Myth: Yoga is a Religion

Via on Feb 3, 2011

A very dicey subject is the relationship between yoga and religion, but it is a valid concern among those contemplating a yoga practice. Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu—anyone can practice yoga.

No, yoga is not a religion.

Yoga is a physical and mental practice, but it does not require deity worship, rituals, sacred icons, or membership (all elements that are part of the definition of religion). Being spiritual, yoga is centered on exploring the self and our place in the world. In comparison, religion is a counterpart to spirituality, focusing on an externalized organizational structure.

You will not be betraying your faith by chanting om or saying namaste to your teacher. One of the ultimate goals of yoga is liberation. Chanting is just another way of opening up the mind, but as with any other element of yoga, it is optional.

Everyone is welcome to their religious choice when practicing yoga. Still, there will be those who interpret yoga as a religion and, despite the given facts, will continue to believe so. In the end, those people are missing out on yoga’s plentiful opportunities to grow in a myriad of ways.

“Yoga provides us with an opportunity to pause and connect to our own divinity,” says Elena Brower. “Rather than something separate from ourselves, we’re actually connecting to what is highest within ourselves.”

Our world is full of numerous religions, each with their own explanations for the origin of our species and for our connection with what can’t be seen. In a similar fashion, there is an ever-growing number of yoga styles, giving us the opportunity to select one that feels right for us and our religious path. Whether you believe in one god, many gods, or no god at all, yoga is a spectacular extension of our search for understanding.

“Many people find that yoga actually supports their existing religious tradition,” says Natasha Rizopoulos. “They discover that it helps them to integrate their spiritual beliefs into their daily activities in ways that are both tangible and profound.”

The debate on whether yoga is a religion is vibrantly ongoing, with no end in sight. Just like the many religious texts, the concept of yoga is translated in many ways. When approaching the possibility of practicing yoga, I implore you to be open-minded. Don’t let your fears or interpretations hold you back from trying yoga for yourself.

“People of all faiths, beliefs, and religions can use the tools of a yogic life to deepen their spiritual practice,” says David Lurey. “It’s up to the practitioner to feel the essence of yoga’s messages and apply them to their own beliefs.”

If you are so inclined, delve into the wide world of written yogic knowledge, exploring the subject on your own terms. As with any other resource, yoga teachers are a fantastic asset in your search for understanding yoga’s spirituality.

Yoga is based on the concept that personal experiences and realizations trump untested theories. So don’t be afraid to ask questions!

Adapted with permission from 27 Things to Know About Yoga by Victoria Klein ©2010 by Victoria Klein.

[Photo credit: Religione 2.0]

About Victoria Klein

Introduced to Yoga in 2000 at a gym in Connecticut, my personal practice has taken me through a crippling post-high-school era of depression and anxiety, 3 cross-country relocations, + the general rollercoaster of life. In 2012, I fulfilled a major item on my bucket list by graduating from the True Nature School of Yoga 200-Hour program in Oceanside, CA + eagerly began teaching as an RYT 200. In 2013, I've continued my dedication to education by taking True Nature's 500-Hour program, progressing toward the RYT 500 designation. Also a professional freelance writer since 2005, my first book, 27 Things to Know about Yoga, was published in 2010. I previously worked the front desk at the well-known Yoga Tree studios in San Francisco + in the production department at Yoga Journal Magazine. In my spare time, you’ll find me cooking, running, taking lots of pictures, being a Marine Corps spouse, and infusing Yoga into my entire life. My Yoga classes are a dynamic blend of effort + ease, sweating + relaxation, with numerous opportunities + options given to make each individual class easier or harder, depending on how you feel that day. As a teacher, I strive to help my students find clarity, compassion, + patience, both on + off the mat. FYI: you should join my newsletter so you don't miss any of the fun! You can also connect with me on Facebook, Twitter, + Pinterest!

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14 Responses to “Myth: Yoga is a Religion”

  1. [...] fellow classmates seem to breeze through each pose, and I am stuck there wondering if yoga isn’t for me. To make myself feel better, I looked [...]

  2. Vogue Yogini says:

    Thanks so much for this post, Victoria – I feel like there are a lot of folks out there who need to hear this!

  3. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mindful Self-Express, theyogatrap. theyogatrap said: Myth: Yoga is a Religion http://chtr.it/wY35cd #yoga [...]

  4. Jenya says:

    This is an interesting topic, and the post seems aimed, admirably, at quelling the fears of a particular audience.

    I would add that in order to determine the accuracy of statements on this subject, the definitions of "yoga" and "religion" being used must be clearly defined and open to scrutiny. Definitions of these terms are not universal even in the academy, no matter how much we try to neatly categorize such concepts by applying convenient misnomers (ex. "hindu".)

    • You make a very intelligent point, Jenya. While some word definitions are rather … well … definite, the concepts of yoga & religion are not well-defined, despite many intentions to narrow their classifications. Some terms will be infinitely relative.

  5. Well done, Victoria.

    Bob W. Yoga Editor
    (Join Elephant Yoga on Facebook)

  6. Perfect, this will be my "bonus read" on my blog that I just posted…it's goes hand in hand with it. Beautiful put Victoria.

  7. dan says:

    It isn’t except when it is…

    What is religion but a set of beliefs and ideas about existence that are not necessarily “provable” but nevertheless are taken to be true, often accompanied by activities to fulfill the possibilities of those “truths”. Yoga offers many opportunities for this because of the many “varieties” offered, most obviously bhakti yoga, and of course Patanjali mentions isvarapranidhana. When exercises and techniques go from experimentation to assumptions or the endeavor for of extra-physical results, that certainly is religion.

    Despite appearances, sports are not religion because they make no regular claim (at least none I’m aware of) to transcendence of the physical. And of course, being a christian does not require “deity worship, rituals, sacred icons, or membership”, yet who reading this hasn’t paid membership to their initiator?

    • Scott Robinson YesuDas says:

      I think you are mistaken, Dan, in saying that yoga requires assent to unprovables. The nearest thing yoga asks is enough "shuddha," which loosely translates as "faith", to allow the aspirant to practice until personal experience confirms its assumptions. Experience is everything; nothing is to be taken purely "on faith." As Swami Vivekananda said, "I would rather men become atheists through reason than believe in twenty millions of gods on anybody's say-so." (See "Jnana Yoga.")

      I'm also puzzled by your claim that being a Christian does not require deity worship; how do you figure?

      • dan says:

        pranadacomtois (below) gives a better explanation, but anyways…

        I think you mean shraddha (“faith”), not shuddha (“pure”), but faith in possibility is no different from you-know-when-you-die; what practitioner hasn’t been told variation on “your practice is good but your karma is holding you back, give it time”. To practice isvarapranidhana, one must make assumptions about what isvara is. Samadhis, self, Self and energies like kundalini and cakras are also assumed to exist- walking a road to prove its destination exists, or because it does? For me, all yoga requires is attentiveness/awareness, and certainly just doing certain exercises and practices are not necessarily religion or religious. But what is wrong with admitting yoga can and often does transgress/progress/become religious?

        On christian worship: http://www.biblicalunitarian.com/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=198

  8. Scott Robinson YesuDas says:

    Thanks for this, Victoria. I won't say any more here, because I'm actually preparing an article on a closely related topic (in which I will certainly include a track-back to this) but I'm glad you posted this.

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