Over the years, yoga practice has been classified as many things, from physical exercise and a rehabilitation tool to meditation and spiritual discipline.
Some of these definitions are universally agreed upon, while others… Not so much. One of the highly debated questions, for instance, is whether yoga should be considered a religion.
After all, it shares many attributes with Hinduism and Buddhism, but is yoga a religion in its own right, on par with other major faith systems?
This article gets into the nitty-gritty of the different aspects of yoga that should help us definitively answer this question. We will examine:
Before we get any further, I want to address the sensitive nature of the subject. As a person not affiliated with any religion but heavily involved in the yoga world, I thought that my views on this topic would provide an unbiased account.
However, I recognize that religion is a very personal matter, and I want to stress that I respect every person’s freedom to practice the religion of their choosing.
I acknowledge that this is a nuanced topic, which is why I also welcome discourse in order to further educate myself. If you have thoughts on this matter, whether you agree with my conclusions or not, I encourage you to share your opinions in the comments.
What is Religion?
Before we can compare the yoga practice with other religious practices, it’s important to narrow down how we define religions. Although beliefs and practices differ dramatically, sometimes even within the same religion, there are certain things that consistently appear throughout.
The commonly accepted definition of religion is a system of beliefs and worship of a higher power, often accompanied by regular practices and special rituals.
Each religion has its own set of rules or guidances that the followers of that faith are expected to adhere to. The aim of these guidances is typically to help the practitioners lead a virtuous life and improve the lives of those around them.Does any of it sound like yoga to you?
6 Similarities Between Yoga and Religion
We wouldn’t even be asking ourselves whether yoga should be considered a religious practice if it weren’t for the number of similarities yoga shares with commonly practiced religions.
1. Sacred Texts
Major religions have foundational scriptures like the Bible, the Torah, or the Quran. Some people choose to follow these texts literally, while others interpret them within the context of modern times.
2. Transcendent Realities
At its core, religion is based on faith in higher powers or deities. This also extends to belief in miraculous events, the power of prayer, and some form of afterlife or reincarnation.
While yoga does not usually involve worship or belief in a higher power, it does suggest the existence of transcendent states and the power that comes from achieving samadhi.
3. Rituals and Daily Practices
Both yoga and religious practices encourage particular behaviors and rituals. Of course, this does not apply to every expression of religion or yoga.
For instance, Orthodox Judaism and Ashtanga Yoga have certain guidances for women on their period.
Another example would be daily prayers (Salah) in Islam, which are performed in correlation with the solar cycle. Certain yoga practices, like Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutations), is also designed to be carried out at a particular time of the day.
Many yogic traditions migrated from Hinduism and Buddhism, which is why there is a major overlap with Hindu and Buddhist religious practices. Some examples include meditation (dhyana), breathwork (pranayama), and pilgrimage to sacred sites (yatra).
4. Chants and Songs
Along with yogic mantra recitation, many people engage in singing or chanting as part of their religion. In fact, the tradition of reciting mantras migrated to yoga from Hinduism and Buddhism.
In some cases, chanting and singing is a way to establish a connection with the divine. Other times, it’s used as a way to bring community together.
5. Ethical Guidance
Many religions and yoga traditions provide ethical guidelines or moral precepts that guide behavior and interactions with others. These principles often emphasize compassion, truthfulness, non-violence, and integrity.
Within the context of yoga, these guidelines are framed as a necessary step on a path to enlightenment. In religious context, these rules and guidelines help practitioners connect with the divine and in some cases, be rewarded in some form.
Both yoga and religion often seek to facilitate a deeper understanding of the self and one’s place in the world. They encourage introspection, self-reflection, and the pursuit of inner peace.
Similarly, both yoga and religion emphasize the cultivation of positive qualities and virtues, such as kindness, compassion, humility, gratitude, and forgiveness, as a means to lead a meaningful and fulfilling life.
4 Differences Between Yoga and Religion
It’s important to note that while there are several commonalities, there are also significant differences between specific religions and yoga traditions. Here are some of the main differences between the two:
1. Purpose and Goals
In addition to the common pursuits outlined above, one of the major goals of yoga is to promote physical and mental well-being through postures, breathing exercises, and meditation. This holistic approach to health makes quite a clear distinction between yoga and religion.
2. Deity Worship
Religion usually involves a belief in deities, gods, or a higher power that holds a central role in the belief system. Conversely, yoga is not built upon a belief in higher power or worship.
3. No Exclusivity Clause
Most religions promote exclusive spiritual devotion. If a person wants to transition from one religion to another, they are required to undergo a specific process that officially converts them.
It is very rare to see an example of syncretism, where two or more religions are blended into a unique practice.
However, yoga does not adhere to such exclusivity rules. It can be practiced by individuals with varying religious or spiritual beliefs, including atheism or agnosticism.
4. Organized Institution
Although it is possible to be follow a certain faith outside of organized religion, many belief systems have organized institutions, clergy, and formal worship practices, such as ceremonies, rituals, and congregational gatherings.
On the other hand, yoga is not associated with formal religious institutions or organized worship services. For the most part, it is a personal practice that can be pursued individually or in group settings.
Dangers of Treating Yoga as Religion
As you can see, there are significant diversions between yoga and traditional religious practices. However, this does not stop people from practicing yoga as if it were a religion.
Unfortunately, treating yoga as a religion can potentially lead to several risks.
Misunderstanding and Misrepresentation
When yoga is equated with a religion, there’s a risk of misunderstanding its true nature and purpose. Yoga’s approach to well-being and spiritual development may be overshadowed by a focus on religious elements.
Associating yoga exclusively with a particular religious tradition, like Hinduism, can also lead to cultural appropriation. This happens when elements of a culture, such as rituals or symbols, are used without proper understanding or respect for their cultural significance.
Lack of Critical Thinking
When yoga is viewed solely as a religious practice, practitioners may be less inclined to critically evaluate the teachings, methods, or leadership within a yoga community. This can potentially lead to blind faith and a susceptibility to manipulation.
This is not exclusive to yoga. As a rule, religions have established doctrines and creedal statements that followers are expected to uphold. However, a dogmatic approach to any belief system can make it difficult to navigate through life in a contemporary setting.
It is important to remember that yoga is intended to be a flexible practice that can be adapted to individual needs.
Exploitation and Manipulation
The biggest danger of yoga being treated as a religion is that certain people or groups may take advantage of people’s faith and trust. In such cases, yoga is often used as a means to exert control, manipulate beliefs, or exploit followers for personal gain.
I wish I could say that these are isolated incidents. However, the number of scandals in the yoga community that involve a formerly revered figure speaks for itself.
As much as yogic teachings promote the shedding of ego, there have been several cases that demonstrate how corrupt spiritual leaders abused their authority, engaged in exploitative practices, or committed financial or emotional manipulation.
Most notably, the revelations about the founder of Ashtanga, Pattabhi Jois, and the atrocities he had committed, shook the community to its core.
Of course, such cases are not representative of the broader yoga community. However, these incidents tend to occur when vulnerable individuals come to gurus and spiritual leaders in search of guidance and connection to the divine.
It’s crucial for practitioners to be aware of their rights and boundaries and to approach any yoga group with religious undertones with a healthy degree of skepticism and scrutiny. It is also up to us as a community to identify and condemn unethical practices within the yoga world.
Conclusion: Is Yoga a Religion?
While there can be overlap in some philosophical and spiritual aspects, it’s important to recognize that yoga and religion are distinct concepts with their own unique aims, practices, and beliefs.
The good news is, people can integrate elements of both yoga and religion into their personal belief systems in a way that is meaningful to them without sacrificing their faith.
Dr. Hansaji Yogendra, the director of the Yoga Institute, gracefully addresses the topic of religion and spirituality and the confusion it creates for yoga practitioners.