I don’t care much for bland spirituality, so at yoga class I generally tune out the prelude, when the teacher reads aloud—as is the custom—an inspirational passage on which to meditate. Recently, though, I was startled to attention when the teacher chose a paragraph on compassion from the Dalai Lama’s bestseller The Art of Happiness. Hold on a minute, I thought. Isn’t the Dalai Lama a Tibetan Buddhist? And isn’t yoga a Hindu practice? And haven’t Buddhists and Hindus been at war over land and gods for thousands of years? The Dalai Lama may be regarded throughout the world as a holy man, but downward dog is not his expertise.
Sixteen million Americans practice yoga, according to Yoga Journal, and in 2008 we spent nearly $6 billion on classes and stretch pants. Yet aside from “om” and the occasional “namaste,” Americans rarely acknowledge that yoga is, at its foundation, an ancient Hindu religious practice, the goal of which is to achieve spiritual liberation by joining one’s soul to the essence of the divine. In its American version, yoga is a mishmash: Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, 12-step rhetoric, self-help philosophies, cleansing diets, exercise, physical therapy, and massage. Its Hindu roots are obliterated by the modern infatuation with all things Eastern—and by our growing predilection for spiritual practices stripped of the sectarian burdens of religion. Americans’ naive but characteristic conflation of Eastern religions isn’t new; in 1845 Ralph Waldo Emerson called the Bhagavad-Gita (which is Hindu scripture) “the much renowned book of Buddhism.”