Yoga: Religion versus Spirituality

My parents are both deeply spiritual as opposed to religious (see definition below) and having grown up in an atheist home, I’ve always been fairly sceptical when it came to following or committing to a mainstream doctrine. My mum and my dear old gran were both yoginis, so maybe I was brainwashed in that respect from an early age, in the way that many kids are in many ways led by what their role models do in front of them on a daily basis. I’ve definitely held a somewhat romantic idea of being a ‘child of the Universe’ and a believer of science rather than any specific school of thought from an early age, but as I grow older and (hopefully) wiser, I find that I am teetering increasing between the two – old school vs new school; orthodox vs (perceived) hippy-chick weirdness. The thing that makes it even more interesting (well, to me at least; perhaps you find it deathly boring, in which case I would suggest that you close your browser pretty much now) is that my sister went the other way, embracing the old school, orthodox and reborn way of thinking about religion. Thank heavens (safe enough?) that we have learnt to respect our differences as the years march on.

Herewith some explanations of some of my current thoughts.

Yoga, for some, becomes a spiritual experience, leading to confusion about how its practice impacts one’s religious beliefs. Fortunately, the vast majority of people who explore yoga actually discover that it strengthens and deepens their own faith.

In her book Back Care Basics, Dr. Mary Pullig Schatz explains: “Because yoga has its roots in the Hindu culture of India, there is a popular misconception that yoga is a religion. Just as the practice of the Japanese martial arts of karate and aikido does not require becoming a Buddhist, the practice of yoga does not require you adopt Hinduism. Rather yoga is non-sectarian, promoting health and harmonious living.”

Yoga is fabulous for physical health. A regular regimen will strengthen your muscles, increase your flexibility and improve your balance. In Western cultures, many people pursue the practice strictly for these benefits. However, most long-term yoga participants discover that the ultimate goal of yoga is to strengthen your connection with the source of all creation. In many cultures, this source is called God. In other cultures, the source has different names. Regardless of your religious beliefs, the practice of yoga enhances your physical and mental well-being and can strengthen your relationship to what she calls ‘the Divine’.

So, what is the difference between spirituality and religion?

Dr. Larry Dossey, a leader in the field of spirituality and healing, describes spirituality as “a sense of connectedness with something greater than oneself.” Dr. Rachel Remen describes it in this way: “Spirituality is inclusive. We all participate in the spiritual at all times, whether we know it or not. There’s no place to go to be separated from the spiritual. The most important thing in defining the spirit is the recognition that spirit is an essential need of human nature.”

Religion is an organized system of faith or worship. According to Dr. Dossey, it is “a ritualized form of spirituality involving a specific set of beliefs, worship and conduct.” As a path for spiritual growth, yoga enhances and deepens many different religious practices. Yoga is not a system of faith or worship, but it does foster a sense of connectedness with something greater than oneself. In other words, yoga fosters spirituality in a way that is compatible with many different religious beliefs.

Next question: How does one practice spirituality in yoga?

Many people begin to cultivate a greater sense of connection with each other, with the physical world and with the Divine simply by practicing the physical postures, control of the breath and meditation. People who choose to can also study the moral precepts of yoga. These guidelines for healthy living are known as the yamas and the niyamas.

The yamas are universal guidelines for ways of interacting with others and include nonviolence, truthfulness, no stealing, moderation and no hoarding. The niyamas are personal observances and include purity, contentment, zeal, self-study and devotion to a higher power. Together, the yamas and the niyamas are moral and behavioral observances that serve as a catalyst to self-acceptance, healthy relationships and spiritual growth.

The Million Dollar Question: Yoga – a religion or not?

At the closing ceremony of the “Yoga into the 21st Century” conference in New York City in September of 2000, T.K.V. Desikachar offered some thought-provoking comments on the subject of the relationship between hatha yoga and religion. “Yoga was rejected by Hinduism,” he noted, “because yoga would not insist that God exists. It didn’t say there was no God but just wouldn’t insist there was.” And, he added, there was an important lesson for yogis inherent in this schism: “Yoga is not a religion and should not [affiliate] with any religion.”

One could easily argue in support of Mr. Desikachar’s assertion: Yoga has no singular creed, nor does it have any ritual by which adherents profess their faith or allegiance, such as baptism or confirmation. There are no religious obligations, such as attending weekly worship services, receiving sacraments, fasting on certain days, or performing a devotional pilgrimage.

On the other hand, there are ancient yogic texts (most notably, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras) that many regard as scriptures, revelations of truth and wisdom meant to guide the lives of yogis down through the ages. And there is an elaborate moral code (the yamas and niyamas, as mentioned above) that, while not uniformly espoused or understood, is widely studied and promulgated. Likewise, while there is significant variety in the ways hatha yoga is taught, raising questions about what is and is not a proper yoga posture, most yogis would probably tell you that they’d know a pose when they saw one, leading one to suggest that the various schools of yoga could be considered “sects” of a larger quasi-religion.

Still, most would disavow the term “religion” if it were applied to yoga. This begs the question: If hatha yoga is not a religion, what is it? Is it a hobby, a sport, a fitness regimen, a recreational activity? Or is it a discipline such as the study of law or the practice of medicine? The odd truth is that there are ways in which the practice of yoga resembles all of those pursuits.

Perhaps it would be helpful to consider the difference between the word “religion” and another word commonly associated with it, “spirituality.” Spirituality, it could be said, has to do with one’s interior life, the ever-evolving understanding of one’s self and one’s place in the cosmos—what Viktor Frankl called humankind’s “search for meaning.” Religion, on the other hand, can be seen as spirituality’s external counterpart, the organizational structure we give to our individual and collective spiritual processes: the rituals, doctrines, prayers, chants, and ceremonies, and the congregations that come together to share them.

The fact that so many yogis report spiritual experiences in their practices indicates how we might best view the ancient art. While many Westerners come to yoga primarily for its health benefits, it seems safe to say that most people who open to yoga will, in time, find its meditative qualities and more subtle effects on the mind and emotions equally (if not more) beneficial. They will, in other words, come to see yoga as a spiritual practice. But, without credos or congregations, it can’t properly be regarded as a religion—unless we say that each yogi and yogini comprises a religion of one.

So, what do you say? Is yoga your religion, or does it enhance your existing faith?