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

Via elephant journal
on Apr 17, 2012
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 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


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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
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  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. Jenifer says:

    Thank you, Hanuman das.

    I have taken several courses on the roots of Yoga from an academic perspective. I assume that Pennsylvania State University counts as much as Oxford? Maybe it doesn't. Oxford has quite the reputation!

  6. Jenifer says:

    "But it is incorrect to say that Yoga is merely techniques that anyone can employ for their own idiosyncratic purposes."

    I completely agree, which is why I didn't say this, though I can see how the statement (quoted in your second comment) could be taken in this way.

    Instead, the discipline itself must be practiced precisely with the practitioner experiencing the outcomes promised, but this does not necessitate that the practitioner change religion, contexts, creeds, color of skin, clothing, etc.

    This is very different from "bhoga" as I understand it — and defined by Iyengar in his text Light on Yoga, wherein practicing asana and pranayama without a measure of diligence (i.e., employing for idiosyncratic purposes is without a measure of diligence) will lead to a warping of the person deeper into the idiosyncrasies.

    The same is true of other disciplines. The methods of prayer, meditation, fasting, etc — are often very specific. Methodology is important, and practiced improperly will not provide the results that the discipline promises (and thereby the practitioner is seeking) and might also lead to the warping of the person deeper into their idiosyncrasies.

    Even so, each of these disciplines transcends the religions which utilize them, which brings us to the question of cosmologies and their purposes.

    Foremost, cosmologies are descriptions of the experience. Generally speaking, they are largely allegorical. Thus, a given experience can be described in a myriad of ways — which not only explains the diversity within the Vedic cultures, but the diversity of spiritual experience across cultures. In my own studies, the experiences (and actions/outcomes from those experiences) are strikingly similar and often entirely the same, though the descriptions vary widely based on geographic and historical context.

    Second, the cosmologies provide an easy reference guide to whether or not the practitioner is successfully achieving the outcomes of the discipline. That is to say, there are mile-markers along the path. A practitioner can know that s/he is practicing the proper method and receiving the outcomes by way of knowing these mile markers.

    Because the mile markers are descriptions — not specific absolutes — the description itself doesn't hold as much importance in itself as it does as being a litmus test of whether or not the method is working to achieve the outcome promised by practicing the method.

    Yoga — like all spiritual disciplines — does have specific mile markers, and if a person isn't experiencing those mile-markers, then there is an error in practice. If one discovers their their own idiosyncrasies are being indulged or even intensified, then the practice has seriously gone awry. Either way, the individual can make adjustments to practice, begin again, and work more diligently.

    And honestly, the text of the Yoga Sutras is an excellent one for describing the mile markers. The descriptions are so simple and so clear, without references to the cosmologies of the time in which it is written, and with references to specific mind-states which exist cross-culturally as well, that it makes it that much easier to practice regardless of the individual's context and still have a litmus test as to whether or not one is practicing properly and receiving the outcomes promised.

    All that being said, studying the cosmology — at least academically — also provides more insight into the meaning of these mile markers to those people. Perhaps it might be described as a more in-depth description of the landscape at that mile marker, such that the individual can truly test whether or not the yoga that s/he is practicing is providing the outcomes promised (and desired by the practitioner).

    Thanks for the comment!

  7. Pankaj Seth says:

    "Instead, the discipline itself must be practiced precisely with the practitioner experiencing the outcomes promised, but this does not necessitate that the practitioner change religion, contexts, creeds, color of skin, clothing, etc."

    Creed could be a problem, for example the Nicene Creed. This is a statement of exclusivity, an apriori belief which will be projected onto deepening self-experience. You will have noted that though the word religion is applied to both Hinduism and Christianity (and Islam), the former does not have a creed, and no concepts of blasphemy or apostasy (even conversion and deconversion do not apply). This is the use of a word in such a broad way that it erodes important differences.

    For example, Hindus generally have no problem going to a church or a mosque or a Sufi Dargha, but the exclusivist ideologies of Christianity and Islam officially forbid the obverse, though in the secular West (which is only nominally, culturally Christian now) this has eased. And why has this eased? Philip Goldberg details this in his book "American Veda".

    The West has already been changed due to Hindu ideas in its midst. For example, read Emerson's lecture at Harvard Divinity school which he gave after imbibing the BG and the Upanishads, where he decried the exclusivity of the Christianity of his day, and which got him banned from Harvard for decades, until his triumphant return later on.

    I'd say that Hindu and Buddhist ideas have influenced the West so heavily by now, that these ideas have been internalized already, such that traditional Christian Nicene creed is all but defunct in practise, and so Yoga is threatening only to fundamentalist Christians.

    Otherwise, I agree with the other points you have made.

  8. 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 🙂

  9. Charon P. says:

    I think it is more accurate to say "Hinduism is a manufactured term designed to inspire a sense of national cohesion among the residents of the South Asian sub-continent, and designates an ecosystem of semi-complementary physiological and cosmological views that have been co-evolving for millennia on that sub-continent, and do so presently."
    Also, I'm not sure yoga is ultimately compatible with theism of any sort, because "diety" is a concept.. Patanjali's Isvara is a teacher (to some a state of consciousness), but not a god. Siva (in what I've read) is some guy only as a metaphor, and otherwise quite abstract.

  10. 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

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