Yoga is misunderstood by many, especially in the Western world. There is a tendency to view yoga as a polytheistic religion, which is forbidden for believers of traditional religions. So is yoga a religion?
As yoga continues to grow in popularity in many parts of the world, it remains to be misunderstood by people everywhere. Yoga is portrayed in many conflicting ways by the media and entertainment industries and there can be controversy when schools or workplaces attempt to introduce a yoga program. The controversy typically stems from this misunderstanding of yoga by parents who fear it is a religion that is polytheistic or that it requires their child to adhere to certain beliefs or to follow specific rituals.
So, is yoga a religion?
The Internet definition of religion is: “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” Trying to figure out if yoga falls under this definition is challenging because one must then define God, which differs depending on whom you ask. The broad issue when it comes to figuring out if yoga is a religion really boils down to who you ask, how you define certain terms, and what yoga or religion means to that person. That’s just the point, though. Yoga is an individual practice and is personally defined differently based on experience, culture and personality. Some people come to yoga for the spiritual aspects and many, especially in the West, practice yoga for the physical benefits it provides. Some come for the physical benefits and stay for the mental and spiritual benefits they begin to experience.
Writing about this topic is difficult because one inevitably inserts their bias towards religion, whether positive or negative, and can only speak from their experience with yoga. I reshuffled the organizational structure of how I would approach the topic countless times and missed my deadline changing it again, because there really isn’t a single way to answer this question. Culture plays a huge role in how we view or come to yoga, and where it leads us in the practice, as well.
A traditional religion is practiced in my family (Islam), and growing up I never quite understood modern religion and how it’s practiced and interpreted today. This includes Islam, Christianity, Judaism, etc. I studied the texts and understood the moral significance of these practices, but saw many dichotomies and disconnects between the true underlying intentions of the Holy Scriptures and the way in which religion is used today by man for less-than-holy intentions. My soul was yearning for a spiritual practice whose application made sense for my life and the world today. I felt quite connected to a higher power and my own sense of intuition, which told me that rote memorization and robotic participation in practices I didn’t connect with wouldn’t do much for the advancement of my soul and of those I work with. I was eventually led to the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda, a yogi from Indian who introduced his teachings to the Western world, bringing with him meditation and Kriya Yoga, a form of Yoga. I went to services at Self Realization Fellowship and started hearing about yoga as a personal practice. As an athlete, I never knew what yoga was about and didn’t think I needed it, but through my spiritual search, I came to believe yoga would help calm my mind so I might be able to meditate.
I soon found that yoga was not just a spiritual practice, but extremely physically challenging and rewarding. There were many other benefits as well, including social, occupational, mental, and health benefits. Yoga became my personal religion that I practiced and that actually made sense to me. I decided to take a teacher training certification course to deepen my practice and potentially start teaching yoga. I learned that every other student in my cohort came to yoga for the physical benefits, and weren’t aware of the spiritual benefits they would experience. I realized then that yoga provides something different to everyone, and that we can diminish these benefits by putting labels on the practice or giving it a label that it isn’t for everyone (like a “religion”).
"Yoga welcomes you as you are"
The biggest take-away when asking if yoga is a religion is to understand that it can be practiced that way, but it doesn’t have to be. There’s no set of rules that says you have to do this at this time or that on that day. There are simply texts, suggestions, and stories of how others have done it before to guide you on your journey, wherever your “end goal” is. You can stop with the physical practice, or you can read books to enhance it, like The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali or The Heart of Yoga by T. K.V. Desikachar. For some, it’s enlightenment or alignment with the Divine, for others it anatomy and proper alignment of postures. It can be philosophy, biology, physics, religion, or just fun. Some unroll the mat to get rocking abs and a yoga butt. And for others still, it’s to heal from cancer or back pain. The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter why you practice yoga or what your goals are, yoga welcomes you as you are. There are benefits to be experienced for everyone.
As a marriage and family therapist intern, I have seen many practitioners use yoga with children who experience autism and ADHD, and with adults or war veterans suffering from symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Harvard is publishing studies on the efficacy of using yoga with these populations as well as developing curricula to do so. The goals of these yoga programs are to heal, and not necessarily to perform any kind of religious rituals. That’s not the say that those who find yoga to heal in this way won’t continue on to explore the spiritual benefits of yoga, which can include other forms of practice besides the asana, or the physical postures. These can include meditation, chanting, setting up alters, or praying. Again, there’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach. The empowering part for me is that I guide myself through my relationship with the Divine instead of reading about someone else’s journey to inform my wisdom and knowledge. While the experiences of others are important, they should not be the ending point (if living a spiritual life is important to you).
We can then view yoga as being pluralistic instead of polytheistic, as is the fear of many monotheistic religious believers. Yoga doesn’t say that there are many gods and you must worship them all, rather that you are free to find the path that makes sense to you and yoga enhances your ability to be the best, fully functional individual you can be. That could mean alleviating the discomforts of ADHD or chanting to feel the presence of the Divine. Yoga gives you the freedom to define your religion, or to abandon the word “religion” altogether. Yoga doesn’t care what you call it, it starts with you and where you are, allowing you to reclaim your personal power; it doesn’t force you to follow a script or set of rituals out of fear or judgment.
So, is yoga a religion?
That’s up to you.
Rima Danielle Jomaa is from Southern California and lives part time in Costa Rica, where she hosts yoga & surf retreats, amongst other things. She has an M.A. in Clinical Psychology from Pepperdine University. Rima is a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern (passed first board exam, awaiting approval for second, IMF 63338), a Registered Yoga Alliance yoga instructor, a Level One Reiki practitioner, a hypnotherapist, and an advocate for the rights of human and nonhuman animals through her work as an activist, nutrition advocate, educator, and healer. She encourages anyone she encounters to take responsibility for their own health, happiness, and freedom. Rima enjoys being active in the community in many various ways. She appears in various yoga productions and writes on a variety of topics for different websites. Rima is a student of evolutionary activism, she regularly practices yoga, meditates, surfs, bikes, skateboards, and cooks vegan cuisine. Find out more about all of this on her website. More information about Rima can be found here. Join her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, or Google Plus!