Breathing deeply, Malaysian business woman Delilah, 49, concentrated on the warrior stance, before slowly going into the triangle, another yoga pose to strengthen balance.
“It relaxes me,” she said. “I know what is good for me and what is not.”
However, her country’s religious authorities take a different view. In November last year, Malaysia’s national fatwa council, which issues religious rulings, ruled yoga haram, which means forbidden for Muslims.
Yoga includes many elements of Hinduism and could weaken Muslims’ faith, the council said in its ruling, which is non-binding, but faithful Muslims usually adhere to such rules.
About 60 percent of Malaysia’s 25 million inhabitants are Muslims. According to the constitution, every ethnic Malay is Muslim by definition, only ethnic Indian or Chinese Malaysians can freely choose their religion.
But Delilah, who grew up a Muslim and has been doing yoga for five years, does not really care. She never regarded yoga as a religious activity, she said. “But even if it is, I would certainly embrace something that teaches us to love and respect our
Her teacher Ninie Ahmad, 27, a yogi and a Muslim, just opened her own yoga studio, Beyoga, in a posh Kuala Lumpur shopping mall. After some stretching exercises on a mat in front of a mirrored wall, the yogi gracefully assumed a new position.
“It is a big joke,” Ahmad said. The fatwa had triggered a lot of interest in yoga, she said.
For her, there is no conflict between yoga and Islam. “Ten years of practice made me a more profound Muslim,” she said. “I found out what body and mind can do together, it makes me appreciate my body and maker more.”
Statements like those do not sway the fatwa council, which fears yoga will erode its practitioners’ faith in Islam.
“Yoga combines physical exercise, religious elements, chanting and worshipping for the purpose of achieving inner peace and ultimately to be at one with god,” said council chairman Abdul Shukor Husin.
It is not necessary for Muslims to do yoga to relax, the council argues, they can pray to reach that state.
The edict is controversial in Malaysia, whose nine sultans constitute the country’s supreme religious authority.
Sharafuddin Idrish Shah, the sultan of Selangor state, criticized the council, saying its members should have consulted the sultans before issuing the fatwa.
For non-Muslim yoga teachers, the whole controversy is even less understandable.
“The issue came up out of the blue,” said Hoo, who was been running his yoga studio for four years. “Our classes are for fitness.”
Chanting mantras for him was just about the sound of vibration that cleanses the body and affects the mind and energy, a good way to relax one’s mind, he said.
Still, Hoo now leaves out the mantras in beginner’s classes, in case Muslims felt uncomfortable about them.
Ninety percent of Malaysia’s yoga practitioners are ethnic Chinese and Indians, and there is no indication that Muslims doing yoga have deserted their faith.
But Delilah said she knew some Muslims who have given up on yoga’s more meditative aspects after the fatwa. But all in all, yoga teachers are convinced that the activity’s popularity will grow further.
Ahmad thinks the whole controversy did one thing — stoke the interest in yoga among Malaysia’s Muslims and a huge market may open up.