Is Yoga a Religion?
The following is an essay I wrote for my old Karuna Blog, back in 2006 and which then appeared in the Asian journal, Namaskar, and later on the Ashville Yoga Center blog. I've never posted it here, however, and am prompted to do so in response to the question again popping up in reaction to a group of parents in Encinitas suing the School system for teaching yoga in school! If you are not familiar with this story, you can read about it at It's All Yoga, Baby.
When people ask if yoga is a religion, it first makes sense to ask them what they mean by “religion.” If what they mean is a creed of beliefs and dogma that must be adhered to, according to an established institution – most usually hierarchical and authoritarian – then the short answer is “No.” But if we take a deeper look into the original meaning of the word “religion,” we find that its root is in the Latin word religio which means “to tie or bind back”. It was a word used in horticulture, used to refer to the binding and pruning of branches in order to create a stronger and more aesthetic tree of shrub.
In this sense, we find a similarity with the original meaning of the word “yoga,” which comes from the root yuj, which means to “yoke or to harness.” The English word yoke is actually derived from the Sanskrit, and both connotations of that word apply to the word yoga. It can mean “union,” or “to join together,” and it can also mean “to harness” or “to restrain,” and so by extension it has come to signify spiritual endeavor, especially the disciplining of the mind and the senses. Free of its institutional forms and meanings, the similar meaning of these two words point to the essentially religious purpose of all yoga practice.
Yoga, as such, is the generic name for the various Indian philosophies and practices (disciplines), the purpose of which is to liberate the practitioner from the existential human situation described as duhkha. This is the experience of discontent, dissatisfaction and unease that we feel in subtle and not so subtle ways. Duhkha is often translated as “suffering,” but it was a word used to describe an axle that was not centered in its wheel. It is this sense of being “uncentered” or “imbalanced” in our way of life that is meant by duhkha. Yoga is what Georg Feurstein calls “the psychospiritual technology specific to the great civilization of India.”
Now, out of this greater Yoga Tradition emerged what we may call the three major Yogic religious-cultural complexes of India: Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. So, in the give-and-take that is a natural process of history, the teachings of Yoga became suffused with concepts that are shared with these three religious cultures. Yet none of these cultures are “religions” in the way defined in my opening paragraph. That is to say, none of them require adherence to a set creed. Indeed, there are many – even contradictory teachings – that are to be found in any of these three “religions.” Also, none of them are centralized under a totalistic institutional authority.
Perhaps the main sticking point for many practitioners in contemporary non-Indian cultures in accepting Yoga practice are the teachings of karma and reincarnation or rebirth and the many deities that are spoken about. Well, there are Yoga masters throughout history who have rejected these ideas and the notion of deities in Yoga are more akin to the idea of angels or even more abstractly as similar to Jungian archetypes of the collective unconscious.
Basically, all forms of Yoga agree that we as humans have not even begun to tap our fullest potential. All forms of Yoga assert that we are mistaken in identifying ourselves with our body, thoughts and emotions, and posit that we are something much more – boundless, limitless and unconditionally free. Yoga doesn’t expect us nor want us to just accept this idea on faith, but challenges us to test the hypothesis for ourselves by experimenting through asana, meditation, pranayama and other yogic technologies. In this sense, Yoga is a kind of science, where the practitioner is both laboratory and researcher. Rather than accept anything on faith, we are free to allow our personal experience and realization to shape our understanding.
For this reason, Yoga can and in fact has been practiced by people with widely varying philosophies and beliefs. One can practice from the perspective of a believer in God who wishes to devote her life to honoring and surrendering to God, or as an atheistic humanist intent on maximizing his fullest human potential of compassion, joy, and peace. Some believe in a personal God, while others believe in a more impersonal Ultimate Reality, and others have no interest in such metaphysical speculation. Yoga is simply and primarily a tool for exploring the depths of human nature, of diving deep into the mysteries of the mind and of the body.
Whether you identify yourself as a religious or spiritual person, as a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, an atheist, agnostic or whatever, Yoga can aid all persons in becoming a more peaceful, calm, loving, compassionate, authentic person. The practices of Yoga help to balance the nervous system, support the immune system, strengthen the skeletal and muscular system and help calm the mind. More than that, who can find fault with the yogic recommendations to live a virtuous life dedicating oneself to nonharming, truthfulness, compassion, tolerance, generosity and freedom from greed, anger and ignorance?
Ultimately, through the consistent and dedicated practice of true Yoga – which is essentially meditative – whoever takes up the practice of Yoga will find themselves less conditioned and reactive in their life, and freer and more creative in their response to all their experiences and relationships. And that is the greatest gift of a Yoga practice – liberation from our conditioned patterns of thinking and behavior – freedom!