Is Yoga a Religion? 🧐
Is Yoga a religion? When I mention Yoga, I'm not referring to the popularized version practiced in Western yoga studios, which focuses mainly on physical poses (asanas). Instead, think of asanas as just one branch of the vast tree that represents the entire Yoga culture.
So, does this broader Yoga, which includes asanas, breathing exercises, meditation, and more, qualify as a religion? The answer isn't clear-cut and varies depending on who you ask. If you were to ask me, I would say no. Allow me to elaborate on this.
Yoga is an ancient practice that originated as a spiritual discipline. Throughout thousands of years, it evolved to encompass both spiritual and physical aspects. To understand what I mean by spirituality, let's take a step back. Spirituality involves seeking insight, wisdom, and a sense of purpose, which can lead to finding meaning and inner peace. It can also foster the development of faith, which Neil deGrasse Tyson defines as belief in the absence of evidence. Additionally, yoga "spirituality" has been shown can cultivate compassion and happiness.
In the early days, practitioners from various faiths and religions, such as Sufism (the mystical branch of Islam), incorporated yoga into their practices to enhance their own faith. I delve deeper into this topic in my book. So, since spirituality involves seeking something greater, individuals from different faiths can engage in yoga (and do), and those with little or no faith may discover a newfound sense of faith. Therefore, yoga is not a religion, but it can become a part of someone's religious practice or even lead them towards a religious path.
While it's not always the case, individuals who do not have a religion often find themselves drawn towards Hinduism, as yoga and Hinduism are deeply interconnected. My theory, to keep it brief, is that the various religions comprising Hinduism (which is technically a geographical term) emerged from the spiritual discipline of yoga. In yoga, strictly speaking, Shiva and Parvati are not the deities they are portrayed as in Hinduism. They represent Adi yoga, the first yogi, and his consort and first yoga student, Parvati. Through yoga, Parvati experiences something transcendent and far beyond our ordinary understanding of life. It is argued that this experience, being one with the cosmos, can be equated with being one with or becoming a part of God. This may sound religious but stems from our Abrahamic concept of God. If you follow my reasoning, you'll see that Shiva, as the first yogi, did not provide any specific philosophy. He merely offered techniques through which individuals can find their own meaning in life. Philosophy was subsequently developed by humans, attempting to theorise about the meaning of life or what Shiva and Parvati experience in their reality.
Think of Shiva, not as a philosopher, but as a brilliant scientist. His teachings were like a cutting-edge research method, unveiling the secrets of the universe. This is why yoga can be seen as a scientific discipline, a powerful methodology that goes beyond cultural or religious boundaries. It's like the iPhone that works for everyone, no matter where they come from or what they believe in.
It's important to remember that religions are characterised by their specific sets of beliefs. The only difference between one religion and another lies in their beliefs. Yoga, on the other hand, does not require faith in anything. Shiva advises practicing and experiencing for oneself. Just as science encourages experimentation, yoga encourages experience. Science involves experiencing something without the need for belief.
Think of religions as different video games. Each game has its own unique storyline and characters, shaping its identity. But yoga is different. It's not a game that requires you to believe in anything specific. It's more like an open-ended virtual reality experience where you can explore and discover for yourself.
You could argue that the only prerequisite for yoga is the courage to experience. Shiva doesn't demand belief; he requests a leap of faith. However, this faith is not directed towards something external; it is faith in ourselves.
Religions are belief systems, but yoga is not. Yoga is a systematic and scientific methodology for experimenting and seeking the truth of life. All that is required is the capacity to experiment. Only the courage to explore is necessary, nothing else.
Of course, all of this hinges on accepting that the discourse between Shiva and Parvati is the foundational text for all things related to yoga. However, not everyone agrees on a primary source or foundational text, which is why there is so much uncertainty surrounding the nature of yoga. This lack of consensus sets yoga apart from major religions, which typically have a definitive foundational text, such as the Bible or the Quran. While disagreements over translations may exist, the fact remains that these texts are considered the basis of knowledge for their respective religions. This is not the case in yoga.
Furthermore, the title of this blog itself sheds light on the issue. You wouldn't write a blog asking if Islam is a religion or merely a spiritual practice. However, we often pose this question when it comes to yoga, implying that there are numerous grey areas that categorise yoga as a spiritual practice rather than a religious one. From my experience, most people who argue that yoga is religious have a limited understanding of its deep core principles.
I understand that this can be pretty confusing. The Bhagavad Gita, which means "the song of God," is chanted in yoga teacher trainings worldwide (ok, maybe not chanted, but you know what I mean). Images of Krishna can be seen in many yoga studios, and the Om symbol has long been associated with Hinduism. However, as I mentioned earlier, the line between yoga and Hinduism is fine. In many cases, the two intertwine, requiring careful attention and study to distinguish between them.
To conclude, yoga is not a religion, but it can be part of someone's religious practice. However, that doesn't mean it has to be a religion for you. Yogically speaking, Shiva and Parvati are not gods and goddesses to whom we offer prayers. The image of Shiva in our main studio is there to honour Adi Yogi, the first yogi. Similarly, I have an image of Muhammad Ali in my personal training room, but that doesn't make him a god to me; it's a tribute to the trailblazers.
If you attend a yoga class that seems religious, remember that it doesn't necessarily mean it is or must be religious. You can take from yoga as little or as much as you want. If you already have your own religion, you can take what you need from yoga and disregard the rest. I little book of Yoga that I own from 1956 says; "fear not (when attending a class), for yoga graciously permits you to savour only the morsels that nourish your spirit, whilst leaving behind the rest
Just as the realm of science knows no boundaries, yoga, too, transcends cultural divides and stands as a universal truth. Yoga is simply a science, and science is universal.
If you are interested in learning more, you may consider our Yoga Teacher Training. It's not just for those who wish one day to teach, its also for the curious. Those who wish to just learn a little more on all things Yoga.