I guarantee you, yoga will compete with computers, music, sports, automobiles, the drug
industry. Yoga will take over the world!
— Bikram Choudhury
In a way, our issue is that yoga has thrived, but Hinduism has lost control of the brand.
— Aseem Shukla, co-founder, Hindu American Foundation
In 2008, several members of the staff at the Hindu American Foundation (HAF),
an advocacy group for Hinduism in the U.S., examined editions of Yoga Journal, a
popular American yoga magazine. They saw no reference to Hinduism in the
magazine, and concluded that it associated Buddhism, Jainism and Christianity with
yoga more than it did Hinduism. “It was as if the Yoga Journal, as well as much of
the $6 billion U.S. yoga industry, had agreed to some sort of unwritten covenant to
use code words rather than what they deemed the unmarketable ‘H-word,’” noted
Suhag Shukla, the group’s managing director.
Shukla wrote a letter to the editor of Yoga Journal, and followed it with a phone
call. When asked whether the magazine avoided references to Hinduism, a young
woman who answered the phone said: “Yeah, they [the editors] probably avoid it
[Hinduism]. Hinduism does, like, you know, have a lot of baggage.”
As a result, HAF decided to launch “Take Back Yoga—Bringing to Light Yoga’s
Hindu Roots.” The goal of the campaign was not to convert yoga devotees to
Hinduism but to have them acknowledge the connection between them. “It’s not
about branding, but about acknowledgment [. . .] it’s about understanding that yoga
is but one of Hinduism’s great contributions to humanity,” Shukla wrote.
HAF senior director Sheetal Shah published a position paper, called “Yoga
Beyond Asana: Hindu Thought in Practice.” Its main tenets were that “yoga is a lot
more than asana [. . .] and yoga in its entirety is rooted in the Hindu philosophy,”
she said. HAF began to present the paper in settings such as the 2009 Council for a
Parliament of the World’s Religions in Australia.
On April 18, 2010, Aseem Shukla, a member of HAF’s board, wrote a piece for The
Washington Post’s On Faith column, entitled “The Theft of Yoga.” He said:
Hinduism [. . .] 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 and swamis and others that offered up a religion’s
spiritual wealth at the altar of crass commercialism. The Maharishi Mahesh
Yogi [. . .] packaged the wonders of meditation as Transcendental Meditation.
Hundreds of readers commented online on the piece. A few days later, Chopra
responded, and said yoga did not originate in Hinduism:
Perhaps [Shukla] has a fundamentalist agenda in mind, but he must know
very well that the rise of Hinduism as a religion came centuries after the
foundation of yoga in consciousness and consciousness alone [. . .] one detects
the resentment of an inventor who discovered Coca-Cola or Teflon but
neglected to patent it. Isn’t that a rather petty basis for painting such a negative
The debate continued. Shukla called Chopra “a principal purveyor of the very
usurpation I sought to expose [. . .] perhaps the most prominent exponent of the art
of ‘How to Deconstruct, Repackage and Sell Hindu Philosophy Without Calling it
Hindu!’” Chopra countered that yoga predated Hinduism, but said, he wished to
“find common ground [with Shukla . . .] in the term Sanatana Dharma, the eternal
wisdom of life. Whether he calls it Hinduism or I call it Vedic knowledge, I believe [.
. .] we are both referencing the same body of knowledge.” In a fifth and final piece,
dated April 30, 2010, Shukla replied that “Hindu” was a 12th-century Persian abstraction “referring to the people they found espousing Sanatana Dharma,” and
that “today, Sanatana Dharma and Hinduism are synonymous.”
In November of 2010, The New York Times ran an article on the front page of its
Sunday edition about HAF’s “Take Back Yoga” campaign and the ongoing debate
over the origins of yoga. The debate thrust the foundation into a prominent role as
the voice for the U.S.’s two million Hindus.
In March of 2011, Sheetal Shah of HAF, Tara Stiles, Dr. Edwin Bryant of Rutgers
University, Dr. Virginia Cowen of the City University of New York, and Edwin
Stern, founder of Ashtanga Yoga NY, participated in a discussion at Princeton
University called “The Politics of Yoga.” The event was recorded, and videos were
posted to YouTube. Topics included the definition of yoga, the commercialization of
yoga, the validity of yoga as exercise alone, and whether yoga belonged to
Hinduism or to any one tradition. Shah said, “What we noticed [. . .] was that [. . .]
while [Western yogis] are very accepting of the fact that yoga is rooted in ancient
India, there was a tension with calling it Hindu, or even accepting the fact that it was
rooted in Hindu philosophy.”