What religion is yoga? If you’re looking for a one-word answer, you’ll be hard-pushed to find one. Ultimately this is a philosophical question that goes beyond “what religion is yoga?” and forces us to ask, what is yoga? And what is religion?
To look more deeply at the categorization of yoga in this article, we’ll take a look at the following:
- What is yoga?
- What is religion?
- How has colonialism influenced yoga as a religion
- Is yoga a science?
- What religion is yoga?
In order to take a look at the broader context of yoga and religion, we have to dive into the practices, goals, and texts of yoga and the influences of not just religion but colonialism, Hinduism, and spirituality. Yoga is a tradition with a rich and varied past, and some would argue it significantly precedes Christianity and possibly religion.
While you might have been to a variety of yoga classes ranging from dogmatic to spiritual, meditative to fitness, yoga and religion have a complicated relationship that is often not acknowledged.
Some yoga studios promote spirituality and practices of bhakti openly, while others insist that their teachers revoke all Sanskrit language and philosophy, removing all traces of yoga’s past.
What is Yoga?
We have to define our terms before we can answer the question, what religion is yoga? We know that modern yoga does not have a particular faith, but it does use language like “divine” and “God.”
Unlike religion, yoga is both a systematized method of practice as well as the ultimate goal. Let’s look at the process and the state outlined in this text which highlights everything from ethical living to enlightenment.
In Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga within the Yoga Sutra, yoga is a set of practices leading to Samadhi. But what are the practices, and what is Samadhi?
- Yamas – The five Yamas are an ethical code for our interaction with the world and all things external. They consist of the following:
- Niyamas – The five niyamas are inner observances which include:
- Saucha (cleanliness)
- Santosha (contentment)
- Tapas (self-discipline/auterities)
- Svadhyaya (self-reflection/self-study)
- Ishvarapranidhana (surrender to a higher power/God)
- Asana – Literally meaning “seat,” asana is the manipulation of the body through postures. In Patanjali’s times, these would have just been seated postures, unlike the wide variety of poses developed throughout history to what we know now as modern yoga. Asana is considered a part of preparing the body to be comfortable while still for long periods.
- Pranayama – The control and retention of breath to manipulate prana or energy within the body is pranayama. There are many different methods of pranayama, some of which are kriyas which help to cleanse the body.
- Pratyahara – The withdrawal of the senses is a bridge between the external (the first five limbs) and the internal (the remaining three limbs).
- Dharana – The sixth limb is concentration. Fixating the mind on a single object is preparation for meditation.
- Dhyana – This limb is concerned with meditation on not a single object but on the mind itself.
- Samadhi – The state of complete absorption is Samadhi which is also described as bliss liberation, union with the divine, and enlightenment.
yoga as a philosophical system
With the above in mind, it would seem that yoga is a philosophical system leading to enlightenment or one reality. It is a code of living set out not as a practice manual but as a philosophical system.
Another text that gives us information about what yoga is is the Bhagavad Gita. Unlike Patanjali’s Eight Limbs, the Bhagavad Gita does not provide a methodological approach to yoga practice but explores the path of knowledge and the nature of human existence. Part of the epic The Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita is a dialogue between Krishna and Prince Arjuna.
Set amidst a family battle, Arjuna questions the ethics of fighting within the war. He seeks guidance from Krishna, who encourages Arjuna to reflect on life’s purpose, the nature of the soul, and yoga. Yoga is seen as the middle path and is arranged into three branches:
- Karma Yoga – the path of selfless action
- Jnana Yoga – the path of knowledge
- Bhakti Yoga – the path of devotion
Arjuna goes into battle with the teachings of yoga within him, but what does this have to do with answering the question of what religion is yoga? Bhakti yoga is the path of devotion to a deity. This shows yoga’s relationship to faith and religion and the worship of God.
What is religion?
Religion is a Western construct that one might argue only really applies to Christianity from which the concept stems.
On the surface, religion appears to be a “social-cultural system” that embraces all facets of life, including belief, ethics, views, morals, and community. It has one sacred text or scripture as well as sacred spaces and a link to a higher power – God.
But there is no one definition of religion because, like many cultural systems, it is fluid and reliant on the evolving culture.
Unlike yoga, there is no samsara or rebirth cycle. There is only the afterlife; however, many ritualistic elements such as prayer, mantra, alters, worship, community, and music are shared elements.
What are the Similarities between yoga and religion?
The ten commandments are often compared to the Yamas and Niyamas of Patanjali’s Eight Limbs and Bhakti Yoga, and its often, polythetic worshiping of deities have similar devotional qualities of worshipping God.
But as we can see, the main difference is that Christianity has only one unifying God. So is yoga a spiritual path rather than a religious one?
What is spirituality?
Spirituality is a belief in something other or larger than us. Originally linked with religion and connection to the “holy spirit,” it has been adopted by other traditions too. Whether worshiping a deity or God, Spirituality works on the premise that faith gives meaning to life.
Just like yoga and religion, there is no one fixed definition, but generally, the search for life’s meaning and individual purpose is at its core. It relates to personal growth and challenges the age-old question of “what’s the point?” We’ve already seen aspects of spirituality and its surrounding philosophy in the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita.
How has colonialism influenced yoga and Hinduism?
Hinduism was coined in order to view Indian systems of religion and practice through a Western lens. Hinduism, unlike Christianity, is not a belief system, and its polythetic approach makes it somewhat incompatible with the term religion.
What religion is yoga?
While yoga emphasizes knowledge and practice as part of the path, some might argue that yoga is a system of orthopraxis, meaning that it is more a code of living and action, as per Patanjali, than orthodox like Christianity.
Trying to understand yoga and Hinduism through western eyes is a bit like saying I’ll only understand your world on my own terms, which are influenced by my culture and belief system.
Yoga isn’t a religion might be the general consensus when pondering the question, “what religion is yoga?” but it’s essential to understand why we come to this conclusion.
Religion believes in one Christian God, who is the creator, the divine, and the other. This dualist thinking is different from yoga and Hindu thought which is generally non-dual or believing that we are not individual but a part of everything else – the rippling wave within the expansive ocean.
If it isn’t a type of religion, is it a science?
Indeed, some of the benefits of yoga as a practice have been scientifically studied and reported on. With the rise of mindfulness and “wellness,” people are investing in their health using holistic methods.
“Yoga is not a religion. It is a science, science of well-being, science of youthfulness, science of integrating body, mind, and soul.”- Amit Ray “Yoga and Vipassana: An Integrated Lifestyle”
It is possible to measure a yoga practice’s physical and psychological benefits over time. Still, just like religion, it is not scientifically measurable to look at the spiritual experience that is so often associated with both yoga and religion.
In this article, we have looked at many different facets of yoga and religion as a way to discern if, in fact, yoga is a religion. The unifying perspective does not work for Hinduism (and, within it, yoga), which is a term given to everything that is not Christian, Muslim, or Jewish.
We know that religion is a western construct that may not be an appropriate term to label practices and traditions from other cultures. Really the question is, what is taken away from yoga if we take the word religion away?
Yoga is fluid and adaptable, and to finish; I’ll leave you with what religion yoga is not – Christianity.
Ready to find out more?
If looking at yoga, religion, philosophy, and culture has left you wanting to explore all things yoga further, then why not take a deep dive into What Does Yoga Mean?