Is yoga a religion? This debate has been going on for some time.
The ancient text that guides the basic teachings of yoga comes from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
But his teachings are often interpreted in different ways by yogis.
Some practitioners find specific references to religious beliefs in these words. But others interpret the Yoga Sutras as non-denominational.
Patanjali actually refers to a supreme being, using the word “Iswara”, which means “Lord” or omnipotent.
Still, there is plenty of room for interpretation on both sides of the debate.
To a large extent, the Yoga Sutras define a moral way of life that includes respect for all people.
It also includes working on the discipline of yoga as a physical practice.
While there may be some obvious spiritual meaning behind Patanjuli’s words, yoga practitioners are not required to adhere to any particular belief or religious ritual.
So, what is the point of contention between yoga as a religion and yoga as a physical exercise?
yoga as a religion
yoga as a religion
In the Yoga Sutras there are moral and ethical rules that a yogi must abide by, called yamas and niyamas.
They are the first two steps in the eight limbs of yoga.
These eight limbs were eventually recognized as the path to enlightenment, or “samadhi,” which means “union with God.”
The fifth and final Niyama is called “Ishvara Pranidhana”.
This can be loosely translated as meditation on the divine essence or surrender to the Absolute.
The Niyamas leave little room for interpretation, reminding us that the basic practice of yoga should be mind-conscious.
But does this have any effect on the way yoga is practiced today?
Gary Kraftsow, founder and director of the American Viniyoga Institute in Oakland, California, sat down with Yoga Magazine to discuss the debate.
“Traditionally, yoga has never been secular. It has always been about spirituality, and spirituality has never been separated from religion,” he said.
Kraftsow later asserted that modern interpretations of yoga are largely secular, but felt it was important to acknowledge the practice’s religious and spiritual origins.
On the other hand, bhakti yoga is a branch of non-worldly yoga.
Bhakti yoga practitioners dedicate their practice to a personal form of God.
In general, it is seen as a path to self-realization in which one strives to experience the oneness of all things involved in asana practice.
These spiritual insights used in bhakti yoga are easily identifiable in the asana styles, as many still contain elements of earlier spiritual meanings.
Sun salutations are a common set of poses used in yoga to awaken the body.
But the collection itself was created in homage to Surya, the Hindu sun god.
Due to their origins with Hindu deities, certain poses and poses in yoga cannot deny the spiritual and religious connections that persist in the asana practice.
Whether or not practitioners incorporate these spiritual connections into their asana practice, yoga is stigmatized in certain communities for this reason.
Yoga is banned in predominantly Christian communities and environments because of its close ties to Hinduism.
Many Christian groups consider Hinduism to be dogmatic and corrupt.
They found the physical practice of yoga inconsistent with their Christian beliefs.
Others, outside or within the Christian faith, find this response unaware of the health benefits that yoga offers. But it still raises the following questions:
If you don’t know what yoga stands for, is it a spiritual experience?
When did yoga become a series of poses?
yoga as a physical practice
yoga as a physical practice
Today, yoga is a common physical activity, included in many different gym memberships.
Most yoga classes take place in gyms, which are far from sacred places.
In fact, for most people, yoga is all about controlled breathing and proper posture.
For some, it’s purely physical exercise.
Recently, more and more people around the world are recognizing the health and well-being benefits of yoga.
But few of these people see yoga as a religion to devote to.
It is impossible for yoga to get rid of all forms of spirituality because it still promotes the mind-body connection. But many practitioners and teachers have found ways to downplay or eliminate much of yoga’s spiritual dimension in order to make it accessible to people of all backgrounds.
Some may recall that the use of Sanskrit terms is directly related to yoga’s religious connection, but Sanskrit is a language, not a religion. It is more suitable to use Latin to describe ancient myths.
Yoga and its Sanskrit term have monopolized modern buzzwords.
It is easy to find pillows with “Namaste” embroidered in the store.
The downplaying of the spiritual meaning of yoga in the West has turned it into a commodity that can be bought. Consequently, those committed to yoga’s spiritual roots and traditions are not happy with the direction it has taken.
In the early 2000s, a group of Native Americans started a movement called Take Back Yoga to raise awareness of yogic beliefs and traditions.
The movement, which did not urge yogis to commit to Hinduism, was quickly misunderstood.
The Simplistic Debate About Yoga as a Religion