Is Yoga A Religion?
I get asked this question often. It happened again last week, so I thought I’d write to you about it today.
In the west, many people seek out yoga for its health benefits or in search of balance in a busy, stressful life. But no matter what your reason for starting, yoga can also be a spiritual experience, which can lead to confusion about how the practice might conflict with religious beliefs, or even be a religion itself.
Because of its roots in the Hindu culture of India, there’s a misconception that yoga is a religion. But according to the late Georg Feuerstein, internationally acclaimed scholar and author of dozens of books on yoga, it’s not. In contrast to organised religion, yoga emphasises the direct, conscious experience of the practitioner rather than religious faith.
Religion, according to Dr Larry Dossey, an American physician and best-selling author, is defined as an organised system of faith or worship. It’s a form of spirituality involving a specific set of beliefs, worship and conduct. While yoga is not a system of faith or worship, it does cultivate a sense of connectedness with something greater than oneself. Feuerstein describes yoga as a “systematic program for peaceful living with sharpened self-awareness.” In this way, yoga can foster spirituality in a way that’s actually compatible with many different religious beliefs.
My own experience of yoga started as a journey of physical healing that was so profound it compelled me to dive deeper. So far, my personal journey has brought me to a profound belief that I’m part of something much bigger, something that we are all part of. And that the organising force of life behind this something bigger, call it God, Spirit, Allah, or whatever your name for it might be, is benevolent and intelligent. And although there’s never a guarantee that I’m going to get what I want, or what I think I want, this force has my best interests at heart. The awareness that a yoga practice helps me develop and maintain enables me to notice what life is showing me, and align with it as best as I can.
Yoga doesn’t require you to worship a particular God or hold a specific belief system. Yoga is inclusive and its benefits are available to anyone who wants to roll out a mat.