Friday, December 5, 2008


Of late, there have been altercations back in Malaysia regarding a fatwa on banning Yoga for Muslims. Intrigued by the issue, I decided to embark on to research a bit about Yoga, its origin, meaning, types, and practices.

Yoga: the Definitions

Yoga, according to Wikipedia, is "traditional physical and mental disciplines originating in India; to the goal achieved by those disciplines; and to one of the six orthodox (āstika) schools of Hindu philosophy."

According to Gethin, Yoga "...approximately means 'effort' or 'work' and relatively early in the history of Indian religion came to refer to specifically spiritual work and techniques." (The Foundations of Buddhism, 174)

Yoga according to Rabinovitch:

Yoga according to QuarkTech Inc:

Thus, we can conclude from above definitions, that Yoga must be a certain form of practices combining the elements of physical, mental, and spiritual with the aim of unionizing the three with the purpose of self-realization.

Types of Yoga (all quotes in this section are from Wikipedia)

1. Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

"Patanjali is widely regarded as the founder of the formal Yoga philosophy.[21] Patanjali's yoga is known as Raja yoga, which is a system for control of the mind.[22] Patanjali defines the word "yoga" in his second sutra,[23] which is the definitional sutra for his entire work:

This terse definition hinges on the meaning of three Sanskrit terms. I. K. Taimni translates it as "Yoga is the inhibition (nirodhaḥ) of the modifications (vṛtti) of the mind (citta)".[24] Swami Vivekananda translates the sutra as "Yoga is restraining the mind-stuff (Citta) from taking various forms (Vrittis)."[25]

Patanjali's writing also became the basis for a system referred to as "Ashtanga Yoga" ("Eight-Limbed Yoga"). This eight-limbed concept derived from the 29th Sutra of the 2nd book, and is a core characteristic of practically every Raja yoga variation taught today. The Eight Limbs are:

(1) Yama (The five "abstentions"): non-violence, non-lying, non-covetousness, non-sensuality, and non-possessiveness.
(2) Niyama (The five "observances"): purity, contentment, austerity, study, and surrender to god.
(3) Asana: Literally means "seat", and in Patanjali's Sutras refers to the seated position used for meditation.
(4) Pranayama ("Lengthening Prāna"): Prāna, life force, or vital energy, particularly, the breath, "āyāma", to lengthen or extend. Also interpreted as control of the life force.
(5) Pratyahara ("Abstraction"): Withdrawal of the sense organs from external objects.
(6) Dharana ("Concentration"): Fixing the attention on a single object.
(7) Dhyana ("Meditation"): Intense contemplation of the nature of the object of meditation.
(8) Samādhi ("Liberation"): merging consciousness with the object of meditation.
2. Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita ('Song of the Lord'), uses the term yoga extensively in a variety of ways. In addition to an entire chapter (ch. 6) dedicated to traditional yoga practice, including meditation,[26] it introduces three prominent types of yoga:[27]

Madhusudana Sarasvati (b. circa 1490) divided the Gita into three sections, with the first six chapters dealing with Karma yoga, the middle six with Bhakti yoga, and the last six with Jnana (knowledge).[28] Other commentators ascribe a different 'yoga' to each chapter, delineating eighteen different yogas.[29]

3. Hatha Yoga

Hatha Yoga is a particular system of Yoga described by Yogi Swatmarama, compiler of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika in 15th century India. Hatha Yoga differs substantially from the Raja Yoga of Patanjali in that it focuses on shatkarma, the purification of the physical body as leading to the purification of the mind (ha), and prana, or vital energy (tha).[30][31] Compared to the seated asana, or sitting meditation posture, of Patanjali's Raja yoga,[32] it marks the development of asanas (plural) into the full body 'postures' now in popular usage.[33] Hatha Yoga in its many modern variations is the style that many people associate with the word "Yoga" today.[34]

Yoga and Islam

The development of Sufism was considerably influenced by Indian yogic practises, where they adapted both physical postures (asanas) and breath control (pranayama).[45] The ancient Indian yogic text, Amritakunda, ("Pool of Nectar)" was translated into Arabic and Persian as early as the 11th century.[46]

Malaysia's top Islamic body in 2008 passed a fatwa, which is legally non-binding, against Muslims practicing yoga, saying it had elements of "Hindu spiritual teachings" and could lead to blasphemy and is therefore haraam. Muslim yoga teachers in Malaysia criticized the decision as "insulting".[47] Sisters in Islam, a women's rights group in Malaysia, also expressed disappointment and said they would continue with their yoga classes.[48] The fatwa states that yoga practiced only as physical exercise is permissible, but that yoga teachings such as uniting of a human with God is not consistent with Islamic philosophy.[49] (ibid.)

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