By Bina Shah
December 8, 2017
I first heard of yoga while I was growing up in Pakistan in the 1980s, with the arrival on the Karachi scene of a colourful personality called Professor Moiz Hussain. He had trained at the Yoga Institute in Mumbai, then branched out into alternative stress-reduction and healing techniques like Reiki from Japan, NLP (neurolinguistic programming) from California and qigong, with roots in China. His Institute of Mind Sciences and Classical Yoga attracted a certain type of Karachi woman — affluent and well travelled — who was interested in developing her mind and body. Slowly at first, one teacher after another emerged to offer classes. Still, they had to be careful: The 1980s was a time of rigorous Islamisation in Pakistan and cold hostility to India, and anything remotely associated with India or Hinduism was discouraged if not outlawed.
This particularly affected the arts, namely classical Indian dance; government officials banned public performances as both “vulgar” and “Indian”; Pakistani students of the art could not obtain visas to study under gurus in India, and local teachers had to immigrate to other countries because classical dance became so unpopular they could not attract students. (Only Kathak, with its Mughal origins in north-western India before partition, was looked upon with a less jaundiced eye than the unabashedly Hindu-flavoured Odissi or Bharatanatyam schools of dance.)
The way around this was to introduce yoga as a practice less spiritual than physical, but yoga classes in Karachi remained small, private and for a select few. Then, in the 1990s, when state-run television gave way to a profusion of private television channels, yoga found another outlet: breakfast and morning shows in which a physical activity segment aimed at housewives often included a 20-minute or half-hour yoga session. Sandwiched in between advice on the best foods for a baby and how to cook enticing meals for the household, a nonthreatening form of yoga — no extreme physical poses, just one that could be performed in modest clothing — was available to women in Pakistan with access to cable channels.
Viewers were encouraged to stretch and breathe to cultivate healthy bodies and minds, a goal not incompatible with the moderately conservative form of Islam practiced by 90 percent of Pakistanis. Yoga even began to come out into the open, with sessions held in public parks, where some teachers made mild comparisons between yogic meditation and Islamic reflection, or the poses in a simple sun salutation and the positions taken in Salat, a ritual Islamic prayer. This opened up yoga to middle-class, conservative Pakistanis who might have remained hostile to the practice had it been presented as a purely Hindu or Indian ascetic discipline.
Today, yoga is immensely popular in all cities of Pakistan; a yoga teacher named Shamshad Haider claims to run 50 yoga clubs in Punjab, and International Yoga Day has been celebrated in Pakistan for three years in a row. Yoga is practiced all the way from Chitral in the north to Karachi in the south. There’s a whole crop of younger teachers now equipped with training from India, Thailand and Bali, as well as from yoga schools in North America and Britain. Teachers at swank studios in Karachi attract students through Facebook pages and affiliations with the International Yoga Alliance.
Their classes incorporate styles from Hatha, Vinyasa flow, Ashtanga, even power yoga and Bikram yoga. They use the Sanskrit names for the poses interchangeably with the English ones, and both women-only and mixed classes are popular. Meanwhile, yoga still appears on television, in schools and in park sessions, with women meditating while wearing Shalwar Kameezes, or full Abayas and Hijabs, and men with long beards and Shalwar Kameezes performing sun salutations next to men in track pants and T-shirts.
Yoga purists would probably bristle at the attempt to dissociate yoga from Hinduism or India, but it’s not that different from what’s happening to yoga in the West, with its hot yoga studios and aerial yoga and Yoga Asana championships. It also reminds me of what has been happening to Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam. In the West, Sufism has been disconnected from its Muslim roots and presented as a universal movement of peace and tolerance, the 13th-century Persian mystic Rumi portrayed as a lovelorn poet singing of love rather than a conservative Islamic cleric bent on forging a fierce connection with his creator. A necessary sacrifice, perhaps, to spread the universal message of peace, tolerance and love.
Pakistan, which was amputated from India in 1947, then lured by the promise of power and richness coming from the Middle East, has never been able to decide whether its identity is Arab or South Asian. After decades of trying to identify with a purely Islamic heritage and history, some Pakistanis are finally recognizing that their heritage is unique, informed by strains of tradition and heritage from many geographical areas: Central Asia and Persia, as well as India and the Middle East.
Our current challenge is to reconnect with the many sources of our roots and heritage, while forging a new identity that will serve us well into the future. Pakistan recently unveiled a 1,700-year-old sleeping Buddha statue from an ancient Buddhist site in Bhamala, one of many that dot Pakistan’s north and northwest — a strong testament to its pre-Islamic heritage. Progressive historians — admittedly in the minority still — are trying to educate Pakistani students about their country’s ancient history and religions, after years of being told that Pakistan’s history begins only with the invasion of Sindh by the Arab conqueror Muhammed bin Qasim in A.D. 711.
As I practice yoga in the crisp air of a mild Karachi winter, gazing out to the Arabian Sea, I can’t help wondering whether some of this reconnection might come from yoga. We move in unison as our teacher calls out the Sanskrit names of the poses called Asanas. Then the call to prayer begins to ring out from a nearby mosque and we fall silent, listening to the sound of our own breaths and the time-old Arabic words of the Azaan. As soon as the practice is over, I’ll roll up my yoga mat and go find my prayer mat. I’ve never felt so integrated, so connected to my Islamic heritage and my South Asian roots.
Bina Shah is the author of several books of fiction, including, most recently, “A Season for Martyrs.”