Is Yoga a Religion? A Beginner's Guide
Have you ever wondered whether yoga is a religion? We break it down - from yoga's roots in Hinduism, Christianity and Buddhism, to it's modern day evolution as a spiritual and philosophical practice.
We know one thing for sure – nobody knows when yoga began. Some believe that yoga goes back over 4000 years, to the Indus. But was yoga ever a religion?
Is yoga a religion?
Although millions of yogis give thanks to their mat every day, yoga is not, and never has been, a religion in its own right.
It does have in common with many religions the idea of personal contemplation; of finding a personal sense of peace, satisfaction and life’s deeper meaning. However, unlike religion, it has no formal creed, set of rituals or obligations – unless you count the discipline of a regular practice.
Given the lack of formal creed, it’s more accurate to call it a spiritual practice than a religious one.
Is yoga connected to religion?
We often get asked, ‘how is yoga related to religion?’
Although yoga is not a religion in itself, it is connected to religion, and stems historically from Hinduism, but also to Jainism and Buddhism.
Both Buddhists and Hindus chant the sacred mantra ‘Om’ during their meditation. ‘Om’ is said to echo the sound of harmony in the universe. You can chant ‘Om’ however, without being a part of a religion, as the mantra isn’t necessarily religious, but more about feeling connected to other people.
Even though the modern branches of yoga are no longer religious, yoga retains its roots in contemplation and reflection. However, twenty-first century yogis, whether religious or not, can still experience that sense of self and place in the world – a lovely thread that connects us to other yogis past and present.
Yoga and Hinduism
The practice of yoga within the Hindu religion has a long history. We won’t get bogged down with the details (too many thousands of years!) but here are the basics to get you up to speed.
It’s first featured in The Upanishads, a collection of more than 200 Hindu scriptures, which describe meditation techniques that help bring us closer to our true Self, or Atman. These Hindu texts teach us that we are a part of something much bigger than our own individual personalities and daily lives. Hinduism teaches us that we are all drops of rain in the ocean, and the ocean is Brahman, the universal spirit.
That’s where the idea of togetherness comes from in yoga. Not only are mind, body and spirit all one, but all of us are One – one being, in community and a shared life experience.
The Hindu understanding of yoga.
Hindus traditionally practiced yoga to achieve stillness, to put the chattering mind on pause and to try and be at one with the world – as well as practicing the universal love of Brahman.
Just as we’ve all struggled to find a place to put our mat in a busy yoga class, we’ve all wondered where on earth we fit in the grand scheme of things. Next time you’re in the yoga studio changing room, swapping your layers of work clothes for your yoga wear think of it as a metaphor for what you’re going to be doing on your yoga mat - stripping away the outer layers of personality to find a way to your true Self, and in communion with the rest of your class.
Yoga and Buddhism
Yoga and Buddhism share the practice of mindfulness. Millennia ago in India, the Buddha—himself a hardcore yogi, practiced and studied with the yoga teachers of his day, before he went on to guide others.
Buddhists, like Hindus, believe that reality distracts us from truth and that you have to hit snooze on the daily grind to find inner peace, and to see yourself as you truly are.
The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, an ancient text that explains the real-life application of yoga, was strongly influenced by Buddhism. Other than the focus on being loving and giving, karma – the belief that the way you act in the world will come back round to you at some time – is an idea influenced by Buddhist practice.
Yoga and Christianity
Other than being concerned your Warrior pose is on point, some people are concerned with whether or not they should be doing yoga at all. In 2012, one Christian church banned yoga classes claiming it was a Hindu spiritual exercise. They obviously hadn’t read our blog!
Can Christians do yoga? Of course! Although Instagram may make it seem like you have to swear an oath to Birkenstocks before you can call yourself a yogi, in modern Western culture there’s no need to be of a specific religion to practice yoga.
To many in the West, yoga is almost entirely disassociated from religion. It’s just understood as the simple notion that the body and mind are in close relationship. Equally, however, you can practice yoga as a way to feel closer to any higher power you believe in.
However, most yoga users can’t help but experience an altered perspective on life – an evolution in perceived purpose and values that leads to profound life changes.
In this sense, even though the modern branches of yoga are no longer religious, yoga remains true to its contemplative roots – helping us strip away the layers that separate us from our true nature; revealing a new sense of Self and a new sense of our place in the world.
Therefore, the answer to the question ‘is yoga bad for Christians?’ is simple. Yoga isn’t bad for anyone, but it does do universal good. Whether you’re after a little bit of calm, or a new workout, anyone can get the benefit of a yoga class.
Is yoga a religion or philosophy?
Although yoga has its roots in religion it’s not in itself a religion and is better understood as a spiritual practice. However, yoga has a strong philosophy – the philosophy that the spirit, the mind and the body are one. In fact, yoga is built on the philosophy that there is more to life than just the body and that if we bring the inner spirit and the body together, we can reach a state of peace.
Yoga can also be thought of as a science. There are now thousands of clinical studies proving the efficacy of yoga for a variety of health conditions – from arthritis to cancer to everyday stress.
Is Bhakti Yoga a religion?
Bhakti Yoga is not a religion in its own right. It’s just one of many yoga practices within Hinduism, focusing on loving devotion towards God, and is practiced by Hare Krishna monks and new mums, stressed-out-students and banking managers alike.
The Sanskrit word ‘bhakti’ comes from the word bhaj, which means "to adore God” or “to worship God." Because Bhakti yoga is about a personal relationship with God, there is a focus on love and devotion.
Bhakti yoga, like any other type of yoga, is a road towards self-realisation, and experiencing calm, peace and oneness with everything. Therefore, many modern Western yogis focus more on a non-specific idea of harmony, peace and truth, rather than trying to connect with any deity.
A note from us…
Whether you see yoga as a sport, a meditation, your own personal religion, or just the struggle to reach your toes, anyone can do it. Remember, there’s inner sanctity in you somewhere! Even on a Monday morning!
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is a yoga advocate and writer with three yoga books to her name, including the beloved travel memoir Yoga School Dropout. She writes regularly for the national press, has authored over 150 guides to types of yoga and yoga poses, discovered nearly 250 proven health benefits of yoga through her painstaking classification of 300 clinical studies, and collected more than 500 personal testimonials to the real life benefits of yoga. She is also the creator of our yoga shop – YogaClicks.Store – handpicking yoga brands that are beautifully made by yogis committed to environmental and social sustainability.