Is yoga religious?

I’ve been getting a fair amount of questions about yoga and religion. I touched on this topic briefly in my yoga for beginners blog, but I thought I would devote a whole separate post to the topic.

Firstly, a little, very condensed history of yoga.

The origins of yoga

Yoga’s roots are difficult to pinpoint. Some people believe it’s as old as time. Others believe it originated before the Hindu religion existed. For example, the American Yoga Association says:

There is a common misconception that Yoga is rooted in Hinduism; on the contrary, Hinduism’s religious structures evolved much later and incorporated some of the practices of Yoga.

The one thing everyone seems to agree on, though, is that yoga began in India.

The preclassical era of yoga is believed to have started around 500 BC, when yoga concepts started to appear in texts. Two of the most famous of these texts are the Upanishads, a collection of over 200 texts outlining the concepts of Hinduism; and the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred or philosophical text which forms the foundation of the spiritual components of yoga. These texts and others focused on understanding the self, releasing the ego, and standing up for what is right.

In the era of classical yoga, from about 200 BC to 500 AD, yoga is defined further, with actual methodology applied to it. A scholar named Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutra sometime around the second century AD, which set out the “eight limbs of yoga” (also known as ashtanga in Sansrkit) which still influence yoga today. The eight limbs of yoga are:

  1. Yama: Morality, ethics, and behaviour to others
  2. Niyama: Morality and behaviour towards the self
  3. Asanas: Yoga postures and poses
  4. Pranayama: Practice of breathing
  5. Pratyahara: Control of the senses, avoiding distraction
  6. Dharana: Concentration and focus
  7. Dhyana: Meditation
  8. Samadhi: Transcendence through meditation, connection with all living things

In the post-classical era, “yoga masters created a system of practices designed to rejuvenate the body and prolong life. They rejected the teachings of the ancient Vedas and embraced the physical body as the means to achieve enlightenment.” (Source: Yoga Basics) What emerged from this period is the hatha yoga we may be familiar with today.

And that brings us to modern yoga. This period is believed to have started in 1893, when Swami Vivekananda attended the Parliament of Religions in Chicago, IL, USA. People really liked what he had to say about ending violence and fanaticism. From there, yoga began to make some headway in the West, but it wasn’t until the ’60s that it began to pick up steam. Yoga has seen many evolutions in the modern period, and continues to change and adapt to our world even now.

Do I have to be Hindu to do yoga?

My short answer to that question is: no.

Firstly, some aspects of yoga are seen in other religions such as Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism. In fact, people used to think yoga was a Buddhist invention. Like practitioners of yoga, Buddhists believe in meditation, mindfulness, and overcoming the ego. The concept of karma is seen in the above-mentioned religions as well as in yoga.

Secondly, yoga is not actually a religion itself. It may be a spiritual practice, but that doesn’t mean that you need to be religious to do yoga.

Spirituality vs religion

Let me lay all my cards on the table here: I am not a member of any religion. However, I do respect the beliefs of others. It is not my intention here to downplay the importance of religion in anybody’s life.

So. With that said, let’s discuss the crucial differences between spirituality and religion. I define spirituality as a belief in something greater than oneself. I define religion as an organized system of behaviour, rules, and worship. And of course, at the heart of a religion is a deity or more.

To that end, I would argue that yoga is spiritual, but not religious. There is no deity in yoga. There is no worship. There is meditation, there is sometimes chanting, there is reference to very old beliefs and words, but none of these things have to have a religious context.

When one meditates, it doesn’t have to be a prayer. Or it can, but it can be to the deity(ies) of your choice. According to Christians Practicing Yoga:

Rather than seeking to know about God through words, thoughts, and images, the meditator is seeking to experience God directly with the awareness of loving faith and God’s indwelling presence.

Many of the foundational ideas of yoga can also cross through several religions, as is seen in the example of karma. For another example, Christians, like yogis, believe in compassion for others and selflessness.

One great thing about yoga is that instructors are so different from one another. If you take a certain class that involves elements your religious beliefs don’t enjoy, speak to the studio and see if there is another class that is more secular.

These days, many people even see yoga as more of a form of fitness than as a spiritual practice. After all, we pay to take classes, we often wear workout clothes and buy equipment. To me that doesn’t sound like an inherently religious experience.

Each individual yogi attributes their actions within their practice to whatever belief system they want to — even if that belief system is not associated with a formal religion. You are always free to not do something in a class that makes you uncomfortable.


Originally published at confidentyoga.com on September 16, 2015.