Yoga is secular - Story published in Singapore media

Yoga practised here is secular
Studios know if they bring in religious slant, fitness-seeking locals will vanish

By Debbie Yong
It is the 10th most popular sport here and the yoga industry is said to be worth $15 million to $25 million a year.

According to a 2005 Singapore Sports Council survey, the latest available statistics, more than 55,000 people practise yoga here.

This number could be as high as 100,000 now, say yoga instructors, who have watched their previously sparse classes balloon to their studios' maximum capacity in the past three years. There are at least 100 yoga instructors who either teach classes in homes or in the more than 50 yoga studios that have mushroomed islandwide.

But check with any of them and almost all will say their classes are entirely secular. While yoga may have its roots in Hinduism, the version practised here has no religious overtones.

Last week, Malaysia's National Fatwa Council decreed yoga as haram, or prohibited, for Muslims in Malaysia due to its Hindu influences.

But Yoga Connections instructor Anthony Arjun said that in Singapore, 'there is no need for a ban. There's nothing religious about what we do'.

In fact, his classes are like a United Nations of religious followers. Held thrice weekly in the Mangala Vihara Buddhist Temple in Eunos, his classes comprise between 40 and 60 students, among them Muslims, Buddhists and Catholics.

'Yoga may have its roots in Hinduism but we are not practising Hinduism. It's strictly exercise,' said Mr Arjun, 53, a Buddhist who has been teaching yoga for more than 10 years.

Costs for yoga classes range from $50 for 12 sessions at community centres to about $50 per class at the larger and more popular centres such as Pure Yoga and True Yoga.

But whatever the size of the studio, owners of yoga centres, instructors and practitioners alike agree that one will be hard-pressed to find classes with religious teachings here.

'In India when you learn yoga, you learn the whole yogic philosophy, which includes the concept of birth and rebirth. But in Singapore, people mainly do yoga to relieve stress and strengthen their muscles,' said India-trained freelance yoga instructor Vyankatesh Reddy, 35.

It is believed that only the Ananda Marga Yoga Society, which runs studios in Marine Parade and MacPherson, incorporates meditation in its practice. Its classes are supervised by the missionaries of Ananda Marga, a social and spiritual organisation started in 1955 in India, its website says.

Calls to the society went unanswered, but it is stated on another part of the website that 'yoga is not a religion. Anyone from any faith can practise the techniques'.

The debate over whether yoga should be classified as a religious practice or merely a form of exercise is decades old. Most religious leaders in Singapore leave it up to individual members to decide.

Sceptics often point to meditation, which some say opens the mind to idle thoughts, and the chanting of Sanskrit verses at the start and end of each practice as reasons non-Hindus should not take up yoga.

But teachers say that these practices have since taken on practical purposes. The chanting of Sanskrit words such as 'Om', for instance, is used more as a breathing exercise to expand the lungs rather than for its meaning, said Bangalore- trained yoga instructor Asokan Perumal, 41.

Others take issue with the connotations of some yoga postures like the cobra pose - which Christians say is symbolic of the devil. The sun salutation, a common sequence of warm-up poses in yoga, has its origins in the worship of Surya, the Hindu sun deity.

'In Islam, we can face only Mecca in prayer. We cannot salute the sun, or animals or any other objects,' said fitness instructor Ahamad Mohamad, 37, who does not want to teach yoga. Most of his Muslim friends prefer pilates, a series of muscle-strengthening exercises free of spiritual elements, he said.

But Muslim yoga instructor Rashidah Kader Saheer, 37, who has been teaching at The Yoga Shala in Tanjong Pagar for the past nine years, said: 'We do have Muslim students. They come to class, they do their practice and they go home, just like everyone else.

'Classes vary with the teacher but most studios know that if they bring in a religious slant, fitness-oriented locals may not be that interested.'

Secretary K. Jubaida, 45, a Muslim, said she picked up yoga a year ago because it is slower-paced compared to other sports and can be done indoors. She avoids chanting words she is unfamiliar with, and feels that it is not a problem 'as long as one is a strong believer in Islam'.

Finance administrator Suriahni Kassani, 29, who has been attending yoga classes for the past two years, noted that even more religious Muslims have no problems taking it up, although they opt to attend all-girl classes with a woman instructor instead.

Even as some quarters decry the spiritual roots of yoga, there are some yoga purists who lament that traditional yoga teachings have been diluted.

Dr Vyankatesh pointed to newfangled yoga spin-offs such as the Yoga Dance, Yogalates and Golfer's Yoga classes offered by some new studios here, and said that the chances of injury will be much higher as these moves deviate from tried and tested routines that have proven health benefits.

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