Should a Pious Muslim Practice Yoga?

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Jean Chung / Corbis

Iranian women practice in their yoga class in Tehran.

To the long list of things that everyone else loves but that Muslims are supposed to hate — democracy, dogs, women with uncovered hair — we can now add yoga. A council of muftis in Malaysia issued a fatwa over the weekend banning yoga for Muslims, claiming that the sweaty 'Oms' and other Hindu elements of a standard 60-minute yoga class could "destroy the faith of a Muslim."

For a moment, this news had me selfishly worried. I've been contorting myself into reverse triangle across the Middle East for about a decade, and I fretted that all my favorite yoga centers and teachers might get hassled by morality police types. I also worried about my friends who do yoga — if there is one thing the stressed out populations of cities like Tehran, Baghdad, and Cairo really don't need, it's the loss of a safe, indoor means of relaxation. Fortunately, I suspect the muftis' edict comes far too late. Muslims, at least those of the Middle East, have been practicing yoga widely since the mid 1990s, and in some countries the exercise is now as commonplace as it is in blue-state America. (See a story about Christian yoga in America.)

In Iran, where cheerless clerics have inveighed against everything from poodles to the pants-tucked-into-boots look, yoga is popular enough to warrant its own magazines and the government has made no fuss (but thanks for bringing it to their attention, muftis of Malaysia!). Across the country, including religious cities like Mashhad, there are thousands of yoga classes held each week, and there is a class for every yogi: for children, the elderly, the overweight, the spiritual. There are contemplative, patchouli-scented yoga centers, austere Iyengar centers for the very serious, and flow classes in gyms for women in chic yoga clothes who just want arm tone. (See pictures of facial yoga.)

The Iranian love affair with yoga is a complex thing, born of many factors. There's the general disenchantment with strict, orthodox Islam and the accompanying pull to alternative forms of spirituality. There are strictures that women face in exercising outside covered, and the appeal of gentle, indoor sport. Add to all that yoga's global fashionableness and Iranians' high rates of anxiety and depression, and you have the first genuinely yoga savvy middle-class in the entire Middle East.

Not once, in all my years in Tehran, did I hear anyone suggest yoga might be incompatible with Islam. Indeed, the city's packed yoga classes overflowed with believers, instructors who started class by venerating the Prophet Muhammad on his birthday, Ramadan classes where everyone was fasting and went all noodlely by the end. Most seemed sensible enough to realize you could lower or raise the spirituality volume of yoga as you pleased, and that doing downward facing dog didn't make you a bad Muslim. One of my girlfriends even attended a Sufi yoga class where the teacher played the daf (a Persian frame drum) and everyone chanted to the Shi'a Imam Ali. Many, like my mother, like to note the similarities between the physical sequence of Muslim prayer and asanas, claiming harmony, or at least fatwa-free ground, between Islam and yoga.

In the Arab Middle East, yoga is pretty much still the domain of yuppies. During a stint studying ashtanga in Cairo, my classmates were either expatriates or Egyptians who had returned from the West. In Beirut, the city's largest yoga center occupied a gorgeous old building in the Christian quarter, and drew a sophisticated mix of Christians and Muslims alike. The Lebanese, however, tend to prefer gym yoga. Attending a yoga class at one of the city's many posh fitness centers means that ministers can chat on their yoga mats, and pop stars can show off their headstands, a convenient way of getting centered and being seen at the same time. (See pictures of Iranian society and its struggle for modernity.)

At all my various yoga classes in the Middle East over the years, I always had the feeling that everyone wanted to be there. But apparently there are a few Muslims out there who're not sure whether yoga is halal, haram, or makrooh (that is, the permissible, the forbidden and, the last, an in-between category known as "the disliked," including shellfish and cigarettes and other appealing things faithfuls Muslims can partake of without being actively condemned).

The question of "is making yoga allowed?" does appears on Muslim web sites, and I've found myself wondering just who the doubting yogis might have been in all my many classes. The quiet types taking up the back row, who wear deliberately plain workout clothes? The chatty, devout housewives who got bored during the breathing exercises? That the forums' experts and mediators rule so contradictorily — some rule haram, while many more judge yoga harmless — suggests there is no fixed Islamic position on yoga, just as there is no fixed type of yoga itself. The place of yoga in the lives of most Muslims, I imagine, will not be shifted by Malaysia's fatwa. Those who practice will practice, the super-pious will frown, and the anxious minority will pose questions like this one, which appeared on the site "But what if someone starts a business, e.g. a spa, which offers yoga?"

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