Yoga is practiced by about 15 million people in the United States, for reasons almost as numerous — from the physical benefits mapped in brain scans to the less tangible rewards that New Age journals call spiritual centering. Religion, for the most part, has nothing to do with it.
But a group of Indian-Americans has ignited a surprisingly fierce debate in the gentle world of yoga by mounting a campaign to acquaint Westerners with the faith that it says underlies every single yoga style followed in gyms, ashrams and spas: Hinduism.
The campaign, labeled "Take Back Yoga," does not ask yoga devotees to become Hindu, or instructors to teach more about Hinduism. The small but increasingly influential group behind it, the Hindu American Foundation, suggests only that people become more aware of yoga's debt to the faith's ancient traditions.
The question at the core of the debate — who owns yoga? — has become an enduring topic of chatter in yoga Web forums, Hindu American newspapers and journals catering to the many consumers of what is now a multibillion-dollar yoga industry.
In June, it even prompted the Indian government to begin making digital copies of ancient drawings showing the provenance of more than 4,000 yoga poses, to discourage further claims by entrepreneurs like Bikram Choudhury, an Indian-born yoga instructor to the stars who is based in Los Angeles. Mr Choudhury nettled Indian officials in 2007 when he copyrighted his personal style of 26 yoga poses as "Bikram Yoga."
Organizers of the Take Back Yoga effort point out that the philosophy of yoga was first described in Hinduism's seminal texts and remains at the core of Hindu teaching. Yet, because the religion has been stereotyped in the West as a polytheistic faith of "castes, cows and curry," they say, most Americans prefer to see yoga as the legacy of a more timeless, spiritual "Indian wisdom."
The effort to "take back" yoga began quietly enough, with a scholarly essay posted in January on the Web site of the Hindu American Foundation, a Minneapolis-based group that promotes human rights for Hindu minorities worldwide. The essay lamented a perceived snub in modern yoga culture, saying that yoga magazines and studios had assiduously decoupled the practice "from the Hinduism that gave forth this immense contribution to humanity."
Dr Shukla put a sharper point on his case a few months later in a column on the On Faith blog of The Washington Post. Hinduism, he wrote, had become a victim of "overt intellectual property theft," made possible by generations of Hindu yoga teachers who had "offered up a religion's spiritual wealth at the altar of crass commercialism."