Is there an inherent conflict in practicing Yoga if you’re a Muslim?
And, is yoga still yoga if it’s separated from its spiritual roots?
By Insiya Rasiwala-Finn
My earliest memories are of watching my father pray in the silence of the early morning. He would kneel on his prayer mat angled precisely westward, toward Mecca, a white topi on his head, and recite verses from the Koran. Their resonant sounds filled the room:
“La illah a illal l’ah…”
Then my father would roll up his prayer mat and return, wearing a pair of shorts and a loose T-shirt. He would spread another mat onto the carpet— his one fashioned of cotton, long and narrow. Then he began what I interpreted as a different kind of prayer, one that involved him sitting cross-legged on the floor, in silence, for a long time.
I was born in Bombay, India, into what I believe one would call a liberal Muslim family. We visited the mosque on Eid, to celebrate the end of Ramadan and for social occasions such as family weddings. When I was a child, I knew we were Muslim, but I also lit fireworks during the Hindu new year of Diwali and waited for Santa Claus to come each Christmas.
I realize how this was all so normal to us, this jumbling of identities and sub-cultures, all part of growing up in our particular world in Bombay.
Today, I teach Hatha Yoga in Vancouver, Canada, where my students perceive me as a Westernized Indian woman who doesn’t seem to be from anywhere else but North America. I don’t have a discernible Indian accent when I speak and I wear Western clothing with ease. Yet I pronounce the names of yoga asanas in Sanskrit accurately, because Sanskrit resembles the more colloquial, widely spoken Hindi I grew up with. I know that I seem so comfortable with the “culture” around yoga that most Westerners are surprised when they discover that I am not Hindu. To an Indian, however, the syllables of my last name are a simple giveaway: I am Muslim.
When I teach, I am conscious of all the identities that I wear within the layers of my stretchy yoga clothing. I am a woman, Indian and Muslim by birth and upbringing, a yoga practitioner in the West helping to spread a contemporary form of the practice that’s grounded in the belief systems of its origins yet evolving according to our needs today.
And yet I wonder, can the larger vessel of yoga hold my multiple identities without irredeemable conflict?
In November 2008, news headlines around the globe announced that Muslim clerics in Malaysia issued a fatwa or religious edict banning the practice of yoga by Malay Muslims. Malaysia is a predominantly Islamic, yet multi-ethnic nation, where approximately 65 percent of its 27 million people are Muslim. The clerics deemed yoga to be haram (forbidden) because of yoga’s Hindu and Indian roots.
They suggested badminton as a possible fitness alternative.
Abdul Shukor Husin, chairman of Malaysia’s highest Islamic body, the National Fatwa Council, stated that “many Muslims fail to understand that yoga’s ultimate aim is to unite with a god of a different religion,” namely Hinduism (not the aim of self-knowledge and peace that most yogis might understand to be a goal of yoga).
Malaysia’s prime minister soon overruled the religious edict and responded that he did not object to Malaysian Muslims practicing yoga as long as they stayed away from chanting or any such “religious aspects” of the practice. And while technically a fatwa is not legally binding, I found myself fascinated by this story. The idea that yoga, something I consider a non-dogmatic practice, can be seen as a threat to an organized religion—particularly a religious tradition that I come from—seemed strange, even laughable.
Yet the Malaysian Muslim clerics are right—despite the way popular yoga is presented in the West, as a physical fitness practice, yoga does have religious roots. It is originally a Hindu practice, and Hindu philosophy has bearing on the teachings of yoga.
However, if we were to remove yoga from the context of its Hindu history, would the practice change significantly?
I consider the higher principles of Islam to be principles common to all the religious traditions of the world: “Treat your neighbour as you would yourself,” “Do not lie,” “Be generous,” “Offer a portion of your earnings to those in need.” I find all these ideas aligned closely with a general interpretation of the basic ethical tenets of yoga as laid out in the yamas and niyamas.
I think of how my father weaves together his multiple practices as a form of prayer, and during our next phone conversation, I ask him what he thinks about the situation in Malaysia. He laughs over the phone from India. “I should tell those clerics that at a simple, physical level, yoga helps me pray my namaaz more easefully, without any discomfort in my joints. Besides, Islam does not say that it is forbidden to pray in any other form. I do think of myself as Muslim, but I am also a student of the philosophies of yoga. I am seeking my truth — that is the quest of my spirituality—in the practice of Islam and through my yoga practice.”
As a yogi and a Muslim, I know that if I practice yoga in the spirit of uniting with my true self—something that all religions at their core aspire to, as well—I realize that I am connected with everyone. And especially during times of conflict, I know that as a conscious teacher and practitioner, I can help demystify and open the practice of yoga to everyone—regardless of prejudices or disparate beliefs.
Insiya Rasiwala-Finn is a writer and Vinyasa Yoga teacher in Vancouver, Canada. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, Insiya studied International Relations and is interested in culture, globalization and identity. She recently participated in Simon Fraser University’s “The Writer’s Studio,” where she worked on poetry and lyric prose.
Photos: Noel Fox