Yoga is finally getting the attention it needs in Singapore. Yoga studios are opening up all over and more people are becoming yuppies by day and yogis and yoginis by night…or at least on evenings or weekends because there is no denying it -among other benefits, yoga is simply good for your health.
On the flipside, there are just as many reasons not everyone is willing to give themselves the chance to experience the amazing effects of yoga but it is the most unfortunate if the reason is solely due to yoga being perceived as some sort of cult or religion. This is especially so within the local Muslim community because the most recent and impactful backlash yoga received was back in 2008, when a Muslim council in Malaysia declared yoga an exercise incompatible with Islam. While this might come as a surprise to the Muslims in the Middle East who have been peacefully practicing it since the 1990s, many Muslims in Singapore readily absorbed the spillover effect of the Malaysian muftis’ declaration. The decree was enough to cause a large part of the community in this Lion City to shy away from yoga and anything associated with it.
Time has since eroded such a resistance as the newer generation becomes more discerning about their religious takeaways. Regardless of such shifts in stances, there still stands an apprehension on yoga significant enough to heavily bring down the percentage of Singaporean Muslims yogis -which is quite an unfortunate statistic since Islam and yoga together make a mutually beneficial synergy.
The number one fact that everyone and anyone with a religion should be aware about is that yoga is NOT a religion. People of all faiths should understand that yoga exists as a special set of techniques and skills that can actually enhance the practice of any religion. A French author named Jean Déchanet discovered this in regard to his Catholic faith and wrote the book Christian Yoga (New York: Harper, 1960). He puts it quite succinctly when he says, “Every day the exercises, and indeed the whole ascetic discipline of my Yoga, make it easier for the grace of Christ to flow in me.”. Perhaps he started a kind of movement because since then, Christian yoga studios have actually come to exist in many parts of the world to improve the health conditions of their people so they are better able to perform their Christian duties.
Similarly, Islamic yoga can be such a reality. It is possible to employ the skills of yoga to worship Allah better and to be a better Muslim. Why not? As mentioned, it is not a religion because yoga was only created from within the matrix of the Hindu world but not as a part of Hinduism nor meant only for Hindus. After all, discoveries made by Islamic scientists from the Middle East –for example those of Al-Zahrawi, a surgeon from the 10th century whose surgical inventions like the syringe and forceps are still in use today- are not considered Islamic nor meant only for Muslims. Why does the religious rule only seem to apply to yoga? Anything that can help make the world a better place automatically has universal applicability and should be used freely by the human race.
However, there should be even more reason for Muslims to practice yoga as there are many obvious correspondences between Islam and yoga. One of the most obvious is the resemblance of the Islamic prayer “solat” to the physical exercises of yoga asanas. An Indian Muslim author, Ashraf F. Nizami, noted this in his book Namaz, the Yoga of Islam (Bombay: D.B. Taraporevala, 1977). The root meaning of the word “solat” is ‘to bend the lower back’, as in hatha yoga; the Persians translated this concept with the word namâz, from a verbal root meaning ‘to bow’, etymologically related to the Sanskrit word namaste. The thousands of postures and variations known to hatha yoga can be classified into a few basic types, including standing postures, spinal stretches, inverted postures, seated postures, and spinal twists. The genius of Islamic “solat” is that it has simplified all of these forms into a basic, compact and flowing sequence -ensuring a thorough, all-round course of exercises for good health that is easy for everyone to practice up to five times a day. The simplification is clearly so that the “solat” postures are easily accessible to everyone.
One can go deeper to condition the mind and body to perform the “solat” optimally and as far into one’s life as possible. This effort to go deeper can come about in several ways with the many forms of exercises available in the modern world but with so many parallels and correlations to yoga, it makes good sense that a good Muslim can actually be a better one simply by practicing yoga asanas. Therefore, it can be valid and beneficial for Muslims to learn yoga, not as their spiritual path per se, but as a valuable adjunct to the spiritual path of Islam.
Such enlightening information can be pivotal in changing mindsets. Therefore, it is important that the local Muslim community, especially the older generation, knows the health facts and benefits but most importantly, the truth that unites yoga and Islam -especially since Singapore’s muftis were not even the ones who said anything against this 5000-year-old practice in the first place. However, having said that, even the yoga scene in Malaysia has come a relatively long way since that declaration back in 2008, with a few yoga studios quietly popping up all over the country. The studios are also doing quite well -if the number of Muslim yoginis now seen continuing their yoga practice blissfully in hijabs are anything to go by.
It might be a while before there is a market big enough for an actual Islamic yoga studio to exist in either sides of the Causeway but to see Muslim yogis and yoginis turning up in numbers -instead of in mere trickles- to practice in regular yoga studios is already progress enough. Such progress is always possible but progress, like practice, takes time and like a wise guruji once said, “Practice and all is coming.”
To that, a Muslim yogini would say with much hope, “Insyallah.”
-Raihan Ruslan (200hr YTT -Jan/Feb’14)