Is Yoga a Religion?
This is a question I get asked often enough to devote a page on my website to it. The short answer is, "No." Yoga was originally a focused meditational practice only, designed to assist the practitioner in calming the mind and body to be able to discern God's will for us. Only in the last couple of hundred years was the physical practice added, to further aid the calming of the mind and body. However, to deny the history of Hinduism "growing up together with yoga" in the East would also be a grave injustice. To try to further explain, I am including an excerpt from a research paper written for my yoga training which gives more details aligning more with my own personal philosophy about the relationship between yoga and spirituality.
Our Role as Yoga Instructors
"So how do we, as yoga instructors, balance the honoring of the Hindu history of yoga within our classes without coming across as promoting our own dogma? The question will inevitably come up. Eric Santagada in Yoga Journal suggests,
“...Yoga is a spiritual path, not a religious one...A practitioner can maintain any faith and still enhance their life by practicing yoga. The truth of this ultimately resides in each individual’s experience. While Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are now considered the scripture of yoga, this was a recent adoption….other Hindu works were considered the core teachings, including the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Vasistha. As Huston Smith writes in his “World Religions” – ‘The yogas that do concern us [in the study of Hinduism] are those designed to unite the human spirit with the God who lies concealed in its deepest recesses.’ Yoga can help people connect to a spiritual side of themselves, and can even enhance understanding of and respect for religious practices, while still maintaining their religious observances. A devout Catholic, for instance, may come to finally understand the repeated encouragements to meditate found in the Bible, while choosing not to practice on the Holy Day and avoiding classes that involve chanting.”
By being true to ourselves, following our own journey, and “stepping aside” to let the design of our classes follow our inner led voices, we will attract those who are meant to be in our path. A conscientious effort to notice the pull of egoism in our practice toward money, commercialism, notoriety or the like may counteract the “undoing” of the spiritual side of yoga in Western culture. To honor each person’s spiritual path and not feel led to direct them one way or another is how Kahlil Gibran describes the best kind of teacher in “The Prophet-On Teaching:”
“No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge. The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness. If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.”
David Swenson is even more direct when he says:
“The goal of a yoga instructor is not to direct students toward any particular direction or faith but rather to encourage, inspire, and facilitate practice in order for students to take the benefits of the practice and apply them within the context of their unique paths. There is no need to attach a religious label to yoga anymore than there is a need to attach a religious label to penicillin. Regardless of one's religious affiliation, the medication will do its work without bias.”
However, not directing a student toward a particular faith is not equal to denying the history of Hinduism which lies within the history of yoga. Honoring a history is not adopting a religion. We can weave honor and respect within our classes by respecting and retelling history, and giving our students space to grow and practice their own spirituality.