Muslim institutions have become critical of the spread of yoga in Turkey but they have not yet made a formal pronouncement banning the practice, although an official statement is expected in the near future.
At a workshop on the attitudes of Turkish State actors and Islamic authorities towards new religiosities that took place at the German Orient-Institut in Istanbul Feb. 20-22, which Religion Watch attended. Aysuda Kölemen (Kemerburgaz University) paid attention to Muslim polemics against yoga in the country.
This reaction has followed the rapid popularization of yoga in the 2000s, including advertisements by celebrities on television. During that decade, Turkish media gave yoga much positive coverage due to its alleged health benefits. It was advertised more as a kind of sports activity than a philosophy.
However, negative decisions by Islamic authorities in other countries started to give rise to concerns. In 2004, there was a fatwa (religious ruling) against yoga in Egypt. Some isolated criticism followed, but elite religious scholars in Turkey commented that there was no issue as long as yoga was practiced as a form of exercise, without delving into philosophical aspects.
In 2008, there was a Malaysian fatwa against yoga to which more attention was paid, according to Kölemen. In the journal of the Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), a powerful Turkish State institution, a series of articles critical of new religiosities was published in May 2009, placing yoga in a negative context. There is not yet a written fatwa regarding yoga on the Diyanet website, but a formal position is currently being drafted and budget has been allocated for that purpose since last fall. Proponents of yoga emphasize that it is not a religion, but a way of life, and no rival for Islam.
They state that one can practice yoga and be a good Muslim. They even make efforts to publicly distance themselves from “fake yoga centers” being used for converting people to Hinduism. But this has not convinced critics, who wonder why people would need yoga, since they have Islamic prayer available as a spiritual practice.
The articles published in the Diyanet journal in 2009 approach yoga as an alternative to the Islamic path. They stress that a lifestyle or philosophy cannot be separated from faith. The success of yoga is perceived as a sign that secularized Turks are losing their Islamic tradition and consequently turn to New Age beliefs for filling a spiritual void.
Thus yoga is not an innocent practice, but will finally turn people away from Islam. Kölemen identified some isolated Islamic scholars who are supportive of yoga, especially a professor at the Ankara School of Divinity, who does not only consider yoga as compatible with Islam, but thinks that it can lead people to salvation.
According to this thinking, as a method for reaching God, it does not matter if it is rooted in another tradition. Such views are not typical ones, and the expected ruling of the Presidency of Religious Affairs on yoga may pose a challenge to yoga teachers in Turkey, unless it accepts to differentiate between yoga as physical exercise and yoga as a spiritual path.