Yoga & Religion: It’s Complicated? ~ Jenifer Parker

Via elephant journal
on Apr 17, 2012
get elephant's newsletter

 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.



Like this? “Like” elephant yoga on Facebook.


Editors: Cassandra Smith/Kate Bartolotta


About elephant journal

elephant journal is dedicated to "bringing together those working (and playing) to create enlightened society." We're about anything that helps us to live a good life that's also good for others, and our planet. >>> Founded as a print magazine in 2002, we went national in 2005 and then (because mainstream magazine distribution is wildly inefficient from an eco-responsible point of view) transitioned online in 2009. >>> elephant's been named to 30 top new media lists, and was voted #1 in the US on twitter's Shorty Awards for #green content...two years running. >>> Get involved: > Subscribe to our free Best of the Week e-newsletter. > Follow us on Twitter Fan us on Facebook. > Write: send article or query. > Advertise. > Pay for what you read, help indie journalism survive and thrive—and get your name/business/fave non-profit on every page of Questions? info elephantjournal com


11 Responses to “Yoga & Religion: It’s Complicated? ~ Jenifer Parker”

  1. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Posted to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
    Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
    Follow on Twitter

  2. hanuman das says:

    Dear Jenifer,

    I think what you are trying to do is great. However, if we trace back definitions of Yoga by those very people to the indus valley. The definitions of the term Yoga in the Upanishads, the Mahabharata and Patanjali's Yoga sutras. We quite clearly find that Yoga is a school of thought for quietening the wavering mind and achieving Moksha, the Hindu term for Liberation.

    Many people from western religious traditions naturally struggle with Hinduism and its products because it does not fit into the boxes of the definition of religion as given to Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

    Yes Hinduism can be broadly definied as a religion, which includes atheists, theists, non-theists. We are free to take inspiration from any of the aspects be they yoga, japa meditation, dharma, karma, kama, or anything else we find enriches our life.

    I urge all of you to study the roots of yoga from a more unbiased angle. Try the Yoga Philosophy course at the Oxford University centre for Hindu studies.

    Best wishes

    Hanuman Das

  3. Pankaj Seth says:

    Hinduism is a nonsense geographical term for an ecosystem of complementary views onto what is beyond being captured in thought. Thus Patanjali teaches how to transcend thought, and which opens up another epistemic avenue. The self-experience which unfolds is framed in a certain way, and this is incompatible with strictly dualistic/monotheistic and materialist views.

    Persons may employ techniques given in the Yoga Sutra to quieten the mind, and can gain much benefit from this. But it is incorrect to say that Yoga is merely techniques that anyone can employ for their own idiosyncratic purposes. There is a cosmology on offer, and which is not compatible with materialism or monotheism (as opposed to henotheism). Those that wish to hold on to these views will be challenged by a study of Yoga/Hinduism.

  4. Pankaj Seth says:

    Vyasa in the 7th century writes "Yoga is Samadhi". He does not write Yoga is anything and everything. Most persons teaching Yoga in the West are teaching exercise and relaxation, and not leading others into a deep inquiry into self and world. Those teaching without experience are flattering themselves into thinking that they have understood, and that they ought to teach anything beyond exercise and relaxation.

    "Yoga, regardless of origin or which religion or person is using it, creates the spiritual outcome that the participants desire."

    And this is precisely the problem. Without deep study and experience, interiorization methods lead to the acceptance of one's projections as something more substantial. And if the teacher is unlearned and unexperienced, then they cannot offer help against this.

  5. nadinefawell says:

    Nice article, Jenifer, and interesting comments. Amen, in fact, to what you say. Yoga is unhooked from any specific religion, although the practices of yoga have been incorporated into a good few :)

  6. ValCarruthers says:

    Quite right, Jenifer, this seemingly solid thing called "Yoga" is absolutely not a religion. Yet is can be molded to fit into and enhance any spiritual practice or belief system and goal desired. As teachers we can offer this amazingly elastic and elegant "technology" with respect and reverence for whatever our students' personal cosmologies may be.

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Spirituality Homepage.

    Valerie Carruthers
    Please go and "Like" Elephant Spirituality on Facebook

  7. […] It is sort of like confession and sort of not. […]

Leave a Reply