Can Yoga and Islam Learn To Co-Exist In NYC?

Muhammad Rashid, a prominent Muslim
community activist in Queens, has stirred
controversy in Muslim communities
by publicly
extolling the benefits of yoga. Many of the immigrants in Jackson
Heights, Queens are first-generation immigrants who consider yoga to
be a Hindu (and forbidden) practice. Yet a fatwa issued by a council
of Malaysian Muslim clerics four years ago which sought to forbid
yoga on the basis of Islamic law was forced to amend the edict to
allow “yoga as exercise” and prohibit only the use of Sanskrit
and chanting, following
demand by the Sultan of Malaysia and popular outcry
.

Despite this, many Muslims continue to
perceive yoga as fundamentally conflicting with their faith, given
its religious and cultural origins. Even Mr. Rashid himself once
believed that engaging in yoga practice was equivalent to “denouncing
my religion,” although after immigrating in 1997 from Bahrain, he’s
come full circle. He now practices daily yoga and courts controversy
by suggesting that other Muslims do so.

He’s not alone. Imam Mohd A. Qayyoon,
who runs the Muhammadi Community Center of Jackson Heights, joined an
interfaith demonstration of yoga last summer, garnering instant
disapproval from community members. Yet for Imam Qayyoon, yoga and
Islam can be compatible—with the use of more conservative attire
than is typically favored in yoga culture, and the exclusion of
Sanskrit. With these reformations, he believes yoga’s popularity
will jump among Muslims. “It will not contradict with Islamic
religion,” he says.

Yoga instructor Mimi Borda runs one of
the only yoga studios in Jackson Heights, and has had to accommodate
the cultural needs of her students. After finding that chanting
turned some Muslim students off, she’s tailored certain classes to
omit the Sanskrit and emphasize instead the physical aspects of the
practice. She’s also added both “shalom” and “amen” to the
end of class.

Yet despite the optimism of Imam
Qayyoon and Mr. Rashid, obstacles remain to obtaining widespread
acceptance in Muslim communities. For new immigrants and those living
in Muslim countries, yoga’s connection to Hinduism render it
unequivocally sacrilegious, similar to how
yoga practice is viewed in many fundamentalist Christian circles
.

However, when Mr. Rashid eventually
began practicing yoga, he noticed more similarities with his faith
than differences. Muslims practice five-times daily prayers,
entailing a deep meditative concentration and repeated kneeling bows.
Salat, as these prayers are called, reflect echoes of yoga poses,
according to Mr. Rashid, who notes “I discovered whatever I’m
doing in yoga, I’m doing five times a day in prayer.” Following
the daylong yoga class he helped organize in Jackson Heights last
summer, he had the realization that in salat, many Muslims practice
something very similar to yoga postures. Mr. Rashid comments, “Maybe
they’re getting that same benefit in their prayers. Maybe they
don’t need to do yoga.”

What are your thoughts on the
co-existence of yoga practice with religious systems such as Islam
and Christianity?

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