Yoga is a practice that generates much curiosity and interest in the Western world. In fact, a survey published in the Huffington Post says that in 2012 there was estimated to be over 20.5 million people practicing yoga in the U.S. alone. A more recent survey says that over 15% of Americans have done yoga in the last 6 months. Still, there remains a large sector of people who are hesitant to try yoga. There are several reasons for this; among them are: misconception of required (high) fitness level, the idea that yoga is only for the young, and also that yoga is meant for those who follow an Eastern religion.
Certainly, there are certain populations who are devout in their religion to the point of preclusion for practicing yoga. But, what exactly does yoga include that would possibly interfere with a person’s religious beliefs? Let’s consider the practice of yoga to discern whether one can participate without being a Hindu, Buddhist, or the like, and without somehow being untrue to a religion. First, is Yoga a religion? If it is, then it might possibly clash with a different religious belief. Most people think of religion as being a belief in and worship of a superhuman power, especially a personal God. The definition of yoga found on Google is:
a Hindu spiritual and ascetic discipline, a part of which, including breath control, simple meditation, and the adoption of specific bodily postures, is widely practiced for health and relaxation.
This is a broad definition that seems to focus on the practical benefits of yoga as optimizing health and managing stress, and it categorizes yoga as a discipline. Most people who have had no specific education on Yoga would probably agree with this definition.
Coming from a traditional, Western perspective, it is doubtful that Yoga would be considered a true religion. However, once one delves into the history and practices of Yoga, many ancient individuals and writings emerge, having had great influence in the practices of Yoga as it is known today. Here are a couple of terms the typical American who takes a yoga class may not know.
Bhakti Yoga: Generally called the yoga of devotion. From the Sanskrit bhaj, which means “to partake of,” bhakti yoga is one of several yogic paths said to lead to enlightenment. Bhakti emphasizes practices like chanting, devotional meditation, and prayer as a path toward union with the Divine.
Classical Yoga: Also known as eight (ashta)-limbed (anga) practice. Classical yoga typically refers to the yogic path that was set forth by Patanjali. The eight limbs are restraint, observance, posture, breath control, sense withdrawal, concentration, meditative absorption, and samadhi.
Some Yoga practitioners may be familiar with these terms and even some of the yogic text (of Patanjali) that can be used to give yogis an “intention” or focus during their yoga practice. They may also use Sanskrit words during yoga instruction such as pranayama (extended breath), drishti (gaze), savasana (corpse pose), and uddiyana bandha (abdominal lock). An uninformed person could hear these terms and think the instructor is guiding their students into an undesired, spiritual context, and depending on the focus of a yogic text; it could happen. This topic seems to be one which could be discussed and examined without end. However, in short ; what emerges most vividly is : Whether Yoga as a religion or not is most decidedly dependent on the intention of the one practicing.
Materially, to a Yoga newcomer, observing the practice of Classical Yoga could lead them to believe there is significant religious devotion occurring. Nonetheless, the observer’s initial assessment could dramatically change after conversing with the yogi about their intentions throughout the yoga practice. One could focus on the beliefs present in Hinduism while in standing bow pose. Alternately, another could just as easily breathe through that same challenging pose, while thanking God (the God of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam) for the ability to do so. In both cases, the individuals are engaging belief, power, discipline, and pursuit of their own specific spirituality.
They are using Yoga as a tool within their own religions, and it seems that most Yoga philosophers would applaud such situations. They would assert that Yoga is meant to serve the yogi; rather than the yogi serving Yoga. Alternately, there are yoga philosophers who maintain that separating Yoga from the ancient Vedic philosophies renders the practice of its true worth and identity as null. This thought would find resistance in the testimonies of thousands of people who have practiced Yoga without chanting or delving into Yogic tradition, and yet have found greater peace, physical health, and self-awareness. Sometimes, as they say, “the proof is in the pudding.”
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Other definitions of interest:
Dharma: Has many different meanings depending on how it is used. Dharma is often referred to as “righteousness” or “virtue.” In this article, dharma is used to describe the belief that the universe contains one consciousness, which is different from a specific God.
- Krishnamacharya: Often called the father of modern yoga. Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya attended the Royal College of Mysore before devoting himself to esoteric yoga studies. He later became the yoga teacher to a royal family in Mysore, where he taught a unique blend of asana, pranayama, meditation, devotional practices, and philosophy. His students included Iyengar Yoga founder B. K. S. Iyengar; Ashtanga Yoga founder K. Pattabhi Jois; and his son T. K. V. Desikachar, renowned in his own right as a teacher of therapeutic yoga and yogic scriptures and philosophy.
Patanjali: The man credited with compiling, systematizing, and putting into written form the yoga philosophy now known as classical yoga. While virtually nothing is known about him (or if he was, indeed, even a single individual), Patanjali is thought to have created the Yoga Sutra, an important yogic text, about 2,500 years ago.
Sanatana Dharma: The original name of what is now popularly called Hinduism. The word sanatana means “perpetual” or “continuous,” and dharma is often interpreted as “virtue” or “righteousness.”
Vedas/Vedic/Vedantic: The Vedas are the oldest scriptures of the sacred canon of Hinduism. Veda means “knowledge.” Vedic means “pertaining to the Vedas.” Vedantic refers to a system of philosophy that is based on the Vedas.