Dear Seeking Light,
My understanding is that yoga is not a religion, but there is certainly cause for confusion. One main reason for this is the proximity of Hinduism to the origins of yoga, and the common blending of the two systems by practitioners in both India and the West. We often hear about Hindu gods from our yoga teachers, and stories from the Hindu epics, The Ramayana and Mahabharata, are told in a yogic context. We also practice poses named after characters in these epics, like Hanuman and Virabhadra. It’s easy to believe that yoga is a religion, which can be defined as “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a God or gods.”
However, as an article at swamij.com says, there is yoga in religion, but there is no religion in yoga. The state of being that is called yoga, and the range of practices to attain it, are not found only in yoga. Spiritual seekers in every spiritual tradition have had interest in its gift—the still and present mind and the ability to see clearly. What yoga does not have is any doctrine or dogma that prescribes a relationship to a God or goddess.
The practices of yoga, explored and honed over several millennia, are explorations of the human experience. They are ways for the practitioner to integrate, or find union, which is one of the definitions of yoga. This desire is also a common theme in religion, although it is more often expressed as union with the divine.
One teacher I studied with had the answer that yoga could be a supportive practice for any religion. Yoga can help us to become more clear-minded, and this clarity will serve us in any practice of worship and prayer, but there is not a God in yoga. This same teacher also warned that any religion that claimed to have THE answers, and be the only path, was one to run from with all one’s strength (but that’s another issue).
Here in Seattle, which has been called one of the least religious cities in America, yoga instructors might feel more latitude to teach a more overt spirituality because there is less concern that their students will have conflict with their religious practice. I have friends who teach in other areas with a stronger faith-based population and they speak to teaching very basic, non-spiritual yoga. But in my experience, many students are coming specifically for the spiritual aspect (even if they don’t know it!). They might connect to the stories of Indian mythology, not unlike many of us who relate to Greek and/or Roman mythology. Or they are just looking for greater meaning and purpose in life, a hunger religion can sometimes satisfy.
At any rate, there is certainly a range of how yoga is presented, and any practitioner should take the time to find a teacher that matches the level of spiritual guidance they are seeking within yoga. Some want to work on their tight hamstrings; others want self-realization. There’s something for everyone within the broad range of yoga practices, but rest assured, yoga is not a religion.
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