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Is yoga bad for you?

November 29, 2008

SEVERAL years ago, I developed something called arthrosis in my knees. This is a first cousin to arthritis, and is extremely painful. After a few months on painkillers, I enrolled in a yoga class out of desperation.

Initially, contorting my out-of-shape body into the positions required by our teacher was very difficult, but soon I managed to bully my joints into approximating the postures our elegant instructor assumed so effortlessly.

A few months into this routine, I began to look forward to the thrice-weekly yoga classes. In our darkened room, soft music would play, while we were encouraged to empty our minds and hold the positions for just a little longer each time. My body became suppler, and crucially the pain in my knees disappeared. Unfortunately, the timings of our class were changed, and I could no longer pursue my new interest. Nevertheless, I have nothing but pleasant memories of the year-long experience.

Now, as my creaking body protests each time I lower myself to pick up something from the floor, I wish I could have continued my yoga lessons. So imagine my surprise when I discovered that Malaysia`s top Islamic body recently issued a fatwa prohibiting Muslims from practising yoga due to elements of Hinduism the ancient system is supposed to contain.

According to The Island, a Sri Lankan daily, the Malaysian National Fatwa Council`s chairman, Shukor Husin, has said that “many Muslims fail to understand that yoga`s ultimate aim is to be one with a god of a different religion”. I had no idea that when our yoga teacher told us to empty our minds, she was doing so with the aim of making space in that limited cavity for a foreign god.

Fortunately, this edict is not legally binding, unless of course the government makes it a law. And in case you think this is far-fetched, just remember that the Malay government has recently made it illegal for non-Muslims to use the word `Allah`, for fear that “it would confuse Muslims”.

It seems many other things confuse Muslims in Malaysia the fatwa council recently declared tomboy-ish behaviour by girls un-Islamic on the grounds that girls who act like boys “violate Islam`s edicts”. Now having grown up with my cousin Meher who played cricket and rode bikes with us as kids, and is now long happily married, I cannot imagine how her early years as a tomboy make her un-Islamic. But according to Maulana Shukor Husin, this kind of innocent childhood behaviour is unacceptable.

However, not all Malay Muslims are taking this latest fatwa lying down. The Island quotes Putri Rahim as maintaining “I am mad! Maybe they have it in mind that Islam is under threat. To come out with a fatwa is an insult to intelligent Muslims. It`s an insult to my belief.”

But the members of the fatwa council are in good company, for Christian fundamentalists in the United States have long opposed yoga classes in schools, arguing that it violates the secular principle of separating church from state. According to them, yoga`s Hindu roots conflict with Christian teachings. And apparently, Egypt`s highest theological body banned yoga for Muslims in 2004.

I must confess that my meagre knowledge of Islam does not qualify me to give a definitive opinion. However, based on personal experience, I can say with greater authority than Maulana Shukor Husin that yoga is a wonderful system for the body and the mind, relaxing both, while enhancing the powers of concentration. Millions around the world practise it every day, and are well rewarded for their efforts. To deny its benefits to Muslims is to declare that we march to the beat of a different drummer.

So what planet are these fundamentalists on? And what century do they live in? Surely everything that`s good for us, or is fun, cannot be declared un-Islamic on a whim? Even I know that there is no mention of yoga in the holy book, so how can these killjoys come out with their absurd fatwa?

Sadly, the Islam of Shukor Husin and his ilk has been reduced to a list of dos and don`ts, with the latter having swollen to many times the former. Almost every month, there is an addition to what is forbidden to Muslims. But as many Muslims continue to flout this litany of edicts, they are pushed into the illicit enjoyment of what is natural and pleasurable. Their sense of guilt grows, as does the level of hypocrisy in Muslim societies.

And if this kind of retrogressive mindset can hold sway in a relatively modern Muslim country like Malaysia, just think what is going on in nations like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. One explanation for these reactionary fatwas is that the ruling Muslim party, in power since 1957, has seen its majority greatly eroded in recent elections due to the gains made by multiracial opposition parties. This fear of losing their grip on power due to growing secularism might be causing conservatives to draw a line in the sand.

Whatever the reason, such desperate and ultimately futile measures only serve to further marginalise Muslims. Already viewed as a backward community by much of the world, Muslims risk withdrawing from the rest of mankind at a time when globalisation is breaking down barriers at a frenzied pace.

In India, Muslim ulema have won the right to dominate women as a religious right. This exemption was granted to them by a secular Congress Party. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Taliban and their supporters want to ban music, movies and even kite-flying. When the Taliban were in power, they had banned education for girls, and had denied women medical care from male doctors. Where will this madness end?

It will end if and when Muslims decide that enough is enough, and that they do not want to live in the sixth century. Unfortunately, there is much confusion in the Islamic world, with the result that uneducated mullahs issue half-baked edicts on everything under the sun, and ordinary people, unsure of themselves, pay lip service to these teachings.
Millions in the Islamic world have convinced themselves that their current weakness has been caused by the West. If they examine the causes for their backwardness more closely, they will discover that they lie much closer to home than they would like to admit.