Fatwas have recently been proclaimed against yoga in Indonesia and Malaysia. In India, some Muslim conservatives are also in favour of a ban. Generally, though, India’s Muslim yoga fans seem perfectly able to reconcile their faith with the meditative, chanting and physical rituals of the discipline.
Children at a yoga camp in India
"Om" is a mystical or sacred syllable in Hinduism and Buddhism. Meaning universe, it is interpreted as having three sounds representing creation, preservation, and destruction. It is often chanted by people practising yoga. But some religious leaders, such as Tasleem Ahmed from the Muslim Political Council of India, worry about its being chanted by Muslims: "Om is a fundamental Hindu word and that cannot be ignored. It is totally Hindu. Other religions can’t accept it -- it is just advertising for Hinduism."
Looking for alternatives to "om"
The famous Indian guru Baba Ramdev, who always wears a saffron robe and is a living image of calm, says there are alternatives: "Om is simply a sound! And if some Muslim brothers don’t like it they can replace it with Allah or god."
However, some say that the problem with this solution is that chanting "Om" is supposed to unite the participants of a yoga class with each other and their universe. If some start chanting "Allah" instead the unity will be broken.
So, for many Indian Muslim yoga fans the question has become whether to attend their next class and what to do. Yoga, which is supposed to be a source of relaxation, is becoming just another source of stress.
Kamal Faruqi from the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board sees no problem with Muslims practising yoga: "Yoga as a sport plays a huge role. I am not prepared to draw a direct link with Hinduism. I agree with Baba Ramdev that Muslims should not say 'om' but should chant other sounds."
Others have suggested that Muslims continue practising yoga but forego the chanting altogether. Generally, the supporters of the fatwa against yoga seem to be few and far between in India, where there are over 150 million Muslims.
Baba Ramdev insists that yoga, as a form of self-realisation and not a religion, can be practised by anybody: "Look at science and technological advances that we have adopted from the West, from the Europeans, from Christians. And should I not get onto a plane because the Wright brothers, who invented it were Christian?"
Health minister promotes yoga
India's health minister, A. Ramadoss, has even been pushing yoga as a means of preventing ill health and disease. He wants classes to be mandatory for all schoolchildren so that they can avoid becoming diabetic or having hypertension as they get older. The International Diabetes Federation estimates that there will be 70 million diabetics in India by 2025. Diabetes is often linked to ageing, an inactive lifestyle, unhealthy diet and obesity.
Whether Hindu or Muslim, Christian or atheist, yoga practitioners promote a healthy lifestyle, saying that many problems can be avoided if people relax and sit in the lotus position for some time every day.