CAIRO – Despite being popular among Americans as a stress-buster, Muslims are shying away from practicing yoga, citing its Hindu mantras and elements of worhsipping.
“When I came here, I see there is yoga and everything, but we don’t go,” Anwar Hassan, 27, who is from Bangladesh and works in the Queen of Sheba grocery in Jackson Heights, told The New York Times.
“A lot of people, they are new to it so they think it’s a gym class, or something. But Hindu people started it, and I think it’s Hindu religion, so I don’t go.”
Hassan was not alone in this opposition to the yoga practice, already banned in different Muslim-majority countries in Asia and the Middle East.
Yoga, an ancient Indian aid to meditation dating back thousands of years, is a popular stress-buster.
The controversy about yoga started in India several years ago following attempts to make it compulsory in schools.
But following opposition from Muslim parents, the Indian parliament amended the law to include a wording that exempts Islamic schools.
The council of Malaysian Muslim Ulema issued a fatwa against yoga, declaring it haram (forbidden).
The ruling followed similar edicts in Egypt and Singapore, where one of the earliest bans was issued in the early 1980s.
Those fatwas cited the Sanskrit chants that often flowed through yoga sessions and which are considered Hindu prayer.
According to Hindu traditions, yogic principles were first described in the Vedas, the Sanskrit scriptures that form the backbone of Hinduism.
The “namaste,” which is often used to open and close a yoga session, also invokes the divine.
Some Christian sects also oppose the yoga practice.
In 2010, R. Albert Mohler Jr., an evangelical leader and the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, declared yoga blasphemous because of its pantheistic roots.
However, the practice is gaining more ground among some American Muslims.
“Reformed, it will be more popular” among Muslims, Mohd A. Qayyoom, an imam who runs the Muhammadi Community Center of Jackson Heights, said.
He believes that removal of the Sanskrit benedictions as well as replacing women’s skin-tight yoga gear for more conservative garments will make it acceptable for Muslims.
“It will not contradict with Islamic religion,” the imam added.
Mimi Borda, 46, who runs MiMi for Me Yoga, a serene studio in Jackson Heights that is one of the neighborhood’s only yoga centers, has had to make similar allowances.
“If there is a little chanting going on, right away this is a turn- off” for some of the Muslims who sign up for her sessions, she said.
“Often they won’t come back.”
Borda also tailored certain classes, cutting out Sanskrit chants.
“Emphasizing the physical, they’re kind of cool with it,” she says. “They feel safe.”
She also added both “shalom” and “amen” to the sign-off of namaste.
“A lot of us in the Western world, we look at it as anything that is going to enhance the way we look aesthetically,” she said.
Some Muslim students, she added, were “not looking at the physical aspect, they’re looking at the spiritual aspect.”
Muhammad Rashid, a Muslim community activist in Queens, was one of US Muslims who practiced yoga.
After taking yoga sessions, he discovered more similarities with his faith than contradictions.
Performing his daily prayers, Rashid said the prayers entail a meditation like centering of focus and several kneeling bows which he described as echoing yogic poses.
“I discovered whatever I’m doing in yoga, I’m doing five times a day in prayer,” said Rashid, who is from Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Imam Qayyoom agrees that Muslims practice yogic postures several times a day in their prayers.
“Maybe they’re getting that same benefit in their prayers,” he said.
“Maybe they don’t need to do yoga.”