Indian Yoga finds healing route to hearts in Muslim lands

(Touseef Reza)

Yoga is therapy of mind and soul. It’s been keeping Indians fit for ages. It has had its recipients offshore since ancient times. However, in recent years it has marked its arrival on the world stage like never before. It has found takers even in lands where it was not so well received: Islamic countries.

The world celebrates International Yoga Day on June 21. The worldwide celebration resonates India’s foreign policy theme: Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is one family).

Yoga is a 5,000-year-old physical, mental and spiritual practice rooted in Hindu tradition, a religious origin that has caused disquiet among some Muslim clerics.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promoted yoga as a means to project India’s soft power.

A Background of Yoga in Muslim Lands

While the practice of yoga and the production of texts and discourses on yoga in non-Hindu environments have been chiefly regarded as recent phenomena that spread from Western countries during the 20th century and have now become a globalised trend, their roots go back to the pre-modern past.

The production of knowledge about yoga in Muslim environment is a multi-layered phenomenon that lasts over a millennium and includes multiple views and perspectives on yogins’ learning. From the Medieval period onward, an extensive number of texts dealing with Yoga and yogins – whether directly or obliquely – was written in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, and other languages of the Muslim world.

After historian al-Biruni’s (circa 1050) Arabic translation of Patanjali’s Yogasutra, many Persian texts dealing with Yoga were produced in South Asia until the 19th century for different groups of readers. These texts circulated also outside South Asia and some Sufis of the Ottoman world practiced methods drawn from them. In South Asia, the existence of Muslim sects of yogis (Yoga instructors) was a rather widespread phenomenon until the colonial period. While these groups have been progressively marginalised in post-colonial South Asia, during the 20th century the practice of Yoga has increased in other regions of the Muslim world and nowadays thousands of people and especially women practice Yoga in Muslim countries.

Route to Hearts

Muslims have been adopting yoga to stay fit as a fiddle after many clerics and scholars gave their thumbs-up to yogic techniques and asseverated that there was nothing un-Islamic about the asanas (postures), pranayams (breathing techniques) and shatkarmas (cleansing processes).

The clerics were particularly opposed to “Surya Namaskar,” a Yoga sequence designed to greet Surya, the Hindu sun god, and the chanting of Hindu mantras.

Today, all prominent Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Egypt, Iran, Malaysia, Indonesia and even Pakistan boast of their own Yoga instructors and a large number of its practitioners. According to one report, almost all forms of Yoga are popular in these countries. A myriad of institutes teach different types of Yoga like pre-natal yoga, hatha yoga, power yoga, hot yoga, Iyengar yoga, traditional yoga, vinyasa yoga, restorative aerial yoga and astanga yoga in these foreign lands which had had kept the ancient Indian health technique as a forbidden practice till a few years ago.

The entry of Yoga in Saudi Arabia is especially spectacular. Widely perceived as a Hindu spiritual practice, Yoga was not officially permitted for decades in Saudi Arabia, the cradle of Islam where all non-Muslim worship is banned.

In just a few months since yoga’s recognition, a new industry of yoga studios and instructors has sprouted in various Saudi cities. That includes Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest cities.

Yoga expert Meena Brahmbhatt is a regular traveller to these Islamic countries, especially Saudi Arabia and UAE. In an interview with Al-Arabiya, he said that Muslim Arabs have found Yoga almost similar to namaz (daily five times prayers). “Muslims are already familiar with namaz-like vajrasana and hence quickly get hooked to yoga. They hate medicines and so are ready to follow the yoga regimen and even shun non-vegetarian food,” he said in the interview.

Muslim countries have taken to Yoga so fondly that India proposed to mark a day devoted to this ancient therapy at the UN, around 47 Islamic countries supported the resolution at the UN General Assembly.

Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Turkey, Iran, Indonesia, UAE, Qatar and Oman were among the Islamic nations that co-sponsored the UN resolution.

Millions of Muslims practice some form of Yoga from Mecca to Malibu. The Gulf nations have particularly seen Yoga evolving into an industry. In Ayatollah-ruled Iran, its followers have increased over the years. In East Asia, where it has not been a stranger due to cultural proximity with India, it has made a sort of comeback to the mainstream. It is increasingly offered in schools, hospitals, prisons and offices, from Melbourne to Malibu.

Yoga is immensely popular in all cities of Pakistan. A yoga teacher named Shamshad Haider who inspired from Indian Yoga system claims to run 50 yoga clubs in Punjab, and International Yoga Day has been celebrated in Pakistan for three years in a row. Yoga is practiced all the way from Chitral in the north to Karachi in the south. There’s a whole crop of younger teachers now equipped with training from India, Thailand and Bali, as well as from Yoga schools in North America and Britain. Teachers at swank studios in Karachi attract students through Facebook pages and affiliations with the International Yoga Alliance.

In its report on May 4, PTI reported that Yoga has been officially recognised in Pakistan when the Metropolitan Corporation of Islamabad has launched “Free yoga classes in F-9 Park” in the capital.

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