Is Yoga an Art, a Science, or a Religion?

Via Ramesh Bjonnes
on Dec 18, 2010
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On John Friend’s website, you will find the following sentence describing the Anusara Yoga Teacher Traning manual: “The most clear and comprehensive book on the art and science of teaching yoga available.”


Let us take a look at the meaning of the word science. Many people who argue that yoga is not a science use the word science in a rather reductionist and limited way.

In other words, they subscribe to “scientism,” the reductionist idea that science is only related to any of the branches of natural or physical sciences and does not in any way apply to “a particular branch of systematic knowledge,” such as yoga, for example. As we shall see, the dictionary does not define the word science in such a narrow way.

Here is the dictionary definition of the word science: /ˈsaɪəns/

1. a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws: the mathematical sciences.

2. systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.

3. any of the branches of natural or physical science.

4. systematized knowledge in general.

5. knowledge, as of facts or principles; knowledge gained by systematic study.

6. a particular branch of knowledge.

7. skill, esp. reflecting a precise application of facts or principles; proficiency.

The communal and personal practice of yoga for the past 5-7000 years certainly applies to most of these definitions.

Definition number 2): yoga is definitely a “systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.”

Indeed, this is what distinguishes yoga from being a mere religion, a

dogma, a belief system, because over thousands of years, yogis observed animals, themselves, and the natural world in order to gain knowledge about the body, the senses, the breath, the way certain movements effected their health and wellbeing.

In other words, hatha yogis are scientists. The sages of old said: if you practice this kind of exercise, you will be slimmer, you will be stronger, more flexible, and best of all, you will be able to sit for a long time without discomfort during meditation.

Moreover, the yogis observed and documented: If you eat this herb (brahmi), your concentration will improve, if you eat this herb (ashvaganda), you will gain strength and stamina.

They gained all this knowledge not through belief and superstition but through systematic observation of their physical bodies and the environment. Hence yogis were definitely scientists.

It was indeed through the scientific efforts of trial and error that they discovered that some foods were good for contemplation (brahmi) and others were not so good (garlic!)

Definition number 3): yoga is a “branch of natural or physical science” for basically the very same reasons as I outlined above.

Definition number 4): Yoga is part of “systematic knowledge in general.”

One of the things that struck me when I first started practicing yoga and meditation was how systematic it was. The same goes for Ayurveda. I studied Ayurveda at California College of Ayurveda with an engineer friend, and one of his main observations was how systematic, rational and logical ayurveda was!

When I started yoga in India, nobody told me to simply believe this or that. Instead I was presented with a body of very rational, systematic forms of knowledge. In addition, I was told: try this out in this and that way, and if you do, you will experience this and that. And indeed I did. And millions of others have had the same experience.

So yoga is very systematic, very scientific. No religious or New Age mumbo jumbo, only good Old Age wisdom and rationality.

Are you not convinced already? Do I need to continue? Well, let us just conclude by saying that yoga is also 5) “knowledge, as of facts or principles; knowledge gained by systematic study. 6. a particular branch of knowledge. 7. skill, esp. reflecting a precise application of facts or principles; proficiency.”

Anybody serious about their yoga practice knows quite well that yoga is all of those things.


Well, that’s easy. Just take a look at 92 year old Iyengar in one of his spectacular and artfully executed poses and you will realize that all yogis worthy of their yogi pants are artists.

Or take a look at John Friend or Sean Corn. Great artists of body and mind.

And if you practice meditation, you will quickly realize it is both a science and an art. Yogic meditation is a science because it was developed through repeated experimentation and observation, and an art because in order to do it deeply and blissfully, you must apply your own imagination and creativity.

Or just take a look at a Buddha statue. No greater art than that image, that pose of deep sensuous silence.


Well, that one is also easy. Just pick up a copy of Yoga Journal or take a class at any of your city’s many yoga studios and you will quickly learn that yoga is a great fitness program unlike any ever designed before or after.


Yoga is not a religion. Yoga is a spiritual path. The fact is, you can hail from any religion and still practice yoga. No problem. Why? As I demonstrated initially, yoga is more a science and an art than a religion. Yoga is an empirical path of body-mind-spirit transformation. That simple.

I know that some people only practicing hatha yoga believe that the rest of yoga—the philosophy, the chakras, the meditation, the ayurvedic stuff—is all about religion. But that is not correct.

Many writers on yoga say that yoga comes from the Vedas. But is this correct? Yes and no.

We can divide the Vedas into two portions: the karmakáńda [ritualistic portions of the Vedas] and the jiṋánakáńda [philosophical portions].

The karmakanda teachings are the oldest portions of the Vedas and contain rituals and prayers to appease the Gods, requests for a good harvest, etc. These rituals are the yajinas, or sacrifices—including animal sacrifices—of the Vedic priests found in the four Vedas of ancient times.

The jinanakanda portion, or the philosophical writings of the Vedas, are those deeply yogic scriptures found in the Upanishads, the Gita, and the Brahmanas. These Vedic scriptures are more recent (700 BCE or so) and are a result of a blend between Yogic and Tantric practice and Vedic philosophy.

Hence, while the philosophy of yoga is expressed in these more recent or so-called Fifth Vedas, the practical knowledge, the science of yoga, belongs to the oral teachings of the yogis and the tantrics that originated thousands of years earlier.

The yogis applied the same rigorous trial and error experimentation to the practice and science of meditation as they did while developing the hatha yoga asanas.

Let me explain: Hatha yoga pranayama when practiced without a mantra has many health benefits.  A friend of mine recently cured a severe case of psoriasis (flaking, itching and inflammation of the skin) by practicing pranayama. No Western medical doctor, the so-called real scientists, had been able to help him. For him, this kind of pranayama became a body-mind exercise as it balanced his prana and manipura chakra and thus his digestive system and purified his blood.

The limitation with this type of pranayama, though, as with all hatha yoga, is that it does not bring you so easily into the deeper state of spiritual awakening and bliss, at least not in a systematic, meditative way. To do that, you need to practice raja yoga pranayama.

When you practice raja yoga pranayama with a mantra, your practice is more psycho-spiritual, because you ideate on becoming one with Spirit, you ideate on your breath while using a mantra and thus you go beyond the chatter of the mind. And slowly, with each deep breath, you start to experience the vast inner NOW of silence and being. You become the breath of Spirit itself as the kundalini, the inner breath of the spine, breathes you to a state of higher consciousness.

That is the practice of yoga as a spiritual path. At least that is one of the many ways in which yogis developed meditation techniques to let us embrace the inner union with Spirit, which is the goal of yoga. Indeed, one of the most popular definitions of yoga in India, the tantric definition, is “spiritual union.”

So, my friends, yoga is indeed all of the above: a science, an art, a fitness routine and a spiritual path. Or what do you think?


About Ramesh Bjonnes

Ramesh Bjonnes is the co-founder of the Prama Institute, a holistic retreat center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and the Director of the Prama Wellness Center, a retreat center specializing in detox by incorporating juice fasting, ayurveda, meditation and yoga to cleanse, relax and rejuvenate. Bjonnes is also a writer, yogi and workshop leader. He lived in India and Nepal in the 1980s learning directly from the traditional teachers of yoga and Tantra. He has taught workshops in many countries and is the author of Sacred Body, Sacred Spirit (InnerWorld) and Tantra: The Yoga of Love and Awakening (Hay House India). He lives and practices in an eco-village in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.


34 Responses to “Is Yoga an Art, a Science, or a Religion?”

  1. Yoga is the science of religion.

  2. Bj Galvan says:

    For me, yoga is: how we learn and know the way the Universe works and how we work, the way we make and create art and beauty through asana (physical postures, seat) and our unique expression of creativity in the world, the way to keep the physical vessel we've been blessed to live in fit to hold, receive and transmit Shakti (creative power of Consciousness, life force) and a way to yoke, connect, bind, recognize we already are the very thing we seek, our very essence, Spirit…. Science, art, fitness and Spirit. Awe-spicious!

  3. Linda-Sama says:

    how can anyone say that that THEY have THE "most clear and comprehensive book" on yoga teaching? is that marketing flash or just plain ego? both, I'd say.

  4. Padma Kadag says:

    Ramesh…I suppose we need to define "science". But…someone else can do that. Often in these science and religion discussions we jump to the meat of either and their meaning. As in the tiresome Quantum mechanics and Buddhism discussions on how they are "allegedly" saying the same thing or will end in the same destination. If we "observe the world" as a scientist we are only concerned with the physicality of the outer-ness.

  5. Padma Kadag says:

    Scientists are trained to impartially measure the physical world and the interdependent relationships of physical phenomena. That sounds good at the beginning of a spiritual path but the problem with science is that is where it begins and ends. Empirical data will never grasp enlightenment….so in a spiritual life…why bother with science as described in today's terms? Why are we so interested in covering authentic paths to liberation with the cataract of scientific intellectualization? If we are not describing a spiritual path with science then why do we need to justify a spiritual path with science? I am a scientist by training and do science in my work. Science is a tool. Not an ultimate path with heart or bodhicitta. If seeing the physicality of the world is allegedly science thn everything is science…no big deal.

  6. Ramesh says:

    In the yogic scriptures, brahmavidya is called vijiṋána or spiritual science, while the other branches of science from which people obtain mundane knowledge are termed avidyá in Sanskrit. In other words, the yogis of old had terms for yogic knowledge that correspond to the dictionary terms of science I used above.

    The main point is to distinguish the yogic endeavor with religious rituals and beliefs, that yoga is a practical path that does not require us to believe in a certain religious dogma related to Hinduism….

  7. Ramesh says:

    In the yogic scriptures, brahmavidya is called vijin-ana or spiritual science, while the other branches of science from which people obtain mundane knowledge are termed avidya in Sanskrit. In other words, the yogis of old had terms for yogic knowledge that correspond to the dictionary terms of science I used above.

  8. dan says:

    Good to see this being addressed in a systematic way. Yogaers are not always scientific, but then, neither are scientists. Removing bias and exploring the universe, making hypotheses, performing experiments, analyzing and sharing the results, perhaps not science if science is a being not a process and tool, but certainly not gym-yoga. The article makes this distinction, but as gym-yoga is by far what most think of when they hear yoga, this distinction, for the discussion, needs to be sharp.
    As I understand it, there are three divisions of kāṇḍa: karma, jñāna and upāsana, the last detailing process of worship (from preparing the offering to devotion itself), and do not extend beyond the Vedic corpus proper (4 vedas, brahmanas and upanisads), so wouldn't include the Gita.

  9. shiva says:

    Good post Ramesh. Yoga survived for several thousands of years and faced rigid and fanatical ideas and still survies is because it is basically scientific in its own way and represents the truth. There is a saying in sanskrit SATYAMEV JAYATE which translates as TRUTH ALONE TRIUMPHS.


  10. soulrole says:

    Thank you for sharing this!Love it!

  11. tamingauthor says:

    Excellent analysis.

    The reductionist view of science, the "we can only look at the physical" approach of naturalism, suffers from false premises and philosophical bias. Scientism is internally contradictory and unsustainable. (Nonetheless, there are many who insist on such a truncated and bias-laden view of science. (See posts above.)

    In a nutshell, all science is based on observation that arrives through our consciousness. We have no way of knowing anything other than through conscious observation. Those who cling to the reductionistic views of scientism overlook this fact.

    As consciousness is not understood (or misunderstood) all science is based on a false foundation. The means of conducting science is not "calibrated." If one is using a tool one would calibrate that tool so that all observations are consistent but that cannot be done in the absence of an understanding of consciousness.

    When one investigates further one also finds consciousness is not a physical thing — thus the whole edifice of "physical" science crumbles. It does not hold up under close examination.

    On the other hand, in the Yoga Sutras we find a more complete science as it deals with the nature of consciousness and its relationship to the physical or manifest universe. Thus, one might make the argument that Yoga, as put forth by Patanjali is a valid science while modern day materialism does not hold up.

  12. Ramesh says:

    FROM FACEBOOK Baba Rampuri commented on your link.

    Baba wrote: "Thank you, Ramesh. OM NAMO NARAYAN !! Modern Yoga since the end of the 19th century, attempts to be scientific, and has had numerous successes. It has been recognized by many professional health and insurance organizations, and there have been many scientific studies confirming Modern Yoga theories.

    So I fully agree with Ramesh that Modern Yoga is both a science and an art. Although, today, we tend to think of Science as Truth, God, or Religion, Science is an historical methodology maturing with the European Enlightenment, and in the secular-religious divide that followed, assumed the authority once vested in the Church. Reducing Science, if I may, there is an idea, a premise, the truth of which is determined with a rational argument which is confirmed empirically, by observation, and then… it is then presented to the Academy for its approval, and then it is science. It is up to the Academy to determine the appropriateness of the rational thinking. Today, I might add the element of finance, as for most scientists, someone must pay the bill.

    Traditional Yoga, Tantra, Ayurveda, and related areas are NOT based on Science. In a tradition, truth and authority are not based on modern rational thinking and its categories, but on a guru-shishya relationship that connects in to a tradition through a lineage. Teaching and studying are not done in that relationship as in the Modern West, but through apprenticeship over many years. Traditional India does not see the world as evolving but quite the opposite, it is seen as devolving. Traditional India has it that things started out perfect, everything was in balance, everyone was enlightened, it was the golden age, the Satya Yuga.

    The disciple doesn't "further develop" the teachings of the guru, but is very lucky and rare, indeed, to even equal the guru's teachings. As the ages roll on, man loses contact with his traditions and relies more and more on his own discursive thinking and rational thought as the authority for knowledge. Everything was "revealed," not figured out with rational thinking, And what has been revealed has been passed down so that others may have those revelations, and a Speech has been passed down, which gives the traditional yogi the literacy of "reading the world." Plants reveal the secrets in their stems like a printed pamphlet to those who can read the world. It's not necessary to dig up every plant and set up test groups of people to discover the effects of every plant.

    Do you think that's how the ancients compiled their enormous materia medicas? How do we know that brahmi is good for the brain if not for the resemblance between its leaves and the brain's twin hemispheres? Or that walnut, which resembles the brain, is used for its nourishment or illness such as headaches, but the shell is used to treat skull injuries? This is not science, my friends. Science is wonderful, it's creative, it's given us alot of what we need in our modern lives. It works. But it is not magic. The two do not mix, it's either one or the other, mixing only renders both sides very weak."

  13. Ramesh says:

    let's not make this into a contest between cloning sheep and practicing meditation on the banks of the Ganges. I am not talking about that kind of science…. both you and Rampuri have reduced my article to just one level of understanding, the magical. Sounds familiar? The scientists do the same–reduce everything to their level, to the material.
    Life is broader than just magic or just science, life is all of that and more. I included art in my article. I included spirituality. Both very magical aspects of life, both beyond but not antithetical to science.
    And about devolution, Rampuriji, yes there is devolution, we are devolving all the time from the One, from Brahman, that is how evolution from the One starts, through devolution by the aid of Prakrti, by Shakti, but we are also evolving, there is both devolution and evolution. And that is Tantra speaking….from One to the many, from the many back to the One. All of this comes form Indic tradition, not from the West. I learned it in India. There are different strands of knowledge in India as you know. Yours is one, mine is another. Advaita is one, Tantra another. Slightly different perspectives. Advaita says all but Brhaman is an illjusion, Tantra says, this world is not an illusion, it is shakti, just another aspect of Brahman, just relative truth in the womb of the Absolute–Shiva and Shakti=Brahman. That's my perspective. And that's Indian. Very Indian.

  14. Ramesh says:

    Traditional Yoga, Tantra and Ayurveda, as I have been taught, also from a guru and in an apprenticeship fashion, is not simply sciences. That is not what I have been claiming. I have been saying that these disciplines, these practices, these spiritual sciences are all of the above. There are aspects of Tantra and Yoga that are scientific in the broad sense of the word, but there are also aspects, the spiritual dimension of these practices, that go beyond Western science. I agree with you, and that is what my original article emphasized. Spirituality, unlike some aspects of religion, embraces and transcends material science, just like the spirit includes but transcends the body.

    Ayurveda is often translated as the science of life, the knowledge of life, is it not? Ayurveda is not based on mumbo jumbo but on carefully studied and learned ways to read the body and mind and administer medicines according to the imbalance of the doshas. Ayurveda is not simply based on magical belief and prayer, it is based on physical, mental and spiritual observation. It is a holistic science as opposed to the material science of scientism.

    Brahmi, which I use regularly, gave away its medical properties of strengthening the nerves and concentration by way of experience. That is how herbal medicine has been learned and practiced over thousands of years. Some was revealed knowledge as you say, some came to them via trial and error.

    Einstein was also revealed his knowledge of relativity. he said it came to him in a flash. The periodic table of elements came to Dimitri Madeleev in a dream….that is also revealed knowledge, from the deeper consciousness of man, from Consciousness, from Brahman to the human mind when we are in an expanded state of mind. That is revealed knowledge. It happens all the time, to yogis and scientists, to artists, to people in trance and samadhi.

    Science as in spiritual practice does not leave out the magical, the spiritual. The practice, the discipline, the asanas, the meditation, the pranayama, etc. simply makes us instruments of consciousness in a systematic, and yes, scientific way, but it moves beyond the material and into the magical space of spirit, of consciousness. That is what spiritual practice is all about, the systematic transformation of body and mind into spirit. So, I do not see much of a dichotomy here–science and magic, practice and surrender, body and spirit, heart and mind, certainly do mix very well. That's the alchemy of spiritual practice.

  15. yogiclarebear says:

    lovely! i appreciate the dictionary definitions. I mean you cannot argue with Webster! 😉 as a yoga teacher, i find art and creativity flowing when i plan my class flows (which of course can change the moment i walk into class, so the creativity has got to be flexible and readily accessible!) i guess that is my "art" in a way.

    thanks for the thoughts, facts, and perspective.

  16. […] no place for religion in a public school setting. Inevitably, though, there is the question: “Is yoga a religion?” I always tell my students that yoga is used by a variety of faiths; but yoga, in of itself, is […]

  17. […] and don’t have real authority. The ancient traditions of yoga need not be altered at all, because hatha yoga is already a complete science of enlightenment. Further, the modern takes on these ancient […]

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