June 16, 2012

Is Yoga a Religion? ~ Mary Chattin

Multitudes of people are flocking to yoga.

Enchanted by results like health benefits and peace of mind. Despite the buzz surrounding yoga even the savviest practitioners can be left wondering what is yoga?

I spent years teaching yogain gyms, studios, and corporations throughout the deep southern United States. I am continuously asked the inevitable question is yoga a religion? Yes, yoga’s philosophy and sacred texts, like any doctrine, can become a religion. The outcome depends on how one approaches the practice. Many aspects of yoga may conflict with religions, yet it does have the power to enhance our spiritual experiences.

Yoga enriches lives as a result of basic psychological and physiological reasons. Yoga postures bring body awareness and increase prana (vital energy) when combined with pranayama (proper breathing). Pranayama gives a calming effect in the parasympathetic nervous system, thus balancing the autonomic nervous system. What this means is the body’s functions work more efficiently and we feel balanced inside and out. Pranayama has the potential to provide a blissful, even spiritual experiences while leaving the philosophic doctrine out of the equation.

Yoga is the Sanskrit word meaning to yoke. This implies union with the body, mind, spirit and even God. Yoga philosophy is based on Vedanta, which is the mystic side of Hinduism. The most commonly known system to achieve this union is through Pantajali’s Eight Limbed Path. Pantajali was a sage who laid out eight steps that pave the path to a more meaningful life.

Jnana, Bhakti and Raja yoga fit the criteria for religion and can be found in yoga classes regardless of the innocent intentions of the teacher.

>>Jnana Yoga is the study of verses and scripture. Classically, this means study of the Yoga Sutras or other Vedic texts.

>>Bhakti Yoga means devotion and includes worship of God or the deities through chanting, affirmations, and puja (ceremonies).

>>Raja Yoga means “royal yoga” and the focus is on connecting with the God within resulting in enlightenment.

Some may say that these types of yoga conflict with some religious belief systems. Celebrating the hundreds of millions of Hindu deities through reading, chanting and music may conflict with other traditional religions that adhere to monotheism or one god.

So what is a religious Yogi to do?

Any verse and scripture can potentially conflict with other religious beliefs. I firmly believe that although there are parallels, spirituality is much too serious to begin studying other texts if one is already rooted in their own faith. However, the many parallels tend towards basic themes and moral codes that secular and religious persons alike can appreciate.

>>Satya (truth) and ahimsa (non-harming) and Paul in the New Testament of the Bible remind us all of the importance of what comes out of a man, through words and actions.

>>One of the steps on the Eight Limbed Path, Ishawara prandidhana, is worship of the Lord and surrendering the ego to him.

>>Similarly in the Bible, Romans 12:2 it tells us to yield our wisdom to his.

>>In the Eight Limbs, Santosha (contentment) may be compared with John 16:33 which express Christian views on peace and contentment.

In reality it is not common place to have scripture read in yogaclasses at gyms. It is recommended that the religious yoga  practitioner shop around for a teacher who keeps a secular vibe in their classes. Look for a teacher who plays ambient music, instrumental, or no music at all. There are options exclusively for the Christian faith such as, Holy yoga.

Yoga is for everyone.

How can yoga teachers empathize and enhance the sacred experience of religious students? Yoga teachers hold a valuable opportunity to inform every potential yoga student of what they can expect. Yoga’s philosophy and sacred texts, like any doctrine can become a religion, the outcome is dependent on how one approaches the practice. Many aspects of yoga may conflict with religions, but it does have the power to enhance one’s spiritual experience. Yoga teachers have a responsibility to empathize with beliefs of others and be real about the boundaries.


 Mary Chattin is a reformed Agnostic Buddhist inspired, Vedic studying vegetarian who now loves meat, and follows Jesus. She grew up eating grits and practicing Yoga in the deep-south where Yoga and religion commonly clash. She has been teaching Yoga her entire adult life, writes from her heart and soul, and believes that trials in life are purification; essential to personal growth. Mary is currently fine tuning her mountain mama skills in the mountains of Colorado.


Editor: Carrie Stiles

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