A Daily Wire writer caused a Twitter firestorm Thursday after comparing yoga to occult rituals like Ouija boards. Matt Walsh, who writes from the perspective of the religious right, garnered widespread attention after sharing his dismay that Christians indulge in “Hindu worship” like yoga.
It's kind of amazing to see all of the Christians who think nothing of going to a yoga class. There are many excellent ways to get in shape that do not involve participating in Hindu worship.— Matt Walsh (@MattWalshBlog) February 1, 2018
Walsh later defended his tweet in a Daily Wire piece titled “Yoga Is A Pagan Ritual. Maybe Christians Should Find A Different Workout Routine.”
does anyone know if Matt hates yoga pic.twitter.com/7ZDGiNnfNp— christine teigen (@chrissyteigen) February 1, 2018
While critics including the actor Kumail Nanjiani and the model Chrissy Teigen mocked Walsh’s sensationalism, it’s worth noting that he’s not necessarily wrong. Yoga derives from ancient Indian spiritual practices and an explicitly religious element of Hinduism (although yogic practices are also common to Buddhism and Jainism). Modern practice has been commodified, commercialized, and secularized, and has been as controversial among Hindu scholars of religion as it has among members of the Christian right.
Last week, Shreena Gandhi, a religious studies professor at Michigan State University, published an academic paper critiquing how the modern Western yoga industry is a form of “cultural appropriation ... intimately linked to some of the larger forces of white supremacy.” By divorcing yoga from its spiritual roots, she argues, the Western “wellness industry” has profited by denaturing yoga’s spiritual and, yes, worshipful aspects.
Walsh’s tweet, however crude, touched on a wider debate about yoga’s history as a spiritual practice, its relative secularization, and what it means for an activity to have a religious connotation. When activities have been “secularized,” to which communities do they (or don’t they) belong?
Modern yoga is very different from ancient yoga
Yoga as it is practiced in the West today certainly diverges from the yogic practices of ancient India.
Nineteenth-century groups of intellectuals in both Europe and America, like the German Romantics and the American Transcendentalists (who tended to fetishize “exoticism” and Eastern “mysticism,” in contrast to decrepit European “civilization”), developed an interest in all things Indian. This was an interest complicated by India’s status as a British colonial outpost. Figures like Swami Vivekananda, a Hindu monk and mystic who frequently lectured in America and England, brought the practice of yoga to the attention of Western intelligentsia.
In the early 20th century, the intellectual “fashion” of yoga transformed into a Hollywood fitness craze through the efforts of the wealthy Russian-born Eugenie Peterson (who later changed her name to Indra Devi). She read an occult book on yoga — Fourteen Lessons in Yogi Philosophy and Oriental Occultism — by William Walker Atkinson, a white American author writing under the pseudonym Yogi Ramacharaka. She was inspired to study yoga in India and used her political connections to access the mystic Tirumalai Krishnamacharya.
Peterson traveled to the US in the 1940s and opened a yoga studio in Hollywood, where she taught such luminaries as actresses Greta Garbo and Gloria Swanson. While the yoga she had learned in India was largely, but not exclusively, understood as a spiritual and religious practice, Devi’s form of yoga was more general, promising adherents a “unique method for a harmonic and integral development of one’s physical, mental, and spiritual sides, allowing for the employment of a healthy and happy life.”
The modern form of yoga Devi heralded often bore little resemblance to its ancient forebears — neither “sun salutations” nor “warrior poses,” two of the most basic movements in yoga, appear in any ancient text, according to journalist Michelle Goldberg, the author of The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West. Yoga experienced a second resurgence in the 1960s and ’70s, as part of a wider trend of interest in “New Age” and “exotic” thought.
But yoga’s increased popularity has brought with it controversy. For some Hindu scholars and thinkers, yoga’s adoption in the West as a popular fitness fad is a form of cultural appropriation. In 2008, the Hindu American Foundation launched a “take back yoga” campaign after the popular Yoga Journal declined to refer to certain postures as explicitly Hindu, choosing the more generic “ancient Indian” because the mention of Hinduism had “too much baggage.”
Conversely, among some conservative Christians, yoga is seen as an exercise with spiritual connotations that exist in conflict with Christianity. In 2013, for example, a group of California parents sued their school district for teaching yoga in several primary schools, on the grounds that teaching religion in schools was unconstitutional. (They lost.)
Debates on whether or not yoga is “really” a religious activity, though, raise questions about what exactly a religion is. Yoga’s spiritual content, it is true, has been largely denatured, or reduced to a liturgy of often performative self-care. As scholar Farah Godrej writes, “Contemporary Western postural yoga projects an authenticity and unbroken ancient heritage onto the yogic tradition, while mourning the commodification, secularization and denuding of that tradition by the West. Such lamentation belies the fact that modern postural yoga is a creature of fabrication and reinvention.”
But does that make it “not a religion?” As a Harvard Divinity School paper noted in 2015, for many people, fitness rituals like Crossfit take on a religious aspect in participants’ lives, blending ritual, community, and regularity. After all, regular yoga practitioners, like the Crossfit enthusiasts the Harvard paper cites, often create their identities, their sense of spirituality, and their ideas of what “wellness” means around what happens in the studio.
Yoga, like the wellness industry more broadly, has become a form of secular “religion,” even as that religiosity is inseparable from the capitalist economic structures that make it so profitable. As the authors of The Wellness Syndrome, Carl Cederstrom and André Spicer, put it, “Wellness has become an ideology.”
It’s fair to ask whether Walsh (or Gandhi) is “right” to say that yoga is “religious” in nature because of its history, but it’s also fair to ask a second question: Does yoga function as a practice of religion in the US now?
Correction: the headline has been updated to reflect Walsh’s faith affiliation