Is it complicated? I don’t think so.
There were two articles recently on elephant journal about yoga and Christianity, and yoga and religion/spirituality Both brought forth very interesting points to ponder, and yet also seemed to come up with some variation of “yoga and religion—it’s complicated.”
But for me, it’s “yoga and religion—it’s simple.”
You see, yoga is a spiritual discipline.
Spiritual disciplines are technologies, methods. Humans develop these spiritual technologies to participate in specific human spiritual experiences. These disciplines exist within all religions, and exist as technologies outside of religions. That is to say, a person or group can practice spiritual disciplines and experience the spiritual result without having any connection to a cosmology or the religious or cultural origin of the discipline.
Prayer, for example, requires no specific cosmology. In fact, most religions have some form of prayer within their spiritual disciplines while having very different cosmologies and cultural origins. And yet, across this diversity, prayer—as a technology—works. When people pray, they experience the benefits of prayer, which include better spiritual understanding, better understanding of their situation and better understanding of themselves.
The confusion comes in, though, when making an assumption that a use of a spiritual discipline means that one is practicing a specific religion. It becomes more confusing when we know the origin of that discipline.
You see, very few of us remember the origin of ritual. We may remember the origin of a specific ritual—such as the Catholic mass. It is a relatively new religion, and its ritual therefore is also relatively new. But rituals, in general, have existed for a long time—perhaps as far back as human history itself.
So no one claims, “If you practice rituals, you are practicing an ancient religion from a time of long-forgotten history from a place where people lived!”
Instead, it’s just a discipline. A method. No big deal. Everyone does rituals in some form, right? Nearly every religion has some ritual—pointed to their own deities, utilizing their own cosmologies, creating the experience and outcome that they want for the participants in that ritual.
When it comes to yoga, we do know the origin of that spiritual discipline. We know that it was developed in the Indus valley, through the spiritual work of the people who lived there, the same people who wrote specific religious texts, practiced specific rituals and worshipped a variety of specific gods and goddesses.
I think this is where people get confused. They assume that because the discipline was designed in this place, by these people, who were also developing these religious traditions, the discipline and the religion are one-in-the-same.
This is not so.
Ritual, regardless of origin or which religion or person is using it, creates the spiritual outcome that the participants desire. Meditation, regardless of origin, which religion is using it and how, creates a spiritual outcome that the participants desire.
Yoga, regardless of origin or which religion or person is using it, creates the spiritual outcome that the participants desire.
Yoga is not a religion in and of itself. Like other disciplines, it doesn’t require a specific cosmology or historical and cultural context in order to “work,” or to get the outcomes that one receives through diligent practice.
Understanding yoga as a spiritual discipline aids me in teaching the practice to others, regardless of their religion, history or context.
When I teach yoga, I teach it as a skill. It is a skill that a person can develop to make the body feel better, to help calm the mind and achieve focus and awareness and to develop self-awareness, self-realization and self-actualization.
If I bring in an aspect of the history or context of yoga—which includes using om and Namaste in the ritualized aspects of my teaching—I explain those origins, and how it can apply universally.
This way, people do not struggle with questions like, “Should I practice yoga?” and “Will yoga be in conflict with my religion?” I explain to them that it is simply another discipline—like prayer and scriptural study—that directed through their own beliefs will bring the many benefits that yoga can bring to their lives.
And that is all.
It isn’t complicated. It is blessedly simple.
Jenifer M. Parker teaches yoga and runs Healium, a holistic health center, in Wellington, New Zealand. She is very opinionated.
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Editors: Cassandra Smith/Kate Bartolotta