Ruling on yoga ban for Malaysian Muslims postponed

November 7th, 2008 - 6:17 pm ICT by IANS  

Kuala Lumpur, Nov 7 (IANS) The announcement of a ban on practice of yoga by Malaysian Muslims was postponed Friday, but that has not stopped the debate on if, and how, yoga can affect the faith of those practising it.The ban was scheduled Friday. But it was put off because the National Fatwa Council chairman Abdul Shukor Husin was overseas on official business, Malaysian Islamic Development Department (Jakim) Director-General Wan Mohamad Sheikh Abdul Aziz said.

“A news conference will be held to make the announcement and the date will announced later,” he told Bernama, the official news agency.

A lecturer of University Kebangsaan Malaysia’s (UKM) faculty of Islamic studies, Zakaria Stapa, said recently that yoga, which is based on Hindu elements, could affect the faith of Muslims practising it.

Yoga can make Muslims deviate from Islam, he said and pointed out that yoga could be traced back to Hinduism. He urged Muslims to stop yoga practise.

However, joining the ongoing debate, many yoga instructors and practitioners say they regard this ancient form of exercise as nothing more than a healthy pursuit.

How can stretching and breathing be threatening to one’s faith, they asked while talking to The Star newspaper.

The experts urge religious officials to attend classes and observe how it is taught first before coming up with an edict.

“If they do, they will see that it is purely physical,” claims yoga teacher Roslin Mohammed Daud, a Malay Muslim.

“It is not like the enthusiasts here are all running off to India, living in ashrams and surrendering themselves without question to a guru. Here, I believe Muslims will go where they are comfortable with to learn yoga.”

Guidelines on the practice of yoga among Muslims are welcome, but not an outright ban, experts said.

This issue is, however, not a new one, or unique to Malaysians.

Around the world, debates have simmered through the years about whether yoga, which has been described as “incorrigibly religious” is in conflict with Christianity and other faiths.

Yoga enthusiasts in Malaysia are surprised that discussions over the issue have come this far, the newspaper said.

Yoga, they contend, is not dissimilar to other forms of exercise and those who practise it are only aiming to be fitter or slimmer.

Most yoga centres in Malaysia cater purely for those who want to enhance their fitness levels. Yoga is taught here in a way that strips away much of its Indian context, say the experts.

Classes just involve physical exercise - some are even combined with other exercise regimes like pilates to form what is called yogilates - and are advertised as a healthy means to lose weight, tone up, and de-stress.

“Doing yoga is basically like going to the spa but, of course, it is a little bit more active,” says Intan Suraya Hashim, who owns an all-women fitness studio offering yoga, jazzercise and body shaping. She practises yoga too and recommends it for its ability to enhance strength and flexibility.

Yoga teacher Roslin Daud is clearly disappointed with current developments: “Too much emphasis is being placed on something we are not even doing.”

She admits, however, that even before the current debate, there have been many queries at her studio from Muslims, and even Christians, who wanted to know whether there was chanting and meditation. Some were worried that “emptying their minds” during meditation may cause “negative or evil elements” to settle into that blank space.

“I told them we were only into the fitness aspect of it.”

According to Malaysian Yoga Society president Manisekaran, Hatha yoga - which is what most people associate with the word “yoga” - is free from all elements of religion and occultism.

“It is based on the sound principles of mind-body training to achieve balanced physical and mental health. There is no chanting, praying or worship involved.”

He stresses that the other main branches of yoga like Raja, Jnana, Karma and Bhakti are also free from religious concepts.

The society is planning a directory of yoga centres, organisations and instructors of all branches of yoga. Individuals could then investigate the organisations through the directory before joining them.

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