ago when young I began doing hatha yoga. Although several
years passed without practicing yoga, the complete yoga
breathing I learned from it was a constant presence in
my life. There was also my Islamic life, including praying
salât five times every day. A couple years ago
I returned to yoga while keeping up my Islamic practice.
are these two developments related ?How do they interact
I returned to the practice of yoga, I found that it is
easily integrated with the Islamic life; in fact the two
assist one another. Not only is there no conflict, but
Islam and yoga together make a mutually beneficial synergy.
Both are agreed that, while the body is important as a
vehicle on the way to spiritual realization and salvation,
the human being's primary identity is not with the body
but with the eternal Spirit.
is not a case of syncretism between two religions (which
would be spiritually invalid). Yoga is not a religion.
Rather, it is a set of techniques and skills that enhance
the practice of any religion. A French author named Jean
Déchanet discovered this in regard to his Catholic
faith and wrote the book Christian Yoga (New York: Harper,
1960). In my case, I have found that Islamic yoga is a
reality. It is possible to employ the skills of yoga to
worship Allah better and to be a better Muslim.
arose from the matrix of the Hindu world, although according
to Mircea Eliade it is of pre-Hindu origin and can be
traced back to prehistoric shamanism. Like India's other
gifts to world civilization, for example the system of
place notation on which all mathematics depends, yoga
is not tied to the Hindu religion but has a universal
applicability. It helps one to follow one's own religion
better whatever that may be. It has certain specific affinities
with Islam that make for an interesting study.
Since the metaphysic of Advaita Vedanta is in agreement
with the tawhîd (doctrine of oneness) of Islam,
there is perfect compatibility between Islam and yoga
on the highest level. All traditional esoterisms agree
that everything in manifestation has its origin in the
Supernal. The manifestations on the material plane are
derived from the ideational realm of archetypes (known
as al-a‘yân al-thâbitah in the metaphysics
of Ibn al-‘Arabî). This world, limited as it is,
is just an expression of the ultimate Reality, and will
ultimately be reabsorbed in its supernal Origin. Advaita
Vedanta and Islamic esoteric metaphysics are agreed that
God is the only absolutely real, eternal Reality; all
else is contingent and therefore transitory. The unitary
view of reality in Advaita Vedanta accords well with the
tawhîd (divine oneness) of Islam, and the Oneness
of Being in the Sufi doctrine of Ibn al-‘Arabî.
is interesting to compare the symbolism of Prophet Muhammad's
nighttime ascent to Heaven, al-Mi‘râj, with the
corresponding symbolism in yoga. The Prophet ascended
on al-Burâq, a riding beast with the head of a woman,
through the seven heavens to the Throne of God. In yoga,
the kuNDalinî is a feminine power (shakti) that
dwells at the base of the spine and ascends through seven
levels (represented by the seven chakras) to the summit
of liberation (brahmarandhra).
and Âsanas :
One of the most obvious correspondences between Islam
and hatha yoga is the resemblance of salât to the
physical exercises of yoga âsanas. An Indian Muslim
author, Ashraf F. Nizami, noted this in his book Namaz,
the Yoga of Islam. The root meaning of the word salât
is 'to bend the lower back', as in hatha yoga; the Persians
translated this concept with the word namâz, from
a verbal root meaning 'to bow', etymologically related
to the Sanskrit word namaste. The thousands of postures
and variations known to hatha yoga can be classified into
a few basic types, including standing postures, spinal
stretches, inverted postures, seated postures, and spinal
twists. The genius of Islamic salât is to incorporate
all of these in rudimentary form into a compact, flowing
sequence, ensuring a thorough, all-round course of exercises
for good health that is easy for everyone to practice.
The Mountain Pose (TâDâsana) is the foundation
for all standing âsanas. One always begins from
this and returns to it at the completion of the standing
sequence. In this it very closely resembles not only the
standing posture of qiyâm in salât, but also
the "Return to Mountain" of T‘ai Chi Ch‘uan.
Standing in Mountain Pose or qiyâm is a quiescent
exercise for the whole body: feet, legs, and spine working
together. With one's feet planted squarely on Earth and
one's head reaching toward Heaven, this pose is of the
finest metaphysical significance to the sacredness of
the human state, for verticality is the essence of religion.
Spinal stretching :
As the yogis say, one is as young as one's spine. Hatha
yoga concentrates much careful attention on deep, thorough
stretches of the spine, bringing the head forward to rest
on the knees. Since all the nerves of the body are channeled
from the spinal cord out between the vertebrae, a healthy
spine is of central importance for the well-being of the
whole human body and mind. It takes much patient, persistent
practice to make and keep the spine ideally flexible,
and only the most dedicated yogis succeed in this. Since
Islam is a path for everyone, the Islamic spinal stretch
is kept easy and within everyone's reach: the bowing position
called rukû‘ only requires that you bend forward
enough to place your hands on your knees. Nonetheless,
even this minimal stretch helps keep the spine in good
condition. When I returned to yoga after praying salât
for several years, I found that making rukû‘ seventeen
times a day had beautifully prepared my spine for deeper
Inverted poses :
The heart does its best to circulate blood all through
the veins and arteries, but it's a demanding job, and
exercise is needed to help the circulation go at maximum
efficiency. In particular, raising fresh blood to the
brain through the carotid artery, and lifting it from
the feet back up to the heart, is always going against
the pull of gravity. This is why two of the most important
and beneficial âsanas are the Shoulderstand (sarvangâsana,
the 'whole body pose') and the Headstand (sirSâsana).
Islamic prayer has taken the most essential aspect of
these inverted poses: lowering the head below the heart.
The position called sujûd is easy for everyone to
accomplish and helps to bathe the brain in fresh oxygenated
blood to keep it healthy and alert. Ashraf F. Nizami writes:
"This may be termed similar to … HALF SIRSHASANA.
It helps full-fledged pumping of blood into the brain
and upper half of the body including eyes, ears, nose
Seated postures :
The word âsana means 'seat' and the basic postures
for meditation are seated ones, especially the Lotus.
The Diamond Pose (vajrâsana) is practically identical
with the seated position of salât called jalsah.
This has, of course, not escaped the notice of both yogis
and Muslims in India. hakeem Hashmi Syed writes: "This
is a HARDY POSE or is like VAJRASANA." Furthermore,
both vajrâsana and jalsah are the same as the zazen
posture of Japan. Having practiced a little yoga when
young, it became easier for me to sit on the floor in
mosques for long stretches of time. In turn, accustomed
to this in Islam over the years, it was then much easier
to learn seated yoga postures like the Lotus, since my
leg and hip joints were accustomed to the floor.
sitting in the Lotus, a yoga mudra that accompanies meditation
is made by forming the index finger and thumb into a circle.
The Islamic mudra, made while sitting in jalsah, is to
extend the index finger in a straight line (to attest
to the Oneness of God), while forming the thumb and middle
finger into a circle. The figure 1 and the figure 0 can
convey a Tantric symbolism, and also are curiously similar
to the binary 1 and 0 of computer science.
Spinal twists :
A session of yoga practice normally concludes, just before
final relaxation, with a thorough twist of the whole spine
(ardha matsyendrâsana) to the right and to the left.
It helps to even out the spine from the other poses it
has done and keep everything balanced. In much the same
way, salât concludes with the prayer of peace (salâm)
said while turning the head to the right and then to the
left. This works only the cervical and maybe a few of
the thoracic vertebrae, but it is useful for keeping the
neck flexible and is consistent with the pattern in salât
of presenting reduced versions of the yoga âsanas.
In yoga, the science and art of breathing is paramount.
The relaxation and exertion of all the members of the
body, the stilling and concentration of the mind, the
energizing of the whole being, and the access to the spiritual
dimension all depend on breathing. In most languages of
the world, the words for 'breathing' and 'spirit' are
the same or closely related. The Arabic word for 'spirit'
is rûh, coming from a root with several interconnected
meanings: 'to relax', 'to breathe', and 'to set out moving'.
The full range of these meanings, taken together, summarizes
all the functions of the breath in Yoga. The Sanskrit
word corresponding to rûh is âtman, which
also comes from an Indo-European root meaning 'breath'
(compare the High German word Atem, 'breath').
spiritual importance of breath is a part of Islam's teachings.
Hazrat Inayat Khan writes on the subject of Islamic purification:
"Man's health and inspiration both depend on purity
of breath, and to preserve this purity the nostrils and
all the tubes of the breath must be kept clear. They can
be kept clear by proper breathing and proper ablutions.
If one cleanses the nostrils twice or oftener it is not
too much, for a Moslem is taught to make this ablution
five times, before each prayer." According to Hakeem
Hashmi Syed. Chishti in The Book of Sufi Healing, "Life,
from its beginning to end, is one continuous set of breathing
practices. The Holy Qur’an, in addition to all else it
may be, is a set of breathing practices."
Meditation and Worship :
In part 23 of the Yoga Sutra, Patañjali teaches
the attainment of supreme spiritual realization through
devotion to God (îsvara pranidhana). The sutra is
a very succinct, condensed type of literature, so a single
brief mention suffices. Because Patañjali did not
elaborate upon it, some commentators have assumed that
his God is a mere figurehead or abstraction and therefore
not so important in yoga practice. Nothing could be further
from the truth; in fact, the one feature that distinguishes
the metaphysic of the Yoga darsana from that of the Sankhya
darsana of Kapila (a non-theistic analysis of the elements
in the cosmos and consciousness) is the presence of God
in Yoga. This makes all the difference, and allows the
consonance of Yoga with religion.
wisely chose to refer to God as îsvara, which in
Sanskrit simply means 'God, the Supreme Being' and does
not name any deity of any particular religion. This universality
frees Yoga from conflict with any religious doctrine,
so that its techniques can be applied by a believer of
any faith. In India, Yoga has been applied to a vast variety
of different religious perspectives, and it works just
as well for other religions including Islam. There is
nothing specifically Hindu or Islamic about its techniques,
but it will assist the devotee in any kind of worship.
Yoga means to concentrate and still the mind; when this
concentration is directed upon God, the yogi is reaching
toward the heart of his religion.
for meditation, trâTaka is a yogic technique to
focus the attention and attain one-pointedness. It consists
of fixing the gaze on a single point. (It assists balance,
too.) While standing in Islamic prayer, we practice traTaka
by fixing the gaze on a spot on the ground where the forehead
rests in sujûd. During rukû‘, the trâTaka
is directed at the point between the big toes. The purpose
is to focus the attention on the prayer and keep it from
wandering. In this way it helps lead to a meditative state.
important part of Sufi spiritual practice is to invoke
the Divine Name Allâh and meditate upon it. Once
I had learned through yoga how to still the mind and focus
the attention, I discovered that the same technique greatly
sharpened and clarified my meditation on the Divine Name.
It was like a nearsighted person putting on glasses and
suddenly seeing clearly and sharply.
Sufi orders practice meditation and invocation focused
within certain centers (latâ’if) in the subtle body;
this is the same technique as the yogic meditation upon
It goes without saying that both Islam and yoga require
basic physical and moral cleanliness and purity (tahârah,
sauca) before performing their practices. The two differ
in several respects, but one feature that is common to
both is using water to rinse the breathing passages: a
yoga kriya (cleansing practice) called jala neti consists
of pouring water into one nostril so that it flows through
the sinuses and out the other nostril. The Muslim when
making wudû’ takes water up the nose and blows it
out; this is called istinshâ’. Again, the Islamic
version does not go as deep, being simplified to make
it easily accessible to everyone.
The Ayurvedic principles of yogic diet and the hadiths
of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) are agreed that
milk and ghee are beneficial, and that beef is detrimental
to health. Likewise, both discourage eating onions and
garlic. Ginger (Arabic zanjabîl, from Sanskrit srngivera,
from Proto-Dravidian ciñci vêr) is mentioned
in the Qur’ân (76:17) as a spice of Paradise. Ayurveda
regards ginger as sâttvika, a quality helpful to
spiritual life. Both Ayurveda and the Qur’ân tell
of the spiritual qualities of the basil plant, the sacred
basil (Ocimum sanctum) called tulasi in Sanskrit and the
sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) called rayhân in
the Qur’ân (while the Italians value it only for
its culinary qualities!). Tulasi basil is used to uplift,
clear, and invigorate the mind, assisting the consciousness
to focus on spiritual thoughts; rayhân is mentioned
in the Qur’ân (55:12) as a plant of Paradise, and
the Prophet recommended it to his Companions for its refreshing
aromatherapy. The Arabic word rayhân is derived
from the same root as rûh 'spirit'.
It can be valid and beneficial for Muslims to learn yoga,
not as their spiritual path per se, but as a valuable
adjunct to the spiritual path of Islam. Islam is a complete,
integral spiritual path, so yoga is no substitute for
any Islamic requirement. The Prophet said that wisdom
is the believer's stray camel: wherever he finds it he
will recognize it (and claim his right to it).
to explain the many points of correspondence between yoga
and Islam? Did these ancient teachings travel from India
to Arabia? No—there is no need to assume such a horizontal
transfer; the sacred truths are revealed vertically from
Heaven to all peoples. There are close similarities between
Islam and yoga not because of borrowing or cultural diffusion,
but because of both originating in the Primordial Tradition,
sanâtana dharma, al-dîn al-hanîf, which
all the prophets of Allah have brought and reaffirmed
throughout the ages, among all nations, revealed directly
from the Creator.