Muslim Woman Finds Allah in Yoga

Lisa Siregar
Pujiastuti Sindhu, founder of the Yoga Leaf Center in Bandung, West Java Province, has been studying the discipline since she suffered a panic attack in 1996 at the age of 18.
“I find it true when people say it’s our mind which destroys us the most. Yoga calms my mind. I can concentrate and it feels comfortable to talk,” the now 31-year-old said. “I was even too shy to speak in public.”
As a Muslim, however, Puji is contravening a religious ruling in order to reach her inner peace. In January 2009, the Indonesian Council of Ulema, or MUI, issued a fatwa, or religious decree, that made yoga that contains Hindu rituals such as chanting haram, or forbidden in Islam.
Indonesian Muslims are free to practice the discipline purely for health reasons but engaging in the Hindu chants can “weaken their Islamic faith,” according to Umar Shihab, a chairman of the MUI. Puji said it was not for her to decide whether the fatwa was right or wrong.
She tends to seek universal values, rather than differences, between the two religions. The spiritual experience of connecting with God through yoga should not be simply interpreted as a Hindu ritual, she said.
“Yoga is not a sport, it’s a knowledge.In general, yoga means unification between body, mind, spirit and God. It was developed about 5,000 years ago in the Himalayan mountains of north India, and was indeed created for spiritual purposes.”
Puji includes chanting when she practices yoga as she does not believe it undermines her faith in Allah. However, she strongly suggests that her students not do anything that might disturb their own faith.
“If one’s faith is disturbed by doing yoga, then don’t do it,” she said. “As for me, I believe that God in all religions is the same.”
Puji said that “Om Shanti,” the highest chant in yoga, is inseparable from the Hindu culture from where it came.
“Shanti means peace, and Om is indefinable, the highest one with no name,” Puji said. “For me, who else can that be [other than Allah]?
”When Puji first learned about yoga, in the late 1990s, it was not yet popular in Indonesia. She had tried popular breathing techniques before first learning about yoga from a book, “Yoga, Meaning, Value and Practice” by Phulgenda Sinha. She practiced yoga following the book for two years, then, in 1998, found a yoga master in Bandung, a Chinese-Indonesian named Yoga Murti. One of the first teachers of yoga in Indonesia, Murti has now taught the discipline for 50 years.
Puji says yoga has developed into nine different types for different purposes, from the gentle technique to more dynamic ones. Gentle yoga emphasizes breathing practice while dynamic yoga has fast movements. Puji focuses on gentle hatha yoga.“The trick with yoga is to find a suitable type for you,” she said.Some people find yoga boring and say it makes them sleepy, she said, but that is probably because they are energetic.
“If you are an energetic person, you might be interested in bikram yoga [also known as hot yoga], which is very dynamic,” she said.
Puji suggested that anyone new to yoga get as much information as possible about what type would best suit them.
“Yoga is a way to find solitude. If you’re doing it the wrong way, it won’t be beneficial for you.”