Is Yoga a Religion?

Fr. Tom Ryan, CSP

In his audio course on “The Lost Teachings of Yoga,” Georg Feuerstein, internationally known for his many interpretative studies of the yoga tradition and author of thirty books, including The Shambhala Encyclopedia of Yogamakes it clear from the start that yoga is not a religion. It proposes no gods or saviors; it moves forward on the grounds of experiential confirmation rather than religious faith.

Yoga can be thought of variously as a science, a philosophy, a spiritual and a physical practice. It is a science because its overall effects are predictable if its ways are followed. Thus, the postures with deep breathing are linked with observation, acceptance, and understanding.

As a philosophy, classical yoga has a view of the human being as immortal. In Christian understanding as well, once we are created, we are in existence for all eternity.

As a spiritual and physical practice, yoga is a positive and comprehensive approach to holistic health through the integration of body, mind, and spirit; as such, it is a valuable instrument to promote one’s spiritual well-being. Feuerstein describes it as a “systematic program for peaceful living with sharpened self-awareness.”

In Feuerstein’s teaching, yoga has two primary meanings: union and discipline.

Union: the very word “yoga” means to “yoke”, to unite the body-mind in harmony.

Discipline: integral yoga is an approach to life that seeks to unite all the aspects of our living, e.g. our inner, spiritual life and our relations with others.

Putting all this together, one could say that yoga is a system of practices for the development of human potential. It attempts to stimulate our nature’s optimal fulfillment. While it has an eastern origin, it transcends both the cultural and geographical boundaries that initially supported it. It is not necessarily tied to Hindu cultural expressions or even Hindu philosophical understandings such as karma and reincarnation. Thus it has become a valued practice/instrument in the lives of people from all religions or none.

In his book The Deeper Dimension of Yoga, Feuerstein acknowledges that some Westerners who are practicing Christians or Jews are concerned about yoga being an Eastern religion. They fear that by taking up the practice of yoga, they might undermine their own religious faith.  Feuerstein writes:

Yoga, it is quite true, has historically been associated with India’s three great religious-cultural traditions—Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Thus the teachings of yoga are infused with many concepts that have a Hindu, Buddhist, or Jaina flavor…. In fact, we need not believe in anything other than the possibility that we can go beyond…our present understanding and experience of the world, and more significantly, beyond our current egocentric state of being.

How can yoga enrich the religious or spiritual life of a practicing Christian or Jew? The answer is the same as for a practicing Hindu, Buddhist, or Jaina. Yoga aids all who practice religion, regardless of their persuasion, by balancing the nervous system and stilling the mind through its various exercises (from posture to breath control to meditation). Yoga’s heritage is comprehensive enough so that anyone can find just the right techniques that will not conflict with his or her personal beliefs….

So, practicing Christians or Jews (or practitioners of any other religious tradition), should take from yoga what makes sense to them and deepens their own faith and spiritual commitment. (25, 26)

 

It is thus understood that practitioners will bring their own understanding to how you “get beyond where you are now.” A Christian, for example, would appropriately see grace working through nature, i.e., would see God working through these practices to open us up to a deeper spiritual understanding of who we are.

Clearly, some practitioners believe in a personal God, others in an Ultimate Reality that is singular and formless, still others refuse to speculate (e.g. Theravadan Buddhists). And yet all of them practice yoga. The irrefutable proof that yoga is not a religion and not necessarily tied to Hindu philosophical convictions is simply the facts on the ground: today Jews, Buddhists, Christians, people of no particular religious affiliation,  all—in addition to Hindus—practice hatha yoga. It is therefore best thought of as a software to plug into the hardware of  one’s own faith understanding and to be worked with in a way that accords with that understanding.

Where’s the common ground that Christianity shares with yoga? 

Christianity and integral yoga share some significant mutual principles and themes. Some of the more basic ways that both of them engage life:

  • The Path of Worship and Love: Christians engage in the formal practice of sacred rituals, prayer, communal ceremonies, sometimes a personal devotion to a saint. The devotional joining of the human aspiration to the divine unites and renews. In yoga, through their devotional love, participants pursue the path of bhakti yoga.
  • The Path of Service: Christians seek to imitate Jesus who said, “I came not to be served but to serve.” This call to serve is universally recognized by both East and West as a necessary path to full spiritual maturity. In yoga it is the path of karma yoga.
  • The Path of Wisdom: Christianity has a long and deep tradition of philosophical and scientific inquiry, of exploring reality, of delving into the recesses of the mind and heart and working with the energy of the body. In short, of pursuing truth and beauty. In yoga this is the path of jyana yoga.
  • The Path of Contemplation: In Christian spirituality, all forms of prayer lead ultimately to a simple “resting in God.” Christians on this path gradually transcend their discursive faculties, apprehending Truth more directly in an intuitive, contemplative manner.  In yoga this is known as raja yoga, the royal route. In classical yoga, hatha yoga is a subset of raja yoga, providing clear indication that hatha yoga—postures and breathing exercise—was originally developed to help people sit in meditation with a calmer body and a quieter, more focused mind.

Another area of resonance with yoga’s classical tradition would be the yamas (the five moral restraints or outer disciplines that govern our interactions with others), and the niyamas (the five observances or inner restraints that regulate our inner life).

The five yamas are Non-Violence, Truth, Not Stealing, Moderation, Non-Hoarding.

The five niyamas are Purity, Contentment, Zeal, Self-Reflective Awareness, Devotion to God.

When we put these two enduring moral traditions—classical yoga and the Decalogue–in dialogue with one another, we find it’s a friendly conversation and that they have much to share with one another.  For more on the yamas and niyamas, click here.

These yogic codes can strengthen our appreciation for the Christian teachings. Should it be surprising that truth converges? The experience of many in intercultural encounters is that when something of value is discovered in another philosophy or worldview or religion, it sends you back with fresh eyes and renewed appreciation for what is analogous to that in your own faith tradition which before you took for granted.

The classical tradition of Yoga represents a valuable gift from India to the world, and what makes it particularly precious is that it can be used selectively with benefit by people of different religious and philosophical understandings.