Debates about these questions have been making headlines lately. Some American Hindus have argued that American yoga is not Hindu enough, that Hindus should “Take Back Yoga” (the label of a campaign by the Hindu American Foundation). Other Americans agree that the Hindus should take back yoga-but because yoga is too Hindu: R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, advises Christians to abandon yoga if they value their (Christian) souls, for “yoga, as a spiritual practice, runs directly counter to the spiritual counsel of the Bible.” The problem should not have been breaking news; a spoof in 2003, “Yoga: A Religion for Sex Addicts,” depicted a Christian minister who was asked, “Should Christians practice Yoga?” He replied, “Are we going to have to bring this whole thing up about Yoga again? I thought our Sunday school curriculum included lessons about the evils of everything Oriental, including Yoga!”

But the issues involved are not trivial. Is yoga, in fact, “a spiritual practice”? More particularly, is it a Hindu spiritual practice? The word “yoga” originally meant “yoking” horses to chariots or draft animals to plows or wagons (the Sanskrit and English words are cognate). Though many yoga practitioners, particularly but not only Hindus, insist that their practice can be traced back to the Upanishads (c. 600 BCE) and Patanjali (c. 200 CE), the word “yoga” in these texts designates a spiritual praxis of meditation conjoined with breath-control, “yoking” the senses in order to control the spirit, and then “yoking” the mind in order to obtain immortality.

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