Is Yoga a Religion?

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A recent Yoga Journal article asked the question “Is Yoga a Religion?” During the closing ceremony of Yoga into the 21st century conference in NYC the renowned Yoga teacher T.K.V. Desikachar told the audience that Yoga is not a religion and should not affiliate with any religion.

While I agree that Yoga need not be associated with any religion, I am more curious to explore the premise of the question itself, which I think keeps Yoga from unleashing its full potential in our lives.

There are many eastern spiritual practices which combine breath, movement and meditation; including Tai Chi, Martial arts and qigong. Like Yoga, they also quiet the mind and awaken the subtle body. However, no one is asking if these are religions – so why Yoga?

Perhaps, as the popularity of yoga soars around the world for many people the Yoga lifestyle is fast becoming their “religion” but there seems to be a real desire to separate it from its complex and enigmatic Hindu roots. Even as words like Namaste, OM, moksha, karma, dharma and mantra, which have been the foundation of all Hindu spiritual practices for thousands of years, become part of the modern Yoga culture many newcomers to Yoga don’t even know that Yoga is one of the six branches of classical Hindu philosophy. These words have taken on their own meaning and attitude, often far removed from their origins. Yoga Journal is quoted to have said that “Hinduism carries too much baggage” so terms like “eastern” or “ancient Indian” are more comfortable for most of their readers.

The word Yoga is a Sanskrit word that pervades all of the Vedic/Hindu scriptures. It does not mean asana practice but rather to yoke, join or union with the divine. For example, in Vedic Astrology it means the conjunction of two or more planets in the horoscope.

Like Yoga, Hinduism is a pluralistic path and as such it does not strive to convert anyone, nor does it require a specific adherence or contain any singular creed. Hinduism teaches many kinds of Yoga including; devotional practices and prayer (bhakti Yoga), service and mindfulness (karma yoga), knowledge and study (Gyana Yoga) Asana and breath work (Hatha Yoga), controlling mind and senses (Raja Yoga). We are free to follow and combine any of the paths based on our constitution and circumstances and need not reject any religion, God or beliefs to do Yoga.

So what is this “baggage” that Yoga Journal speaks of?

I myself am not big on organized religion of any type and I prefer a more pluralistic spiritual path. Like many of you, I too started my Yoga and spiritual practice with asana, going vegetarian and meditation. However, it was only once I started studying the foundational principles of Yoga through Vedic/Hindu scriptures and Vedic Astrology my spiritual practice really started to deepen.

In the 5000 year old Hindu scripture, Bhagavat Gita, Lord Krishna states that “Yoga is knowing [God] as your own Divine Self and breaking through the belief that you are this body”.  He goes on to instruct the way to achieve this goal “Having made yourself alike in pain and pleasure, profit and loss, victory and defeat, engage in this great battle and you will achieve this union (Yoga)”.

A more modern day yogi, Rodney Yee, (and one of my favorite yoga teachers) has a different take, he says, “To love your body is a very important thing — I think the health of your mind depends on your being able to love your body”.  Another modern day Yogi and author of 65 spiritual books, Deepak Chopra, just introduced a new game for X-box that is offering us the “possibility of a video game that can accelerate technologically the development and evolution [of the brain]. He goes on to say about the game that “but if it stops being fun, then it won’t work. Most importantly, it has to be fun.”

So who are we going to believe?

It is natural and human to want to follow the modern Yogis who promise a faster and more agreeable tract to freedom, liberation and evolution without pain or sacrifice. While, it does not matter what our religion or creed, right knowledge is fundamental to our asana Yoga practice. In a commerce driven culture even the best intentioned new age teachers, will rarely have the enlightened vision of the ancient seers and sages who gave us an understanding of the cosmos through teachings like -Yoga, Ayurveda, Jyotish (Vedic Astrology) and Mantra – Vedic/Hindu knowledge has been perfected over thousands of years through the contributions of hundreds of enlightened beings; it has much to offer the modern day Yogi.

Yoga transcends all religions, but let us not be hasty and throw the baby out with the bath water. Let us not disengage the practice of Yoga from its ancient roots, without which Yoga cannot unleash its full potential for our spiritual growth, nor can it bring about “Kaivalya” emancipation or freedom from Karma, which is the ultimate goal of Yoga, as stated in the main Yoga scriptures (Yoga Sutras of Patanjali).