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he word “yoga” has long had many meanings. In the 1899 Monier-­Williams Sanskrit dictionary, it is defined as either a yoke, team, vehicle, performance, device, incantation, fraud, work, or union; or it may mean abstract contemplation, meditation, or the union of the individual with the universal soul. The Monier-Williams dictionary does not mention bodily postures (āsanas)—which is perhaps surprising because today’s yoga focuses almost exclusively on the achievement of well-being through systems of bodily poses. In his influential book Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, Mark Singleton states that “the primacy of āsana performance in transnational yoga today . . . has no parallel in premodern times.” The question, therefore, is what the yoga class at the local gym has in common with the teachings of the Yoga Sūtra (350–400 b.c.) or the fifteenth-­century text Haṭhapradīpikā.

There are several parties to this debate. For religious Hindus, yoga is not only a fitness regimen, but a meditation regimen aimed at spiritual liberation. By contrast, most Western instructors and practitioners understand āsanas as physical exercise, bearing perhaps some trappings of “mystic India,” but ultimately separable from Hindu spirituality and philosophy. Finally, some religious Westerners deplore yoga as the ritual of a false religious system, smuggled into mainstream culture under the guise of a workout.

Yoga encompasses such diverse phenomena that there is some truth to each of these positions. But they all overlook the fact that postural yoga is first and foremost a ritualization of the modern religion of humanity.

The practice of modern postural yoga admits of many variations, but essentially it is an anaerobic regimen combining stretching and contortion (the postures or āsanas) with breathing techniques and mental exercises. The health benefits claimed for it are numerous: physical strength, mental calm, improved balance, improved cognitive function, relief of joint pain, relief of stress and depression, and much else. Of course, Eastern spiritual motifs provide much of ­yoga’s charm. Mainstream yoga exercises retain tokens of Indian religious culture, such as the use of Sanskrit words: the greeting Namaste, the mantric syllable Aum, and the names of āsanas. But most Western yoga instructors assure their students that yoga need not be a spiritual regimen, and that it can be practiced by everyone, regardless of faith or lack thereof. The case for a despiritualized yoga relies on the existence of a religiously neutral set of techniques common to some Hindu and Buddhist religious schools. The yoga teacher of today then supposedly extracts the essence of these techniques and repackages it for modern consumers.

This repackaging is offensive to many Hindus. In 2008, the Hindu American Foundation launched the “Take Back Yoga” campaign, to oppose the secularization and commercialization of yoga. Citing the Yoga Sūtra, in which “yoga” is defined as “the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind,” the Hindu American ­Foundation stresses that the purpose of āsanas is to bring the body and ­senses under control so that ­meditation may occur. Prashant ­Iyengar, son of the twentieth-century guru B. K. S. ­Iyengar, is quoted to this effect: “What has spread all over the world is not yoga. It is not even non-yoga; it is un-yoga.”

But recent scholarship casts doubt on the account of postural yoga as something that Hindus may easily “take back.” Medieval hatha yoga, often claimed as the precursor of a yoga that foregrounds āsana, was in fact very different from the modern practice. Other yogic traditions had negligible interest in āsanas. Many of the arguments for yogic continuity and venerable tradition veil more than a century of intense experimentation and innovation. What is extracted from Indian religious traditions is often instead a novelty adapted for the stressed-out citizen of a fast-paced society.

What, then, are the roots of modern postural yoga? Singleton, in Yoga Body, presents various nineteenth-century sources for the formation of modern postural yoga, such as bodybuilding, contortionism, and Swedish and harmonial gymnastics. During a period of intense international interest in body cultivation, these Western systems were propagated in British India and their exercises gradually ­rebranded as āsanas so that India, like Western nations, might have its “native” fitness regime. Eventually, these modern āsanas were marketed to the West as an exotic import, an ancient Indian tradition.

That marketing occurred rather late in the history of modern yoga, beginning in the 1920s and ­becoming dominant in the 1950s. The text that defined international yoga for the early twentieth century, Swami ­Vivekananda’s Raja Yoga (1896), had a very different tendency. For ­Vivekananda and his followers, posture was important only in order to eliminate bodily “disturbances” and allow for mental concentration: Achieve a proper seated posture, and you “do not feel the body at all,” and proper yoga—meditation—can occur.

Yet Vivekananda’s writing was essential in another way to the formation of what we now call yoga. Under the rubric of yoga, he effected a popular synthesis of Vedantic philosophy and modern Western spiritual trends. The milieu of alternative religions and spiritualities—which included Swedenborgians, transcendentalists, Unitarians, mesmerism, and New Thought—was the primary context for the growth of modern yoga in the early twentieth century. Indeed, the closest approximation during that era of the postural forms we call yoga was provided by harmonial gymnastics, a regimen associated with these esoteric movements. Through stretching, breathing, and relaxation exercises, harmonial gymnastics aimed to bring the practitioner into harmony with the cosmos.

An important early sponsor of this yoga in the West was the Theosophical Society, which was founded in 1875 in New York but moved its headquarters to India three years later. Theosophy proposed a universal brotherhood of humanity founded on the common spiritual core of all religions, which lay hidden beneath their surface doctrines and rituals. Through its publishing arm, the Theosophical Society did much to promote yoga in Europe and America during the late nineteenth century, and Vivekananda was primarily received by people with such interests. He first made his mark at the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, with its focus on human brotherhood and the unity of all religions. His star-making address preached a universalist and pluralist Hinduism, which recognized other religions as different approaches to the same God.

In Raja Yoga, Vivekananda portrayed yoga as a science based on personal experiences. His yogic method consists of the systematic concentration of attention on the human mind itself. According to Vivekananda, yoga leads the yogi to a state of supreme power in which he controls the universe: “If he orders the gods to come, they will come at his bidding; if he asks the departed to come, they will come at his bidding. All the forces of nature will obey him as his slaves.”

The idea of yogic omnipotence was parallel to secular ideas of a religion of humanity that would replace the historic religions. The sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917)—as before him ­Auguste Comte (1798–1857), the father of positivism—championed a cult of the human person. For Durkheim, the heart of this religion was a spiritualized liberalism with the individual as the carrier of sacredness:

There remains nothing that men may love and honour in common, apart from man himself. This is why man has become a god for man, and it is why he can no longer turn to other gods without being untrue to himself.

The religion of humanity envisaged by Durkheim differs from ­Vivekananda in that it does not posit a unitary spirit. Yet they spoke a common language, and both focused on the interior of the individual as the center of religion and considered the gods mere metaphors for this divinity. The divinization of man connects a number of secular ideologies with the spiritual underpinnings of modern yoga. One recent book, picked at random from the more than fifty thousand yoga titles available on Amazon—­Awaken the Superman Within Through the Science of Self-­Empowerment: A Road-Map to Extra-­Ordinary ­Personality—­illustrates the consonance between the spirituality of yoga and a secular vision of a universal modern religion. Even the most secular yoga classes tend to be imbued with ideas of self-empowerment, self-fulfillment, self-realization—­self-­worship, in short.

Thus, the question of whether yoga is secular, spiritual, or religious must be answered: It is all of these. Sometimes yogis are explicitly religious like Vivekananda, sometimes secular in the sense of focusing on the fitness of the body, but the core principle is the divinity of the individual. Instead of classifying the multifarious phenomenon of modern yoga as Hindu, spiritual, or secular, we should acknowledge that its many manifestations challenge our attempts to separate religion from a neutral secular sphere.

Many religious Westerners consider the practice of yoga illicit for Christians or Muslims or Jews. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, writes:

The bare fact is that yoga is a spiritual discipline by which the adherent is trained to use the body as a vehicle for achieving consciousness of the divine. Christians are called to look to Christ for all that we need and to obey Christ through obeying his Word.

It is true that modern transnational yoga is a spiritual discipline. But that discipline does not require belief in reincarnation or ­polytheism or other tenets characteristic of ­traditional Hinduism. It is, instead, a ritual celebrating the principles of modernity.

The crucial issue for Christian churches and movements is therefore not the Hindu elements of postural yoga, but a more diffuse and pervasive spirituality suited to late modernity and centered on the divinity of the individual. Christians must ask themselves to what degree they have already become part of this religion of humanity. For to take a stand against spiritual individualism requires a strong formulation of what it means to be a church and not just a collection of likeminded individuals. In a nonreligious context, the same question emerges regarding whether modern consumers can form stable communities. There is an important distinction between the loose congregation of a yoga class and a yoga church. To be a church means more than providing a service in demand; it encompasses the whole life of families and individuals. It focuses not on benefits, but on service and the transcendent destiny of humanity. The community it builds is stronger than the preferences of individuals.

To claim that yogic exercises can be performed by everyone, regardless of their religious beliefs, is to overlook the fact that yogic poses performed in the local gym ritualize tenets of the religion of humanity eagerly anticipated by prominent scholars and believers more than a century ago. The late-modern striving for perfection of body and mind is part of a more comprehensive spirituality blending secular rationality and esoteric ideas. Modern yogic poses are part of the worship of the self: the divinity within, its power and endless potential. 

Clemens Cavallin is associate professor of religious studies at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, and associate professor of religion, philosophies of life, and ethics at Nord University, Norway.