The fact that yoga practice deals with many spiritual principles and advocates operating on a more spiritual level in our daily lives means that many people have made yoga out to be a religion on its own.
Because of this, people of certain religions and walks of life choose not to engage in yoga for the simple reason that they feel it may go against their personal beliefs or that they will be “indoctrinated” or led astray by their yoga instructor.
The saying “Yoga is in religion. Religion is not in yoga” probably seems like a bit of a contradiction, but it actually sums yoga up quite perfectly.
Yoga is used in various religions and there is a common misconception that yoga is rooted in Hinduism. However, in reality, the religious structures of Hinduism came after yoga, and while Hinduism did incorporate some yoga practices, so have a number of other religions such as Buddhism and Jainism.
The main requirement for a religion to be classified as a religion is that it has a publicly proclaimed set of beliefs that adhere to a specifically named power that goes beyond the physical realm. A religion will generally also involve an organized hierarchy with some type of clergy or formal structure and chain of command.
Yoga does not conform to these standards and is not organized as a religion. While it does advocate surrendering oneself to a power that is greater than an individual, it doesn’t outline or specify what that higher power is or name a specific god. This flexibility allows each individual who practices yoga to interpret what it means to them personally, whether they are a Christian, Catholic, Hindu, Jew or Buddhist.
Yoga can be practiced in combination with any religion because it doesn’t try to force any particular set of rules or beliefs. In fact, yoga is designed in such a way that it could actually help someone of a particular religion, such as a Buddhist or even a Christian, to become more effective in practicing their beliefs.
Yoga is built on three main structures; exercise, breathing and meditation, and eight separate disciplines or steps. In most Western or modern yoga, it is generally only the third, fourth and fifth steps that receive much attention.
The eight steps of yoga are as follows:
The word “yama” means restraint, so yoga teaches practicing restraint from unhealthy practices such as violence, stealing, lying, etc.
This one means observance, or being content, pure, tolerant, remembering and studious.
Asana means physical exercises, and this is the part of yoga that most people are familiar with; the poses such as downward dog, warrior pose, etc.
Pranyama is the breathing techniques that yoga promotes, such as high breathing, low breathing, complete breathing, etc.
This is the time before one settles down to meditate, and is the moment when you are preparing for your meditation. The word can be explained as the withdrawal of the mind from the senses.
Dharana is the ability to concentrate on one object for a pre-determined amount of time.
This is meditation, another yoga principle that most people are familiar with. In involves the ability to focus on just one thing (be it an object, scenery, person, etc) or nothing at all (clearing the mind) for an indefinite period of time.
This is absorbing or realizing your own nature, or becoming more self-aware.
As you can see, none of these steps, principles, techniques, or whatever you want to call them, would interfere with any existing religion a person may have, and can be practiced in tandem with other belief systems.
So, essentially, yoga cannot be described as a religion, it is simply a more focused way of looking at yourself and the world around you, and treating yourself and others with a greater respect. These principles can improve the quality of life, regardless of a person’s race, religion or profession.
Yoga is a way of aligning your body and your mind and coming to understand your place in the cosmos. Yoga is also known to have a number of physical and mental health benefits, such as stress reduction, improved sleeping habits, better posture, greater flexibility, more muscle tone, improved energy levels, reduced anxiety and depression, and the list goes on and on. It would be a shame to miss out on these many benefits simply for fear that yoga is a religion and will clash with your beliefs and lifestyle.
Learning to quiet the mind and find your own peace, no matter where you are or what your circumstances may be, is a valuable thing and can ultimately change your life. Not because it is a religion, but because it is a way of living more healthily and giving your body and mind a chance to be rejuvenated and relaxed. The religious aspects and how the feeling of something that is greater than oneself is interpreted is up to each individual to work out for themselves.
About the Author: Joyce and Leah Del Rosario are part of the team behind Open Colleges, one of Australia’s leading providers of Online Colleges’ Nutrition Courses and Fitness Courses. When not working, Joyce and Leah also blog about health and fitness.