Who ‘owns’ religious practice?

By Brad Bannon, State of Formation

There is an interesting debate brewing over yoga. The Hindu American Foundation posted an article entitled “Yoga Beyond Asana: Hindu Thought in Practice” on its website. The article seems primarily educational. It simply explains that there is more to yoga than āsana (posture) and prāṇāyāma (controlled breathing). These are but aspects of a robust philosophical, theological, and moral tradition. It does not claim that everyone who practices āsana yoga should subscribe to the philosophy or even that they should read the yogasūtras or other texts. It simply suggests that yoga should not be completely dissociated from its Hindu roots. The last paragraph of the article is, I think, worth citing in full:

“The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) reaffirms that Yoga, “an inward journey, where you explore your mind, your awareness, your consciousness, your conscience”, is an essential part of Hindu belief and practice. But the science of yoga and the immense benefits its practice affords are for the benefit of all of humanity regardless of personal faith.  Hinduism itself is a family of pluralistic doctrines and ways of life that acknowledge the existence of other spiritual and religious traditions.  Hinduism, as a non-proselytizing religion, never compels practitioners of yoga to profess allegiance to the faith or convert. Yoga is a means of spiritual attainment for any and all seekers.”

An article in today’s New York Times highlights a polemic that has emerged with respect to this attempt to educate Americans about the roots of yoga. The article, by Paul Vitello, is filled with troublesome reductionisms and misconceptions about Hinduism, so I am somewhat reluctant to recommend it. However, looking past these problems, it raises interesting questions, I think, about religious practice, identity, and “ownership.” “Nobody owns yoga” says Debbie Desmond, a yoga instructor. Indeed… neither does anyone own ideas – but we tend to at least offer a citation when we borrow those ideas, no?

Some years ago, when I was a seminary intern at a church, my pastor started a meditation service on Wednesday evenings patterned after certain Buddhist meditational practices. A parishioner started conducting yoga sessions on Monday nights. I thought this was great. Ramadan rolled around and I suggested that we devote one of our Wednesday prayer sessions to learning about the salaat, and perhaps even practicing it once. There was an uproar of objection. My pastor said something to the effect: “Salaat is a Muslim practice – we might insult and upset them and give them the impression that we are stealing their practice.” I didn’t push him on it… after all, I was just an intern. But it did strike me as odd that we could “borrow” Buddhist and Hindu sacred practices but not Muslim practices.

I am curious to know what you think. Do religious persons “own” their forms of prayer and practice? Granted, adaptations should be done carefully and respectfully (which is, I think, what the HAF is requesting), but are there limits to which practices can and cannot be performed? Are there dangers of religious syncretism here? If there are, then can these dangers be negotiated – and to what end – or should we just stick to “our” traditions and practices? If religious traditions are an amalgamation of history, doctrine, and praxis, then can we come to know and understand our religious others without knowing – or perhaps even practicing, on occasion – “their” traditional practices? What do you think?

PS – for those curious about the image I’ve chosen for this post, it is the symbol of my alma mater, Dharmaram Vidyā Kṣetram, of the two-natured Christ in the lotus position (a yogic āsana) meditating in front of a buddhist dharma wheel. It is, I think, an interesting borrowing of religious traditions.

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