, self-realization–they are today’s syntax for New Age, Eastern, mystical, even Buddhist, but nary an appreciation of their Hindu origins.

It is not surprising, then, that Hindu schoolchildren complain that Hinduism is conflated only with caste, cows, exoticism and polytheism–the salutary contributions and philosophical underpinnings lost and ignored. The severance of yoga from Hinduism disenfranchises millions of Hindu Americans from their spiritual heritage and a legacy in which they can take pride.

Hinduism, as a faith tradition, stands at this pass a victim of overt intellectual property theft, absence of trademark protections and the facile complicity of generations of Hindu yogis, gurus, swamis and others that offered up a religion’s spiritual wealth at the altar of crass commercialism. The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, under whose tutelage the Beatles steadied their mind and made sense of their insane fame, packaged the wonders of meditation as Transcendental Meditation (TM) just as an entrepreneur from here in Minneapolis applied the principles of Ayurveda to drive a commercial enterprise he coined as Aveda. TM and Aveda are trademarked brands–a protection not available to the originator of their brand–Hinduism itself. And certainly these masters benefited millions with their contributions, but in agreeing to ditch Hinduism as the source, they left these gifts orphaned and unanchored.

The Los Angeles Times last week chronicled this steady disembodying of yoga from Hinduism. “Christ is my guru. Yoga is a spiritual discipline much like prayer, meditation and fasting [and] no one religion can claim ownership,” says a vocal proponent of “Christian themed” yoga practices. Some Jews practice Torah yoga, Kabbalah yoga and aleph bet yoga, and even some Muslims are joining the act. They are appropriating the collective wisdom of millenia of yogis without a whisper of acknowledgment of yoga’s spiritual roots.

Not surprisingly, the most popular yoga journals and magazines are also in the act. Once yoga was no longer intertwined with its Hindu roots, it became up for grabs and easy to sell. These journals abundantly refer to yoga as “ancient Indian,” “Eastern” or “Sanskritic,” but seem to assiduously avoid the term “Hindu” out of fear, we can only assume, that ascribing honestly the origins of their passion would spell disaster for what has become a lucrative commercial enterprise. The American Yoga Association, on its Web site, completes this delinking of yoga from Hinduism thusly:

“The common belief that Yoga derives from Hinduism is a misconception. Yoga actually predates Hinduism by many centuries…The techniques of Yoga have been adopted by Hinduism as well as by other world religions.”

So Hinduism, the religion that has no known origins or beginnings is now younger than yoga? What a ludicrous contention when the Yoga Sutras weren’t even composed until the 2nd Century BCE. These deniers seem to posit that Hinduism appropriated yoga so other religions may as well too! Hindus can only sadly shake their heads, as by this measure, soon we will read as to how karma, dharma and reincarnation–the very foundations of Hindu philosophy–are only ancient precepts that early Hindus of some era made their own.

The Hindu American Foundation (Disclosure: I sit on the Foundation’s Board) released a position paper on this issue earlier this year. The brief condemns yoga’s appropriation, but also argues that yoga today is wholly misunderstood. Yoga is identified today only with Hatha Yoga, the aspect of yoga focused on postures and breathing techniques. But this is only one part of the practice of Raja Yoga that is actually an eightfold path designed to lead the practitioner to moksha, or salvation. Indeed, yogis believe that to focus on the physicality of yoga without the spirituality is utterly rudimentary and deficient. Sure, practicing postures alone with a focus on breathing techniques will quiet the mind, tone the body, increase flexibility–even help children with Attention Deficit Disorder–but will miss the mark on holistic healing and wellness.

All of this is not to contend, of course, that yoga is only for Hindus. Yoga is Hinduism’s gift to humanity to follow, practice and experience. No one can ever be asked to leave their own religion or reject their own theologies or to convert to a pluralistic tradition such as Hinduism. Yoga asks only that one follow the path of yoga for it will necessarily lead one to become a better Hindu, Christian, Jew or Muslim. Yoga, like its Hindu origins, does not offer ways to believe in God; it offer ways to know God.

But be forewarned. Yogis say that the dedicated practice of yoga will subdue the restless mind, lessen one’s cravings for the mundane material world and put one on the path of self-realization–that each individual is a spark of the Divine. Expect conflicts if you are sold on the exclusivist claims of Abrahamic faiths–that their God awaits the arrival of only His chosen few at heaven’s gate–since yoga shows its own path to spiritual enlightenment to all seekers regardless of affiliation.

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.

Original article no longer available…

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Relax, it’s only a bit of stress (Times, Great Britain)

Alan Kay, The Times: A meditative barrister is helping colleagues to breathe more easily.

It is another day at the coalface of the Criminal Bar: you’ve had a colossal argument with that scheming chambers clerk, your office shelves are sagging under the weight of unread case papers and you’re on your way to Wormwood Scrubs to spend an hour in the company of a deranged client.

If you recognise yourself here, or simply if you’ve cultivating a stomach ulcer on a diet of rushed meals and long hours, you could probably do with stress-management training.

Andrew Henley, a criminal barrister since 1992, knows all about the strains of the job, and having practised meditation for 20 years he thinks he has a good idea of how best to cope with them. He has joined spiritual forces with Ananta, an American meditation master who trained in the Himalayas, and together they hold stress-management seminars that are accredited by the Bar Council.

Henley met Ananta, formerly known as Daniel Richey [and as of 2007 known as Swami Ritavan Bharati], two years ago during a month-long trip to study meditation techniques at an ashram at Rishikesh in northern India. “When I returned,” he says, “there was a lot of interest from my colleagues at the Bar: why had I spent a month in the Himalayas? Why do I meditate? When I answered that meditation is the best stress-beater I know of, there was even more interest. I inquired with the Bar Council about a course, and it was delighted because it is particularly concerned about stress at the Bar.”

Since then Henley, of Furnival Chambers, has been running one-day seminars every three months, either with Ananta, who visits Britain regularly, or with another yoga practitioner. The venue is an actors’ rehearsal studio near Euston Station in London. Between 10 and 15 people, mostly barristers and solicitors, attend each session from 10am to 3pm. There is a break for a vegetarian lunch.

The appeal is enhanced by the Bar Council accreditation, which means that every hour spent on the yoga mat counts towards the 12 hours’ professional training that all barristers will soon have to undertake every year. For many, a bit of gentle exercise and spiritual replenishment beats sitting in a stuffy lecture hall.

Henley is delighted that the Bar Council is willing to back an undertaking that, he acknowledges, some lawyers still see as rather “wacky”. But he says that attitudes are changing. “I thought that people would take the mickey a bit but I have found the opposite. They are very genuine and seem to be very interested in it.”

Henley says that the meditation, breathing and relaxation exercises taught on the seminars are adapted from a tradition practised for thousands of years in the cave monasteries of the Himalayas. But do they work? Henley says that they certainly work for him. He starts each day with an hour’s meditation then uses the breathing exercises throughout the day to cope with stress whenever it arises.

Among the other barristers who find the meditation and breathing techniques helpful is Kim Hollis, QC, of 25 Bedford Row. She describes the seminars as a haven from the stresses of the Bar, providing an opportunity to relax the senses and restore the balance of the mind. She has been surprised to see some of the lawyers who turn up — people she would have thought would be highly sceptical. But, like her, many go back for more. “I have never heard a single person say that they regret having tried it,” she says.

Each person pays £80, which goes towards the hire of the studio, the catering and Ananta’s travel costs. Henley does not profit from the venture.

Original article no longer available…

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New age mantra: catch ’em young, teach them spirituality, meditation (Pune Newsline, India)

Aparna Chandra, Pune Newsline, India: “Karagre vasate Lakshmi, kar madhye tu Saraswati, kar mulye tu Govindam, prabhate kar darshanam,” nine-year old Aditi Nanawre recites effortlessly before turning away with a shy smile. She learnt that at the sanskar varg (scripture class) she attends every evening at Somwar Peth. “This shlok is to be recited every morning,” Aditi says and adds, “I like coming here, especially to listen to the stories of Durga.”

Aditi is joined by at least 35 others, aged between 3 to 12. She could have been at home watching television, pastime for most children nowadays. ‘‘That’s one reason, in fact, why parents bring their children to these classes,’’ says Vaishali Bapat who has been running them for the past year. The hourly-sessions here include a mix of meditation, introduction to Indian customs and traditions, learning of shlokas and patriotic songs, and a module on mythological stories, Indian fables and parables. All of this is made more engaging with a bit of play as well.

What Bapat lists as reasons for popularity of the classes, particularly during the vacations are perhaps good indicators of our times. ‘‘Too much television, lack of playgrounds, a decreasing knowledge of our cultural heritage. A sanskar varg, the parents feel will remedy that as also provide a good blend of evening play and learning,’’ she says.

At the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) Bhakt Prahlad School, meant especially for children, they are running out of teachers to keep up with the number of children signing up. With weekend neighbourhood classes and two vacation-time camps held, at ISKCON, the children go through the meaning of values in life and spirituality with the help of slide shows, art and craft and group discussions.

Interestingly, despite common presumptions on how such talk may not exactly engage children between five to 15, repeat registrations are several. Says school co-ordinator, Radhamadhav Das, ‘‘It’s easier telling children about matter of spirituality because they have fewer mind blocks. Such classes are the need of the hour.’’

In Vishrantwadi, Nitin Deshpande who along with a team of eight to ten other teachers runs Saksham, for the duration of vacations, vouches for that. Five years ago when they started with their brand of sanskar varg that includes personality development sessions along with exercise and learning, they had 75 students on their list. Today at 140 they turn away children, due to lack of space. ‘‘We often run a survey among our participants and one common factor has emerged—nuclear families and single children— need the support system that these classes provide.’’

Original article no longer available…

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