Is Yoga A Religion? This question has come up a lot in the recent weeks. From my students in our Yoga Teacher Training classes to my Yoga privates with a Christian Missionary doctor, I figured this topic would be an insightful addition to our blog where it can be eternally accessed as this questions arises again in the future.
I was born and raised in India. In fact, I have lived there most of my life – so yes, that makes me a Hindu. Since Yoga made it’s entry into the Western world, there has been some amount of controversy about whether or not Yoga is a religion. Does the practice of yoga poses and an occasional OM chant endanger your own faith, whatever that might be?
The simple answer to is NO, Yoga is not a religion. But then isn’t Yoga a part of Hinduism? The problem here is that people do not have a clear understanding of what Hinduism really means or what it is. The word ‘Hindu‘ is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Sindhu‘, a prominent river that flows through the Northwestern part of the Indian sub-continent, and the word itself has evolved with time. The term ‘Hindu‘ referred to the ethnic communities that lived in and around the Sindhu (also known as Indu or Indus river). It is believed that the Persians who came to this land could not pronounce the ‘S’ in Sindhu and became an ‘H’, making it Hindhu.
It is a well-known fact that India has been invaded by many foreign rulers through the ages, all of whom influenced the natives in one way or the other. At one point, Muslim invaders labeled the land as “Hindustan“, signaling that the people who lived there were Hindus. The other explanation for the word Hindustan is the Hindu Kush mountain range – anyone who wished to conquer the land had to cross this difficult range, and the land beyond this range was Hindustan.
But fast forward to modern day, Hinduism is not a religion because it does not have a prophet, a religious text that preaches the dos and don ts, and does not worship one God or subscribe to any dogma. Hinduism, if anything, is a way of life for the people born in India. This includes Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Buddhists and any other religion in India – though personal fear of religious encroachment propagated by religious fanatics has led certain schools of thought to exclude Muslims and Christians from being called Hindus.
The misunderstanding of whether Yoga is a religion is a result of a half-baked understanding about the history, origins, and evolution of Yoga through time. It is up to Yoga teachers to bring clarity about the practice to their students, dissolving any fears that they might have about Yoga being a religion. Though you can most certainly take certain aspects of Yoga and use them in religion, on it’s own it is not a religion.
In 1995, Chief Justice P. B. Gajendragadkar was quoted in an Indian Supreme Court ruling:
“When we think of the Hindu religion, unlike other religions in the world, the Hindu religion does not claim any one prophet; it does not worship any one god; it does not subscribe to any one dogma; it does not believe in any one philosophic concept; it does not follow any one set of religious rites or performances; in fact, it does not appear to satisfy the narrow traditional features of any religion or creed. It may broadly be described as a way of life and nothing more.”
Deepak Chopra, MD, Founder of The Chopra Foundation, author, public speaker, physician, La Jolla, California
In answering the question, “Is Yoga a Religion?”
“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 behavior 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.”
We must also pause to understand that for most of us Yoga is a means of staying healthy. We go a yoga studio a couple of times a week and do a variety of yoga poses to stretch, strength and de-stress. This act by itself in no means threatens one’s own faith. To think of yoga practice as religion would be denying us the vast benefit we can get through the ancient wisdom of Yoga. Yoga originated in India, but belongs to the world. If the Yoga studio you went to made Yoga uncomfortable for you, try another one before deciding that Yoga is not for you. You will find yourself thoroughly enriched by this ancient practice in your body, mind and spirit.