If you’re anything like me, I feel sure you will have come across this great debate about yoga and religion – in a Facebook post, a newspaper article or in a discussion with a friend. There are so many opinions and conversations in the mix here, which can lead to confusion and prejudice and defensiveness. I felt it was time for me to add my voice to the great yoga and religion debate.
Yoga is on the timetable of many gyms alongside spin classes, BodyPump and Aquafit. Yoga has become mainstream. It takes place in the gym’s studio. There’s no sense of this being a sacred space at all. That’s how I came to yoga in the first place. For many people, yoga is about mastering the correct breathing or holding the correct poses. It is a purely physical exercise. And there’s no doubt about it, yoga is an excellent form of exercise which builds strength and flexibility. It also promotes wellbeing by supporting the mind-body connection.
Yet because this ancient practice has deep meditative, spiritual and mystical roots, this leads many people to wonder if yoga is a form of religion and how yoga can sit alongside faith.
A couple of years ago, BBC News Magazine published an article entitled ‘Does doing yoga make you a Hindu?’, contributing to the broad discussion about yoga and religion. The piece explored the issues some people have about whether practising yoga betrays their religion. Many Muslims, Christians and Jews around the world see yoga as an ancient spiritual practice with connections to Hinduism and Buddhism. For example, some churches in the UK will still not allow their church halls to be used for yoga sessions.
However, recently all over the world, people have recognised the health and wellbeing benefits of yoga. Many yoga teachers have found ways to dilute, minimise or remove completely the spiritual dimension of yoga to make it accessible to people of all religions, so that yoga can be practised comfortably by people of all faiths. This doesn’t sit well with some of those deeply committed to the spiritual roots and traditions of yoga – which is why the Hindu American Foundation ran a campaign called ‘Take Back Yoga’. They were not happy with the direction the practice of yoga was heading in the United States and the increasingly tenuous relationship between yoga and religion.
The difficulty in getting to grips with this debate is that yoga is such a broad term. There is no definitive definition of yoga. There is therefore no definitive answer to this question. There are so many different types of yoga and yes, some are overtly more spiritual than others. Yoga is generally seen as a path to enlightenment, but again, enlightenment will mean different things to different people. Yoga classes vary hugely. Some feature chanting; others are more vague referring simply to cosmic energy or divine light; some classes will make no overt reference to spirituality at all.
Most yoga classes end with a spoken Namaste and a gesture of prayer. However, how many people actually know that Namaste means ‘the divine in me bows to the divine in you’ and how many of them really think of prayer when they hold their hands like this? And a word like ‘divine’ – surely that can encapsulate a whole universe of meaning.
Many of the asana still retain elements of their earlier spiritual meanings – for example, the Sun Salutation is a series designed to greet Surya, the Hindu Sun God. But is it still a spiritual experience if you are not aware of what it stands for or if you do not believe? At what point does it merely become a flow of physical poses? And what’s to stop you undertaking this sequence as an awareness of the power of light, or an appreciation of the sun itself, or in recognition of a divine power that you may call God?
So where does this conversation about yoga and religion leave atheists? Is it possible to practise yoga as an atheist? Some would even ask ‘Given that yoga is a spiritual practice, should atheists even be allowed to do yoga?’ When you do not believe in a divine being outside of yourself, a higher power, then where do you focus your meditation? Many atheists do practise yoga. Yoga and atheism are not mutually exclusive. Individuals fall silent in wonder and awe before the mind-blowing diversity of the universe or the complexity of the DNA helix or on that incredible, awe-inspiring living thing that is a human being.
If we take a look at the fifth Niyama, there is no getting away from the fact that the foundation of yoga is overtly spiritual. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the Niyamas are the second limb of the eight limbs of yoga. The fifth and final Niyama is Ishvara Pranidhana, which can be translated as contemplation of the Divine Being or surrender to the absolute.
It’s about bowing down in awe and wonder to the divine intelligence which infuses everything.
It’s about surrendering to a higher power, when every instinct within us is struggling to cling on to control. When life is unfolding mysteriously and we seem to have no say in that: e want things our own way; we resist and fight what is happening to us; we feel victimised; we feel life is unfair.
This is when we are called to embrace wholeheartedly and joyfully all that is outside our control but in the control of a higher power outside of ourselves. Surrendering to what is with love and humility. That takes faith. That takes belief in a divine being. That requires a certain level of spirituality. That ‘Thy will be done’ mentality that is at the heart of many religions.
So what am I saying here? That yoga and religion are inextricably linked? That yoga belongs to a particular religion? Or that it is a spiritual practice that demands a faith-based attitude? Or that you can simply make yoga whatever you want it to be?
Here is one man’s answer.
To answer this question, I look to the roots of yoga. Traditionally, yoga is the science of the Self. Yoga seeks to help us understand our inner world through various techniques that include meditation, asanas, breathing, focused awareness, and certain rules of behaviour and conduct. If by religion, we mean the religious experience of transcendence, the loss of fear of death, and the emergence of platonic qualities such as truth, beauty, goodness, harmony, and evolution, then yes, yoga can give us a religious experience. It is not religion in the form of ideology, dogma, belief systems, or compliance; it’s a spiritual experience that gives us access to a universal domain of reality.
— Deepak Chopra, MD, Founder of The Chopra Foundation
In my experience, I have encountered yogis from a diverse range of backgrounds, traditions and religions (and non-religion). Each yogi approaches yoga in their own way with their own style of practice and their own expectations. I have come to believe that yoga is a philosophy and an approach, not a religion. It is not constrained by the dogma and traditions of any one religion.
And as such, yoga can be combined with religion or easily practised without religious belief. Yoga brings people of all faiths and of no faith together. It unites and does not divide. It does not discriminate but celebrates diversity. It engenders respect and tolerance, rather than prejudice and judgement.
So by all means, do it your way. Find a style of yoga that suits you. Find a yoga teacher that delivers the session in a way that you are comfortable with. Let yoga accompany you on your journey to enlightenment, whatever enlightenment looks like for you right now.
The divine in me bows to the divine in you.