Is Yoga Religion?

Since I began yoga teacher training one month ago, spirituality has become a topic of significance in my life not only for me but also for those around me. It has come to my attention that some people have the misconception that yoga is a religion, others wonder if yoga is a sacrilege and some are just curious about the effect it will have on their spirituality. I have noticed that yoga sparks many different views in many different people.

There is a vast amount of information and experiences to be gained from the study of yoga. To sum up an ancient philosophy in this short piece would not be possible. However, there seems to be much misunderstanding about yoga and its relation to spirituality.

Someone recently made a statement that yoga is likened to devil worship as those who practice must certainly worship idols. As a yoga practitioner, I take no offense to this because I can see that this person is unaware of what she does not know and rather than accept that, she made a judgment based in ignorance.

In everyday life, we take action and most of us make choices and statements often based in ignorance. We do not even realize we do this but until we can see clearly, we will continue to do so. Consider an argument with a spouse or partner; the argument would not exist if there was perfect clarity and understanding in one or both parties. Often our anger arises from past experiences and what we expect to happen.

Another person recently made a joke that I worshipped yoga and must smoke pot or that was the gist of it. I still don’t fully understand the correlation, but often in jest there is some deeper thought in the jester.

The fact that some people get spiritual benefits from yoga can be hard to understand for someone who does not practice. They may find it unusual, strange or wacky and assume it must be some kind of religion.

Finally, a friend recently asked me if doing yoga would contradict her religious practices.

There is much misinformation about the practice of yoga and I want to make a feeble attempt to clear it up.

Yoga is not a religion. There is no worship of a particular deity. One may find a statue or painting of a Hindu god or a goddess, such as Shiva or Ganesh, in a yoga studio. They may find a Buddha sitting in lotus position or smell incense burning. These things should not cause any alarm or concern as these objects are meant to inspire. They represent something that we can fix our gaze either within or without. Different gods and goddesses hold different meanings and inspirations through stories so that each time we practice, we may gain something new.

In yoga, we often chant mantras and Om.  Mantras help us, like physical objects, to focus our attention onto something other than our flurry of thoughts. Om in the Hindu tradition is the sound of the life force or the universe. It is a sound to connect us together. But again, one does not have to be Hindu to chant Om nor does chanting Om go against any other religion just as saying Amen does not necessarily mean one is religious.

Yoga is about moving forward, about being better than we were yesterday and about discovery, of the self and of the world. Yogis do not worship idols but rather learn and gain inspiration from the symbolism of the stories.  One does not have to be Hindu to find value in the stories.

Regarding the next misconception, yogis are actually less likely than the average person to smoke pot. This was just a silly comment from a neighbor but the truth is, a yoga practitioner is probably less likely to smoke pot or anything else as they become more in tune with their body and mind; they likely would not want the altered state from marijuana. The yogi would be more interested in freeing their body and mind from that desire rather than indulge it.  Cleansing the body and mind is the first niyama, the second limb of the eight limbs of yoga. Engaging in substances to alter the mind in a way that makes it more clouded than before would not be a yogi’s aim.

Sometimes yogis discuss their experiences with each other and for those around who do not practice, it may seem wacky.  Many think of yoga as strictly stretching and that is fine. Most likely, those same people would find more to it after a few sessions as they became more in tune with their bodies and quieted their minds. But for others who have never practiced and assume yoga is just stretching might be a bit baffled to hear a yogi speak of levitating experiences in meditation or in the process of getting to meditation known as dharana, the focused concentration on an object such as a statue, or dhyana, the connection of the object of focus and the self. When one clears the mind of the daily minutiae and the mental clutter, we may feel removed from the senses (pratyhara) and as we deepen that practice, we may feel light and disconnected from our small self yet more connected to the universe realizing that our big Self or our soul is bigger than our bodies and our daily habits.

This connection to our inner light that we feel when we disconnect from the grind of life is ultimately a connection to our self and the universe. One could certainly call that God and that is okay. A spiritual seeker who practices organized religion could easily experience the same thing either in yoga practice or through prayer. There is spiritual benefit to yoga but it is not a religion. It is about finding the true self that resides deep within all of us so that we may discover who we are in the grand scheme of life. It is about being a better person to ourselves and to others. How could there be any harm in that?

One should not feel practicing yoga is a sacrilege. Yoga is universal. Anybody can practice and everyone can benefit. For those with religious practices, yoga can deepen their faith. When we look within and quiet our minds, we can see more clearly, we can feel more connected and we can live with freedom and lightness.

My yoga practice started with little expectation but grew into something very deep and personal. I wanted time to myself when my daughter started kindergarten and my son was no longer nursing or in the tiring early days of babyhood. I wanted to move my body and strengthen it but also have some time of quiet. Then over the next couple of years I had difficult times with family relationships that yoga helped me sort through and when my home flooded six months ago, I believe yoga helped me to cope with that life altering event. For me, yoga helped me to connect more deeply with myself by learning first how to breathe and notice my breath. It helped me also to connect to something much bigger than myself by virtue of letting go of the smaller daily nuances that change constantly. It helped me to not become absorbed by the roller coaster of emotions and thoughts that occupy our minds.  Yoga is not my religion but rather a better way of living.

“The ultimate goal of yoga is to always observe things accurately, and therefore never act in a way that will make us regret our actions later.”

.~T.K.V. Desikachar,son and student of T Krishnamacharya who made yoga available to the world

13 thoughts on “Is Yoga Religion?

  1. Excellent. In my experience, those who have considered yoga a form of religion (at best) or a form of devil worship (at worst) are those who make no distinction between religion and spirituality.

    You’ve looked at the difference with clarity in this post. Well done.

    Also, like you’ve explored in this post, yoga can mean different things to different people or situations. Sometimes, it’s just physical, sometimes just mental, or spirutual, and oftentimes a combination of all of those aspects.

    A wonderful post!

  2. I never even knew the depth of the spiritual connection until I started practicing, and I can see where some of the misconception comes from, and Dr. West, when we were doing a study of the Hindu gods as part of the practice, was really good at explaining how the Christians in the audience could take it as a story, and gleam lessons from the story (without converting to Hindu religion) (or without “worshiping” other gods). She was very open about it, and honestly, setting my intention is nothing more than a little prayer 🙂

    I think you hit it on the head when you said that “There is spiritual benefit to yoga but it is not a religion”

    • Thanks Kate. I agree, they are stories just as non-Christians can gain much insight from the bible as well. I love setting an intention, its like a little promise to ourselves.

  3. I appreciate your effort to help the layman understand, and I learned some things as well. I admit that my early years of yoga were simply about the physical side. It is only in the last few years that I feel I have actually been practicing the mind-body-spirit connection. Yoga has helped me learn about, and be more comfortable with, myself. I would not call that religion, but I would certainly call it spiritual.

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