Prior to commencing my YTT I had only experienced yoga practice in a gym environment, where it was treated like another workout program. A typical class comprised asanas, a brief relaxation session and occasionally some breathing exercises. Mantras and chants are never in the picture. During the YTT I was exposed to the philosophical and spiritual aspect of yoga and, for the first time, I felt some inner conflict while chanting mantras, as I wasn’t sure whether that brought a religious dimension to my practice which would contradict my Muslim beliefs. And so I started researching the topic to better understand the role of mantras and chanting in yoga practice.
My first finding is that a desktop search on Muslims practicing yoga renders a pretty wide range of views. At one end of the spectrum are those who argue that Muslims should refrain from any contact with a practice that originated in a different religion. At the other end lies the Sufi approach, which proposes that man’s effort to give himself to God naturally manifests itself through actions that resemble yoga practice, i.e. striving to detach oneself from worldly desires through meditation and even asceticism. The middle ground seems to boil down to the view that yoga as physical exercise is perfectly suitable for Muslims, while the spiritual element is best avoided. The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, for instance, states on its official website that “[…] Muslims are not allowed to practice yoga in a form that clearly contains elements of the rituals (such as recitations) and beliefs of other faiths, as such practices are indeed non-Islamic rituals and are no longer a physical exercise per se.”(https://www.muis.gov.sg/officeofthemufti/Irsyad/Advisory-on-Yoga-Practice).
So we’ve established that yoga as physical exercise is no cause for concern. But as I’ve learnt during my YTT, asana practice is only one of the many aspects of yoga. If I reduce it to pure physical exercise, can I still claim to practice yoga and if my only aim is to stretch and build strength using body weight, why not practice Pilates, calisthenics or barre instead? Well, the ethical values upheld in yoga (i.e. yama and niyama) are aligned with the Islamic tenets, so I do not see a contradiction there. Pranayama (breathing techniques) are extremely practical exercises aimed to either energise or calm the body, and they carry no religious connotation. Dhyana (meditative state) is a very useful practice, very especially in this day and age where stress reigns supreme.
So what about asana sequences like Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation)? Some argue that this sequence was designed specifically to express gratitude to the sun, which amounts to worship and is therefore undesirable for Muslims. In my view, that’s where the notion of niyyah (intention) comes into play. Niyyah is defined as the intention behind an action and it plays a crucial role in a Muslim’s life, as it is believed that Allah SWT will weigh one’s deeds according to one’s intention when performing the respective deeds. In this spirit, when performing the Surya Namaskar, the practitioner’s intention alone is what determines whether the action carries any shirk (deification of worship of anyone or anything other than Allah SWT) elements, since the sequence itself is just a series of movements and does not carry any inherent element of worship, nor is it accompanied by any religious recitations.
What about chanting OM at the start and end of a yoga practice session? Katha Upanishad I, ii, 15-17 explains: “The goal which all the Vedas declare, which all austerities aim at, and which men desire when they lead the life of continence, I will tell you briefly: it is OM. This syllable OM is indeed Brahman. This syllable is the Highest. Whosoever knows this syllable obtains all that he desires. This is the best support; this is the highest support. Whosoever knows this support is adored in the world of Brahma.” (http://singaporehindutemples.com/om.html). Brahman is understood as the Cosmic Principle in Hinduism, or “the primordial reality that creates, maintains and withdraws within it the universe”, according to German Indologist Paul Jakob Deussen. The Aitareya Upanishad defines Brahman as Consciousness and Consciousness as the First Cause of creation (https://www.esamskriti.com/e/Spirituality/Upanishads-Commentary/Aitareya-Upanishad~-Origin-of-the-Universe-ad-Man-(Part~1)-1.aspx). While Brahman is not equated with God in the Islamic sense, the act of primordial creation and the quality of supreme consciousness are attributed to Allah SWT. If, as stated in the Katha Upanishad, “OM is indeed Brahman”, there is a clear correlation between OM and the notion of divine consciousness in the Hindu tradition. Since my understanding of the Hindu sacred texts is sketchy at best and I lack the expertise required to assess the exact extent to which OM may conflict with the Islamic precept of worshipping no god other than Allah SWT, I would rather err on the side of caution and omit it from my practice.
Having said that, if you remove the fish from the biryani, you’re just left with boiled rice that no longer qualifies as biryani. Similarly, simply removing aspects of the practice you’re uncomfortable with without filling the void is not the ideal approach. So what would I replace the OM chant with? What religious scholars typically do when interpreting scriptures is engage in the science of hermeneutics, i.e. understand the intended message of the text and establish how that message can be carried forward into the present era without either corrupting the original intent or falling into a literal application which doesn’t necessarily make sense in the present circumstances. I am no religious scholar, nor am I trained in hermeneutics, but for the purpose of this personal decision making process, I will try to apply a similar concept, i.e. establish the intended purpose of the OM chant at the start and end of of the practice and replace that with a more desirable equivalent in a Muslim context.
Based on my research, OM chanting serves a number of objectives, of which I will only list one due to space constraints: it is intended to separate the yoga practice from the rest of our day and create a meditative space in which we are able to create a deeper connection with ourselves beyond simple physical exercise. I believe we all have our individual ways of getting into a contemplative mood and practicing mindfulness. As a yoga teacher, which I aspire to become someday, I would create the space for this contemplative mood at the start of the practice. Each one of my students can fill the space with whatever mental and spiritual visualisations they’re comfortable with. I would then end the practice by encouraging my students to carry with them the inner peace and balance achieved during the practice into the rest of their day and week.
Will this approach please everyone? Highly unlikely. There will be those coming to class in search of cultural immersion and mystical Hindu experiences. Those will find my class lacking in authenticity and will not return. Those interested only in getting a good will sit impatiently through any meditation or relaxation exercise. However, I am confident that there will also be some who will enjoy my approach to yoga and those will return. After all, as Master Paalu says, even Dracula has followers.
To end this piece, I would like to say that I realise how sensitive a topic religion is. I am perfectly aware that some of readers out there might see the views described in this article as deviant, while for others the very fact that I agonise over this topic might seem strange at best. In response, I will quote Aristotle: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Each one of us is on his/her individual spiritual journey and we each manage every step of that journey as best we can. And, since this article is about the musings of a Muslim yogi, I will end with a quote from the Qur’an: “And every soul earns not [blame] except against itself, and no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another.” (Holy Qur’an Surah Al-An’am 6:164).