These Muslim yoga practitioners are spreading awareness about the practice and its benefits in their community and using yoga to bridge the gap between India’s Muslims and Hindus.
Mohammad Imran Salat (Ahmedabad) (Featured above)
Before I trained to become a yoga teacher, I was a 3D animator. I discovered yoga while working. The building where I worked had a yoga studio on the floor before my office so every morning, when I was on my way to the office, I saw the yoga class and I was fascinated watching people practise asana. Work started at 9 am, so I decided to join the 8 am class and try this practice but the day I decided to join the class, the studio shut down. I had to wait another six months to get a chance to practise yoga. The Ahmedabad Management Association was hosting a lecture on the Upanishads. I attended this lecture and learned about bhakti, karma and jñāna yoga. That changed everything for me. I decided to quit my job and dedicate my life to yoga.
I started studying asanas at the Yoga Sadhan Ashram in Ahmedabad and a few years later, I did a TTC at the Sivananda Ashram. The TTC is a month-long course but it made me realise that one month is not enough time to qualify as a yoga teacher. When I got back to Ahmedabad, I joined the Lakulish Yoga University in Ahmedabad for a three-year degree in yoga. When I decided to pursue yoga, my father was deeply concerned about my well-being. He couldn’t understand why I wanted to leave a steady job to learn this ‘Hindu’ practice. My family has always supported my decisions and when I explained the benefits of yoga and how deeply this practice affects me, they started to warm up to the idea of me being a yoga teacher. They saw how happy it made me and that was enough for them.
While my family supported my decision, I received a lot of criticism from my friends and acquaintances. Unhappily, yoga has become associated with one religion and it’s difficult to make people understand that the practice really doesn’t have anything to do with institutionalised religion. I understood this only after I started practising and feeling the benefits of the practice. At first, it annoyed and disheartened me when my friends would pass snide remarks about my yoga practice, but I didn’t give up and I decided not to abandon my friends either. Instead, I wanted to convince them about the benefits of yoga and break their prejudice.
I remained true to yoga and every time someone questioned me about being a Muslim practising yoga, I made every effort to try to talk to them and explain why this practice is a human practice and has nothing to do with religion. I remind my Muslim friends that when they’re unwell, it doesn’t matter to them that their doctor is Christian, Hindu or Muslim. They go a doctor because the person is qualified to make them feel better. It doesn’t matter which religion or caste the doctor belongs to. I ask them to view yoga the same way. How does it matter whether the practice came from a Hindu, Muslim or Christian? What matters is that it works.
Over the past few years, all my friends have come to accept and even support my decision to be a student and teacher of yoga. They have seen how this practice has transformed my life without making me any less of a Muslim, and that has inspired many of them to take up yoga. Such is the transformational power of this practice. At present, most of my students are Muslim, and I’m happy to share that the number of Muslims practising yoga is on the rise. Even conservative Muslim women are willing to try a yoga class as long as they can maintain purdah and study with a female teacher. This to me is progress.
Of course, it’s not easy or simple to break generations of prejudice especially when religious and political leaders use our faith and religion to turn us against one another. But, I truly believe that Muslims and Hindus in India can coexist in harmony if we only learn to talk to each other and respect each other. My yoga practice has enabled me to form beautiful relationships with Hindus and gives us common ground to connect. If we start connecting with each other, I don’t think our religious and political leaders can use communal disharmony to divide India or Indians. It’s up to us to make that change.
Naseem Sheikhnia (Iran and India)
I moved from Iran to Mysore to study law. When I first moved to Mysore, I associated yoga only with meditation. I thought yoga is a practice where people are required to sit and remain still. I had no idea about asanas or the vastness of the subject. I didn’t even speak English when I first moved here. I learned English while living in India.
One of my friends at university was from Mongolia, and she knew a lot more about yoga. She would keep talking to me about asanas and insisted that we try a Mysore-style class. We were students and couldn’t afford to attend any of the bigger shalas so for a while, we just kept talking about it. We finally got the opportunity to practise ashtanga when a western couple living in Mysore needed help to run their online business. They were both authorised ashtanga teachers but the wife was pregnant so she needed some help with her business. My friend knew the couple so she said that the two of us would help them manage their business and in return, they gave us free ashtanga classes. After my first class, I knew this practice would become a part of my life.
I have never faced any prejudice about practising yoga in India or even in Iran. My family are liberal, open-minded Muslims and support all my decisions. They understood how deeply ashtanga helped me to connect with my inner being and practising yoga didn’t make me any less of a Muslim. I don’t relate to people as Hindus, Muslims or Christians. My family always encouraged me to form human connections and yoga is a human practice. Even in Iran, when I practice, I am encouraged to do so.
I feel blessed to have such a liberal family. In fact, I don’t even pray namaaz the conventional Muslim way. We believe that Allah is everywhere and everyone belongs to Allah. We also believe that Allah has all the knowledge of the universe. If that is so, I don’t agree with the conventional way of praying. I do not want to sit on a masala and pray to Allah in Arabic. I want to talk to Allah in my language, Farsi. Practising yoga has only reaffirmed my beliefs. This practice helps us to form human connections and expands our minds and our thinking.
I hope more people practise yoga and I hope more people realise that this practice is about connecting to the self and to the God within us. At times, I do come across Muslims who think yoga is only for Hindus. To them I say, if it makes you uncomfortable, don’t do it. To force a person to do yoga is the opposite of yoga. One has to be given the freedom to choose and practice ashtanga in complete awareness and surrender at the same time.
Sophia Ann French (Mumbai)
My mother is a Muslim, my father is Roman Catholic, my partner is Hindu, and I’m confused. Just joking. My faith is God in absolute. But which God? It doesn’t matter. I grew up in a home where every faith and religion is treated equally and with respect. My mum and dad had to fight with their families to get married because at the time, it was unacceptable for a Muslim to marry a Christian. Thankfully, true love prevailed and my parents were united in marriage despite all odds.
Religion or God was never forced upon me and my parents never told me to follow a particular faith. For them, it was enough that I believed in God. When I started practising yoga 20 years ago, I decided to follow the path of Sanātana Dharma, and yoga became my faith. While I never faced any prejudice at home, my childhood was tainted with mockery and intolerance. Growing up in India with a name like Sophie French and being the product of an intercaste marriage brought me a cascade of derogatory remarks from both Hindus and Muslims. This prejudice affected me a great deal when I was growing up and through my teens.
I was determined to find out what made belonging to just one religion so special and started studying the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, Vedanta and that brought me to yoga. One of the worst situations of my life gave me the greatest gift of my life — yoga. I have studied, analysed and lived the practice for two decades and I realise that it has nothing to do with being a Hindu, a Muslim, or a Christian.
I didn’t stop at Vedanta and yoga either, I expanded my practice and my learning to Buddhism and meditation. India has changed a lot since the 1980s and in this new India, I’m happy to observe a more tolerant, accepting shift in caste and faith. I’m grateful for the prejudice that was inflicted upon me as it gave me the strength and inspiration to pursue Vedanta and yoga. Intolerance and hatred are forms of ignorance and the purpose of Sanātana Dharma is to remove this avidya (ignorance).
India’s beauty lies in her diversity. We’re a multilingual country that worships a multitude of Gods and Goddesses and welcomes everyone who needs refuge. I’m a proud Indian and I love my country. It really shouldn’t matter which God I believe in or what my surname is. I was born in India, I will die here and while I’m alive, I will live here with my head held high and my heart filled with joy.