© 2024 WKNO FM
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Rough Translation: Why Many Muslims In India Feel Yoga Has Been Weaponized


Here in the United States, it seems like every week, there's a new variation of yoga.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It is the latest craze among fitness fans and...


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yoga with your dog, otherwise known as doga.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: To rave yoga.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Infrared-heated yoga.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Alien yoga.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: Yoga and throbbing bass lines.

GREENE: OK, yes, things like doga. I can't get that out of my head. So that is the United States. Now, in India, where it originated centuries ago, yoga is actually getting tangled up in politics. Our next story comes from our international podcast Rough Translation. Here's NPR's Stacey Vanek Smith.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Atiya Zaidi lives in New Delhi. She works in publishing. She's 61, not more than 5 feet tall. But she has a huge presence. She's very warm.

What does your shirt say?

ATIYA ZAIDI: It says, strike a pose for yoga.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

Strike a pose for yoga. Atiya is a well-known yoga tweeter. She has about 20,000 Twitter followers. She started practicing yoga 20 years ago when she was struggling with her health. Yoga helped turn her situation around, and now she thinks everybody should do yoga. She's always bugging people to try it.

ZAIDI: It's the best exercise for your body. Do it. Do it - yoga for all.

VANEK SMITH: Recently, Atiya's yoga-for-all mission got an unlikely ally, India's prime minister, Narendra Modi. He is a devoted yogi.

ZAIDI: Our prime minister is 64, 65. And he's so fit because of yoga. He sleeps four hours in a day.

VANEK SMITH: Modi is so devoted to yoga that right after he was elected in 2014, one of his very first official acts was to fly to New York and give a speech to the United Nations about yoga and push for the creation of an International Yoga Day.


PRIME MINISTER NARENDRA MODI: (Through interpreter) Yoga should be a means to get connected with the world and with nature. Let's come together.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #6: Big diplomatic win for PM Modi, as just three months after he proposed the idea, the U.N. has now adopted the resolution of declaring 21 June as the International Yoga Day.

VANEK SMITH: So it seems like Atiya would be totally onboard with international yoga day. But Atiya is Muslim, and that makes it complicated. For one thing, there are these messages that she's been getting on Twitter.

ZAIDI: What kind of a Muslim are you? You're a blot on Islam.

VANEK SMITH: A blot on Islam. In India, yoga is associated with the Hindu religion. Om is the Hindu word for God. And the Sun Salutation, a very common set of poses in yoga, is essentially a prayer to the Hindu sun god. In India, a Muslim law board deemed yoga un-Islamic. But Atiya does not see a conflict between practicing her Muslim faith and doing yoga. And she has not backed down.

ZAIDI: Some people might hesitate, but I feel it's just being me.

VANEK SMITH: But a lot of Muslims in India feel like yoga is being weaponized. And the Western adoption of yoga as exercise has provided the perfect mask for a really insidious agenda. Prime Minister Modi came into office with a lot of support from the Hindu nationalist movement. That is a movement that wants to create a Hindu religious state. There's been a lot of anti-Muslim violence in India. Muslim-owned beef slaughterhouses were shut down in one Indian province. The cow is sacred to Hindus. And Muslims have been attacked and even killed for having beef in their homes. In one part of India, citizen police squads have been created to keep the peace, but some have been harassing and even attacking Muslim women.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #7: Namaskar. Welcome, everyone, to the third International Yoga Day.

VANEK SMITH: In the midst of all this, the yoga push - International Yoga Day. Prime Minister Modi did yoga live on TV with thousands of people. Tasleem Rehmani, a public intellectual and Muslim activist, was watching it all happen on TV.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #7: Let us begin the yoga sadina with a prayer. Om.

VANEK SMITH: Let's begin with a prayer. When Tasleem saw this, he thought yoga is being used as a Trojan horse. Supposedly, it's this exercise for everyone. But, really, it's just government officials performing a religious ceremony on TV with the international community's stamp of approval.

TASLEEM REHMANI: So it is very much religion. When you call om, it is the Hindu word...

VANEK SMITH: For God, right?


VANEK SMITH: And Tasleem points out the yoga push isn't just about yoga day. Now one of Modi's ministers is pushing to make yoga a mandatory part of school curriculum.

VANEK SMITH: Do you mind if I get your name?

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Foreign language spoken).

SAMAT: Samat (ph).



Samat is 10 years old. He's Muslim. He's a skinny, little guy with a lot of black hair.

Do you do yoga in your school?

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Foreign language spoken).

SAMAT: (Through interpreter) I do yoga.

VANEK SMITH: You do yoga.


VANEK SMITH: Oh, did you say om?


VANEK SMITH: Samat's neighbors Sanya and Namra Shahid (ph) are also Muslim. They grew up doing yoga in school, although it was not mandatory. And they were really excited when International Yoga Day was recognized by the world.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #8: We feel proud.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #9: We felt proud, obviously.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #8: We feel proud this belongs to our country.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #9: Belongs to our country.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #8: We feel very proud.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #9: Yoga is being practiced all over the world. And it originated from our country. But at the same time, making it compulsory is making us feel terrible about it.

VANEK SMITH: Making yoga a requirement in schools changed everything. Namra says it feels like an aggression against her community. Tasleem Rehmani, the Muslim activist, says Muslim culture is under attack in India. And yoga has been an effective weapon.

REHMANI: You push them to perform yoga. It means you are trying to overpower the minds of our children and the whole country to follow by hook or crook their own culture.

VANEK SMITH: And in the middle of all this is Atiya, the Muslim yogi who proclaims, yoga for all. Of course, now in India, yoga for all sounds really different.

I mean, how does it feel when there's this thing that you love, which is yoga, that has given you so much that's being used against your community?

ZAIDI: In hurts. It disturbs. These things are bubbling under the surface. They were the fringe elements, but now they're empowered.

VANEK SMITH: The fringe elements are now empowered. But Atiya says she will not let them define yoga.

ZAIDI: When you get scared of bigots, of haters, then you give up something you love. That's not done.

VANEK SMITH: You won't do that.

ZAIDI: No, I won't do that. I don't think anybody should do that.

VANEK SMITH: Atiya will keep doing yoga...


VANEK SMITH: ...And tweeting about it. Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Stacey Vanek Smith is the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money. She's also a correspondent for Planet Money, where she covers business and economics. In this role, Smith has followed economic stories down the muddy back roads of Oklahoma to buy 100 barrels of oil; she's traveled to Pune, India, to track down the man who pitched the country's dramatic currency devaluation to the prime minister; and she's spoken with a North Korean woman who made a small fortune smuggling artificial sweetener in from China.