Approaches to the True Goal of Yoga (part 1)
“Yoga is in Religion. Religion is not in Yoga” … Swami J.
Yoga practices that involve the body, mind, and breath, including the transcendent goal of direct experience may be found in many religions. None of these typically define any specific religion, nor do the followers of any faith commonly practice them.
Yoga basically means “union.” It signifies the joining together of the many aspects of ourselves, aspects which were never divided to begin with.
To suggest the word Yoga constitutes a religion makes little sense, just as using the word union or holistic would embody a religion.
Bear in mind that no universal agreement exists to support these distinctions, or even an accurate definition of yoga for that matter. In spite of this, many people feel that yoga and religion differ entirely. Others choose to believe they are closely aligned.
Characteristics of Yoga
So, the question arises: What is involved in religion that’s absent from Yoga? Here are characteristics of Yoga:
- no deity to worship
- no worship services to attend
- no rituals to perform
- no sacred icons
- no creed or formal statement of religious belief
- no requirement for a confession of faith
- no ordained clergy or priests to lead religious services
- no institutional structure, leader or group of overseers
- no membership procedure
- no congregation of members or followers
- no system of temples or churches
To emphasize that Yoga is not religion — or that Yoga is in religion, but religion not in Yoga, is simply stating facts. And any suggestion that one should or should not practice religion is contrary to what is being described here.
Religion can be quite useful, and many would claim it to be essential to their lives. However, anyone can practice yoga whether or not they observe a religion.
Regular practitioners of yoga are likely to be very clear about yoga being independent of religion. Nonetheless, some religious beliefs differ radically from others. For example, some faiths claim that only certain foods should be eaten while others prescribe that these same food items should be forbidden.
Others suggest polygamy, while some require monogamy. Many agree with modern medical treatments, while a few believe that healing is solely God’s job.
Groups of people insist on social freedom, while others adhere to a strict religious discipline. And the list goes on.
Is practicing Yoga a religion?
Basic yogic practices such as calming the autonomic nervous system through Pranayama (diaphragmatic breathing) are considered by some a religious tradition. Others see this as a universal human process from which anyone, religious or not, can benefit.
Making the body flexible is sometimes assumed to be a part of religion. Alternatively, it can be also be seen as simple physical exercise, or part of a non-sectarian, systematic meditation.
All the while, as we observe religious customs that may seem odd to us or to others, these realities reflect the diversity of humanity.
Using the considerations outlined in this blog will not be much help in resolving any issues or even offering a solution. It does seem useful to accept that, to some degree, there will be people who consider yoga as religion. This will happen regardless of whether or not that belief embraces the truth.
After all, the importance of remembering to respect and honor the choices of others must not be ignored.
Next: True Yoga: On or off the Mat?