Indonesian Muslims banned from practicing yoga

Jakarta, Indonesia -- Indonesia's top Islamic body banned Muslims from practicing yoga that contains Hindu rituals like chanting, the chairman of the group said Monday, citing concerns it would corrupt their faith.

Cleric Ma'ruf Amin said the Ulema Council issued the ruling following weekend talks attended by hundreds of theological experts in Padang Panjang, a village in West Sumatra province. Though not legally binding, most devout Muslims will likely adhere to it because they consider ignoring a religious decree sinful.

The ban, which follows a similar edict in neighboring Malaysia, was passed after investigators visited gyms and private yoga classes across the country to see what effect rituals like chanting mantras might have on Muslims.

Clerics determined that it could weaken their faith, but yoga practitioners and some scholars sharply disagreed Monday.

"They shouldn't be worrying about this," Jamilah Konny Fransiska, a yoga teacher on the northern island of Batam, said of the Islamic body. She said she knew very few people who incorporated Hindu elements with yoga.

"They should be focusing strictly on religious matters," she said.

Amin said those who perform the ancient Indian exercise without Hindu rituals will not be affected by the ban.

Indonesia is a secular country of 235 million people, 90 percent of whom are Muslim. Though most practice a moderate form of the faith, a vocal extremist fringe has gained strength, at times even influencing government policy.

In recent years, yoga _ a blend of physical and mental exercises aimed at integrating mind, body and spirit _ has been increasingly practiced in gyms and dedicated centers around the world.

In the United States, where it has become so popular that many public schools began offering it in gym classes, yoga has also come under fire.

Some Christian fundamentalists and even secular parents have argued that yoga's Hindu roots conflict with Christian teachings and that using it in school might violate the separation of church and state.

Egypt's highest theological body also banned yoga for Muslims in 2004.

Indonesia's Ulema Council _ which wrapped up its annual meeting for the issuing of fatwas late Sunday _ decided to investigate the need for a yoga ban after Malaysia's top Islamic body issued its fatwa late last year.