Is Yoga a Religion? Yoga dates back to over 3,000 years and has been seen in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain texts, and used in these religious practices.
In fact, classical Yoga is considered to be part of Hindu philosophy and is described in three accent Hindu texts, as well as in the famous Bhagavad Gita. In Buddhism, it is used as a meditation technique in order to create mindfulness and enlightenment and can also be seen in ancient Buddhist texts. This is also true in Jainism, where Yoga and meditation is used to attain salvation and take the soul to freedom.
One of the most popular ancient Hindu Yoga texts is the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which is in fact a Hindu philosophical text. It is regarded as the first ever formal Yoga philosophy text and has been studied by many Indian scholars. These texts also became the basis of Ashtanga Yoga, which is based on Patanjali’s eight-limbed concept.
In ancient Tantric Buddhism (Vajrayāna), Yoga can be seen in texts that date back to the 7th century and practiced in the Mahayana tradition in order to become a Bodhisattva. It uses numerous rituals and techniques, with a guru (usually a lama) guiding students verbally on a one-on-one basis on how to achieve enlightenment.
Today, Yoga has reached all corners of the earth and is a multi-billion dollar industry in the States. American-Hindu organizations have actually tried to educate Americans in understanding that Yoga is a religious, but the truth is, Yoga is whatever you want it to be. Traditionally Yoga was part of religious practice, but in the Western world this is not the case.
What is Religion?
Religion at its core is the belief of a God and worshipping or praying to this God in some sort of temple. In Yoga, there is no God, worshipping or temple, so it cannot really be a religion. As well, Yoga is universal and has been practiced in and by many religious groups. If it were a religion itself this would not be possible, as just one group would practice it. Yoga is practiced by Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and pretty much everyone, even atheists and agnostics practice Yoga. There is no guide to say who can and cannot practice Yoga. People from all walks of life, backgrounds, and upbringings come together in a Yoga class, with the main focus being self-improvement, not religion.
In religion, there is a system of beliefs in place, which are taught often at a very young age. Anyone that grew up in a somewhat religious home will remember having to go to a church or a temple on specific holidays, or maybe even daily if raised in a more religious home. Religious beliefs and values were taught in the home; and sometimes in school, at a very young age by parents and other family members. Some people may have even attended religious classes at a church or temple as a child. In Yoga, there are values, but these come from within, they are not taught at a young age by parents or teachers. If you look at parts of the Yoga Sutra it does state non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, and fidelity, but this is also just part of being a good human being. Some could argue that this makes Yoga a religion, but in fact these things are part of all religions and are listed in nearly all religious texts.
What is Yoga?
In Sanskrit, Yoga translates to mean unite, attach, or join. It is the unification of mind, body, and spirit through breathing and movement. In the Yoga Sutras, Yoga means to concentrate, as it aids in focusing the mind and allowing it to be free from all thought for meditation.
Like religion, there are many schools of Yoga, though each of these have the same goal, which is to control the body and mind. Some schools of Yoga were created by religious groups in order to help disciples achieve their goals or to become enlightened, like Bhkati Yoga, Karma Yoga, and Hatha Yoga, though followers of these religions do not need to follow these schools in order to be a true Buddhist, Hindu, or other religious form. Yes, Yoga helps religious practitioners to set goals in terms of self-awareness and meditation, but it is not practiced by everyone. In fact, nowadays, no religious groups insist that Yoga be a regular part of one’s life in order to be a part of that religion.
Yoga is about choice and self-awareness. People that do Yoga choose to do so. Religion is also a choice, but many are born into, and raised to follow a certain religion. Some religions even believe that you have to be born into it to truly be a part of it. This is not the case with Yoga. Anyone can practice Yoga, no matter how old or how young, or what religious beliefs are followed. People that do Yoga chose to do it all on their own.
Yoga and Religion
A great thing about Yoga is that it teaches acceptance and regular practitioners tend to be very accepting of others and their choices. This is why a Yoga class today has people in it from all religious backgrounds and belief systems, and no one really cares. No matter what religion, color, or race you are this does not matter in Yoga. Everyone is welcome to join any Yoga class regardless of personal beliefs.
This goes to the very core of what Yoga means; union, as it unifies all types of people from all walks of life. When in a Yoga class, no one cares what you do for a living, where you live, how much money you make, or what religion you follow if any. It is without ego or judgment, and instead teaches practitioners to have compassion, acceptance, and goodwill not only for themselves but for those around them. Some also say that Yoga brings them closer to their religious roots even if they were not religious in the past.
Compassion, acceptance, and goodwill is often taught in religious practices, and some Yoga teachers do combine Yoga and religion into their practice and their teachings, though in the Western world this is not very common. There are still some traditional practitioners that do combine Yoga with religious philosophy, though most modern day Yogis focus on the physical aspect of the practice (the asanas) and not on the traditional philosophical ones.