Iran, Islam, and their History of Yoga

How will Yoga Help the Conflict in Iran?

“The basic religious notion that truth needs to be found, that it is higher, deeper, but not here in this ordinariness, has denied us our own power, which is life. Life has its own perfect intelligence.” Mark Whitwell

May the conflict in Iran soon resolve into Peace. May religious life every where soon resolve into loving collaboration between opposites, in same sex or opposite sex intimacy, in any gender identification, or none at all. For all life is formed by the union of opposites. The two are one. May that intelligence, that unspeakable beauty and intrinsic harmony be universally recognized as the birthright of everyone. May Yoga spread, as it did in the ancient world, to all cities, towns and villages. Then we will all be abiding in the sacredness of our own skin, and the sacredness of our relationships to one another. The one life that lives all in the All.

The world is watching with baited breath as the uprising unfolds in Iran. Now into its third month, reports are coming in daily of ongoing demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands of people who have entered the streets to demand freedom. From the capital Tehran, to Karaj, Rasht, Khash, Mashhad, Kurdistan, and Sistan-Baluchistan, the people are calling for an end to the oppression of women.

Everywhere, too, tears are falling as we hear stories of a rising death toll; of live ammunition being used on peaceful demonstrators; as well as the sexual abuse, rape, and torture of detained men, women, and children. As a country, Iran is now mired in an internal battle between the clerical regime and the protestors, with no obvious way forward.

The events beg the question: What can be done to bring harmony to male-female relations within religious life? And how can real Yoga help to end the terror of male orthodoxy, in Iran, and in every other country too.

Yoga: The Practical Means of Religious Life

Throughout the 1970s I took lessons with TKV Desikachar and his father Tirumalai Krishnamacharya in Chennai, India. During that time I witnessed all kinds of people coming and going from their home. In Chennai, 20 percent of the population was Muslim. My teachers were earnest Hindus but they were always very loving and respectful of any individual and their culture.

Krishnamacharya was emphatic that Yoga does not belong to Hinduism, nor to any particular cultural group or religion, despite popular myths to the contrary. He maintained the ancient understanding that Yoga was a tool that was for all religious points-of-view; more than useful, in fact, but necessary, as the practical means for all people to actualise the religious ideals of their particular faith.

“If you can breathe you can do Yoga” T. Krishnamacharya. Photograph by Mark Whitwell.

When a Muslim student visited my teachers would use no Hindu language or mantras; instead, they chose language from the Qurʾān for the student’s invocations. They applied the principles of asana and pranayama into the Muslim prayer cycle and always called Islam “your religion of love.” This was not mere tokenism, for Krishnamacharya was deeply read in the sacred text of Islam. He would regularly engage in conversations with Muslim students on matters of scripture.

T. Krishnamacharya. “You only need realize one time that you are the Power of the Cosmos.” Mark Whitwell

My teachers inherently understood that intimacy needed to be the first and last principle of religious life, whether a person of faith is Muslim, Christian, Hindu, or even atheist. For it is through a person’s intimate relationship with anything and everything, their Yoga, that allows them to feel the context in which everything is happening — God, Allah, Reality Itself.

Their view was that Yoga is the “mother’s milk” of religious life. It is the most basic action of intimate embrace to the creation and the creator. By participating in our life and our relatedness, we are participating in God directly, personally, and no longer seeking in thought for the idea of God as “Other.”

When a person knows themselves to be in a direct and prior union with the Divine, then the impulse to try and ‘get to God’ via controlling and manipulating conditions (women, the body, and Sex) falls away. Instead, relationship becomes worship, an opportunity to acknowledge our actual partner as no less than God, no less than Truth.

The current crisis in Iran is caused by male power structure seeking for God by manipulating and controlling women and Sex. This can be relinquished now and replaced with a religious culture of intimacy, relaxed participation, and mutuality between partners.

“The Source of Life is felt as the breath. The whole body becomes permeated.” Mark Whitwell
“The Source of Life is felt as the breath. The whole body becomes permeated.” Mark Whitwell

The Special Relationship between Yoga and Islam

From their home in Chennai, my teachers were continuing on the centuries-old tradition of sharing between Yoga and Islam. A tradition of inter-cultural cross-pollination that was there for thousands of years across India and South-Asia.

Perhaps the high point of this relationship occurred during the Mughal Empire in India, when the emperor Akbar (1542–1605) fell in love with Yoga, having felt the significance of asana and pranayama to his life as as a Sufi — a man who was in tune with the philosophy of Waḥdat al-Wajūd (the non-dual unity of existence).

In recognition of the usefulness of Yoga as the practical means to participate in the non-dual state, Akbar invested significant state funds in bringing into Yoga education. He built a “City of Yogis” on the outskirts of Agra for Hindu holy men; and had the Darshanas, the six Hindu philosophical systems, and the Yoga Sutras, translated in Arabic.

“Jesus was a Yogi” Mark Whitwell

During Akbar’s reign, one of the first illustrated books of Yoga appeared in Persian language: the Bahr al-Hayat or Ocean of Life, translated by the Sufi saint and author Muhammad Ghawth in 1602. The scholar Carl Ernst describes it as the most significant single text in the spreading of Yoga through the Islamicite languages. He describes how

“Ghwath’s goal was to teach his disciples hatha practices compatible with Sufi goals of spiritual transformation. Based on both earlier Sanskrit treatises and conversations with living yogis, the text demonstrates how yoga was made familiar to Sufi ascetics.”

The text describes headstand as a means to burn up undigested food within “the house of fire.” The poetry of this description matches Krishnamacharya’s much later teaching of inversions as a means to draw the obstructions that collect at the base of the body into the agni, the fire of life.

We can even go back four centuries earlier to find, in the 11th century, the first known translation of the Yoga Sutras into Arabic, completed by the famous Iranian scholar Abu Rayhan al-Biruni. As the scholar David Gordon White writes, the text is a beautiful example of how sanskrit terms were absorbed into the idiom and worldview of Islamic mysticism in a mutual sharing and empowerment between cultures.

‘In many places, Alberuni finds himself obliged to coin new technical terms in Arabic to do justice to such Sanskrit concepts as klesa (“taint,” “affliction,” which he translates as “burden”) and Buddhi (“intellect,” for which he provides the reading of “heart”). Elsewhere, he translates a Sanskrit term denoting non-discursive intuitive knowledge with a Sufi term for mystical cognition: “the eye of the heart.” In the same spirit, he translates the title of the Yoga Sutra’s first chapter (“On Pure Contemplation” as “Making the Heart Steadfastly Fixed.”) Posture is translated as “quietude,” ether is either “air” or “sky” and the Hindu deities (devas) become “angels.”’

“Without receptivity being half the process of asana, (the very purpose of strength is to receive) the popular ideas of Yoga are continuing the delusion of needing to get somewhere as if you are not already the power and beauty of reality.” Mark Whitwell

Yoga and Islam Today

After studying with Desikachar and Krishnamacharya, my friends and I continued to pass on Yoga to Muslim communities around the world. I have met with many wonderful students across Indonesia, Palestine and Turkey some of whom were scholars of Qurʾān and have gone on to become important Yoga teachers. Of all faiths it is Islam that is the most Yogic, for the principle of a whole body prayer and supplication to the One is inherently understood.

Click here for free access to the Heart of Yoga Teaching Standards, a set of principles you can use to judge whether a teacher is teaching in an empowering or disempowering way.

One woman in Palestine reported that when she started her Yoga practice she realized that her religion was indeed a religion of Love. She did her practice of moving and breathing as a whole body prayer to Allah; as her personal relationship to that which is Great.

Prior to that she had noticed that her daily prayers tended to be a rote behavioural practice that she did because everybody in her society was doing it. With the intelligence of the tantras, her five times a day prayer cycle transformed from an exoteric practice to an esoteric one. Her life became direct participation in God not a search or an appeal for God. This is what Yoga does for religion of all kinds.

After our workshops ended there would be a quiet sharing of this technology between partners. The implications for personal relationship are immediately felt as the practice sensitises a person to the male-female polarity of their own embodiment. Students reported how their practice of intimacy within soon translated into a practice of intimacy without and their relationship became a spiritual practice of giving and receiving.

These women would teach their husbands how to bring the inhale (receptivity) to the exhale (strength) in a process that allowed them to feel their natural state. How they were both strong and upright whilst also being soft and responsive.

In the workshops in Palestine, these women found that Yoga was able to release the imposition of patriarchal “strength-only” culture from their systems. This quiet esoteric teaching of intimate connection within and without went through the community under the radar of religious orthodoxy.

Consider what a world we would have if the orthodox leaders of the world understood this principle of intimate participation, of mutuality within and without. What a different world we would have if the Pope had a wife of equal standing and dignity.

“The root cause of misogyny and sexual abuse in the world today is the separation of God and Sex. For each word isolated from the other becomes useless to our lives. Everybody knows that if you repress Sex in the motivated effort to get to an imaginary God, it only comes out as aberration and sexual abuse.” Mark Whitwell

How to Practice Yoga Free from Seeking

Yoga has undoubtedly been misused and appropriated by the orthodox cultures of seeking. It has been turned into yet another method of working away on yourself in the attempt to get to God, in the presumption that God is absent. We can resolve that historical mistake for the world by taking Yoga out of the orthodox context of religious seeking and understanding it as direct participation in the Given Reality: participation in God only, not a seeking for God. This understanding is coming into the world now and dissolving the tension between religious orthodox seeking that has ruined humanity and the tantric intelligence of participation in what life actually is: the nurturing force that is upon us, that is us; the power that is moving our body, breath and Sex.

Shirdi Sai Baba, the God Man, beloved by both Hindu and Muslim devotees and a man for whom the distinction between the two religions had completely dissolved | Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga

The beautiful paradox is that as our practice moves from seeking to participation the religious texts and doctrines that we know and love come alive in our everyday life. Here is the global transition that is required to move from exoteric religion to esoteric participation. The sacred poetry of Qurʾān is transformed from an abstract doctrine into an embodied actuality. Krishnamacharya would say: The inhale is to be with God. The exhale is to give yourself to God. It is that simple.

There is no need to search for God. Nor is there any power structure that can hold exclusive access to God/Truth. Religious life is participation in God and in our relatedness to everything that is happening, for everything is the Divine arising. When this understanding arrives into the world of orthodox religion, then we will have peace in our societies.

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Mark Whitwell

Mark Whitwell has worked as a Yoga teacher around the world for the last 45 years and is the author of 4 books on Yoga. He lives in Fiji with his wife Rosalind.