Yoga and Mindfulness: Religion in Disguise or Fun Secular Activity?

Syed Rizvi (Courtesy of The Muslim Vibe)

Eastern religions have done a better job transmuting basic psychological and spiritual principles of love, acceptance, nonjudgement, and compassion than Western religions have. At an individual level, this should motivate us further to stand up for our own Mindful traditions. As the Prophet (P.B.U.H) narrates: ‘the entirety of your religion is in your akhlaq (behavior)’.

Disclaimer: I work at a Yoga & Mindfulness Lab (www.mindfuluh.org)

I remember the first time I went to a yoga class; after the ringing of the chimes and placement of the mats, the yoga practitioner beckoned us to connect with our chakras through the next hour of ashtanga. Through the course of this and many other yoga and mindfulness classes and workshops (it is estimated that 15% of the U.S. public practices yoga according to Gallop), I was struck with how ‘normalized’ many seemingly innocuous Hindu and Buddhist practices are in mainstream institutions.

Ronald Purser, the author of ‘McMindfulness’, notes that over $100 million dollars of funding are poured into mindfulness research which often has a component of movement or yoga. At surface level, this can be viewed as a purely secular psychological or physical tool to enhance calmness and focus but at a deeper level, some research has found that changes can be attributed to enhanced religiosity/spirituality.

At one level, I am glad that Western culture in all its industrialized and individualistic pursuits has come to an understanding that denying the spiritual needs of its inhabitants has caused an unprecedented rise in risk factors for mental health including social isolation, lack of purpose/meaning, materialism, narcissism, anxiety and other existential qualms which come with a lack of moral or transcendent purpose. I pursued my doctorate in psychology primarily because of my own mindful journey and need to advocate living ‘more mindfully’ for others.

But at another level, I am deeply disturbed that there is a complete lack of transparency on the philosophical and Indigenous roots of these traditions.

Yoga and Mindfulness are taught and practiced as completely secular endeavors with almost no mention of the ethical, moral, or transcendent philosophy in which they come from. Ronald Purser calls this ‘capitalist spirituality’, wherein how rituals are practiced in their own indigenous traditions, namely for compassion and social cohesion, and are ironically reformatted as primary ventures for egotistical fulfillment such as attaining happiness or becoming a better worker.

What strikes me even further is the deeper implications this has in our society where Eastern religions are connotated with ‘finding oneself’ and ‘spirituality/peace’, whereas monotheistic faiths are denigrated as backward, archaic, misogynistic, or downright evil. I think this speaks to two very important implications that we as Muslims must contend with.

Firstly, Eastern religions have done a better job transmuting basic psychological and spiritual principles of love, acceptance, nonjudgement, and compassion than Western religions have. At an individual level, this should motivate us further to stand up for our own Mindful traditions. As the Prophet (P.B.U.H) narrates: ‘the entirety of your religion is in your akhlaq (behavior)’.

Self-awareness is the first catalyst to change and the increasing rates of secularism and agnosticism (particularly to a ‘spiritual but not religious’ category) must signify for organized religion (and the individuals which make up the foundation for organized religion) that dogmatism, fundamentalist attitudes, and sectarianism are doing much more harm than good. Individuals are drawn to faith traditions primarily for guidance, nurturance, and love so let us work more diligently to instantiate a deeper spiritual component in our worldviews.

Secondly, at a systematic and societal level, there must be a conscious and organized effort in changing institutions that have benefited from portraying Islam as a violent religion to satisfy their own needs (i.e., military dominance or cultural imperialism). There is a conscious undertaking to obfuscate the moral, spiritual, and compassionate wisdom in our faith so that individuals implicitly associate Islam with fear, violence, or threat to their own self. This psychological rewiring makes it much easier to haphazardly kill civilians in the Islamic world as these ‘others’ and the Indigenous wisdom through which they live are seen as completely separate from Western norms.

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