Yoga and Religion

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

by Suleiha Suguna

During the course of my career as a Yoga Instructor, I have been asked by many people if Yoga is a religion, in particular, if Yoga is Hinduism. Although I have found it difficult, I will attempt to dispel the notion that Yoga is a religion. I would like to make a disclaimer here that whatever my thoughts on Yoga, it is ultimately YOU, the reader, that must decide if Yoga is a religion or if it is contrary to your belief system. I say this only because it is better to be committed to something fully than to be uncomfortable about it and because YOU have every right to choose what you believe.

Yoga And Hinduism

There are facts, there are fictions and there are gray areas on the origin of Yoga. I will try to stick to the facts. It must be noted that the term "Yoga" is a broad definition of a concept. Yoga literally means union. It is a concept that originated in India about 5,000 years ago. This concept is a combined system of philosophy, purification, health care, and morality. Due to its very encompassing nature, it is easy for this ancient art to become intertwined with the culture and belief system of the community from where it originated.

It must be noted here that Hinduism itself was not established by any single source or book. It is a collection of traditions originating from the Indian subcontinent. In fact, the term "Hindu" has its origins in the Delhi Sultanate which used it to describe any tradition that was native to India as opposed to Islam.

According to scholars, the term Hinduism, popularized during British rule in India, loosely encompasses the many traditions and belief systems of the Indian people. Therefore, it would have been very easy for any culture or practice in India to be absorbed by the concept of Hinduism.

Yoga As It Is Practiced Today

Depending on whom you ask, Yoga can be a the path to enlightenment or it can be the road to good health. This is the case with many eastern disciplines where spirituality is inevitably linked to daily life. But let us look at how it is practiced and if it meets the definition of a religion. For this, I would like to refer to the work of Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati where he correctly points out the following:

1. Yoga has no deity to worship
2. Yoga has no worship services to attend
3. Yoga has no rituals to perform
4. Yoga has no sacred icons
5. Yoga has no creed or formal statement of religious belief
6. Yoga has no requirement for a confession of faith
7. Yoga has no ordained clergy or priests to lead religious services
8. Yoga has no institutional structure, leader or group of overseers
9. Yoga has no membership procedure
10.Yoga has no congregation of followers
11.Yoga has no system of temples or churches

The vast majority of people practice Yoga today for the health benefits. Most Yoga instructors today come from diverse cultures and religious beliefs. A typical Yoga class today is made up of people in sweat clothes performing physical postures, a far cry from hindu priests sitting around a pyre and chanting mantras.

There are the meditation aspects of Yoga and this is not to be confused with prayer. Meditation is practiced to calm the mind and relieve stress. It does not require you to believe in any religion. Some people join meditation groups that perform chanting and have religious doctrines. Usually, such groups are not covert about this and you can chose to stay away. This is about the same as joining a book club. You could join a book club that discusses good novels or you could join a book club that discusses books on Christianity. The diversity of book clubs itself does not make it religious.

What You Can Do

If you are concerned about being exposed to religious elements not of your faith, there are a number of things that you can do to safeguard yourself.

Firstly, let common sense be your guide. Don't sign up for Yoga in places of worship or centers associated with religious establishments.

Secondly, before signing up for a Yoga class, ask to be allowed to observe a typical class. Most Yoga centers will be more than happy to oblige you.

Thirdly, speak to the students. You can do this after observing a typical class at a Yoga center. By talking to the students you will be able to gauge if the group is a aligned to your beliefs or not.

Lastly, listen to your heart. If you do not feel comfortable with a Yoga class, a Yoga Instructor or the Yoga Center, seek clarification. If you are not happy with the clarification or still feel uncomfortable, you may want to consider a change or stopping Yoga altogether.

In conclusion, Yoga does not possess the structure that religions are based on. Therefore, it does not meet the criteria of being a religion. However, Yoga can and is sometimes practiced with religion. This is a choice of preference and does not make Yoga a religion by default.

This can be illustrated with the example of schools. There are secular schools and religious schools. Both school types promote education. The secular schools separate god from science. The religious schools preach god and science. This does not make the concept of a school a religion.


Dato Jawhar said...

Well explained in very simple words.I think most people are confused and link Yoga to Hinduism due to its country of origin. Also Yoga dates back to 5000 years ago,a time where other religions have not surfaced,including Islam. It all depends how you want yoga to work for you. Is it for sustaining good health? Then focus on that aspect of it. If you are prohibited from reaching enlightenment through different methods other than those prescribed by your religion,then don't go near it,i.e. dont use yoga to attain enlightenment that is contrary to your religious beliefs. Also i have not heard of anywhere in the world including India, that if you want to learn and practise Yoga, there is a pre-condition that you have to go through an indoctrination of Hindusim to initiate your yoga.
People tend to mix up some religious practices with yoga depending on where it is being practiced. Yoga in Japan may have incorporated Japanese traditions prior to the start of the yoga practice in a classroom of the Japanese, likewise in Tibet it could be different or in Cairo it could be different. However, there is no change in the yoga postures themselves,which are all the same. What i meant was that in Cairo, there may be a short recital of Koranic words before the yoga session starts and this is the general practice and tradition of Muslims. In Japan it could be different. Yoga itself should not be blamed on how it is practiced due to the the teacher or trainer in a class and also the religious background of the trainer.What i like in your blog is that you have given some good analytical points and tips how one should decide on selecting the yoga class or the yoga trainer if you have any doubts.

Maya Yoga Samudraa said...

Dato Jawhar,thank you for sharing your views. I definitely agree with you.

MA.Kumaragguru said...

Wow.. That's great explanation Datin. Thank you so much.

Anonymous said...

Well said! Hopefully this article give some light to those who are in doubt of Yoga and religion.

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