Yoga is not a religion.
That’s all. I could just drop the mic right there.
Let me repeat: Yoga. Is not. A religion.
Now, it was founded in the same culture as Hinduism, so there is some overlap (much like plenty of our Western culture overlaps with the Judeo-Christian traditions), and it can be a spiritual practice with or without the presence of god, but yoga, on it’s own, is not a religious nor necessarily spiritual practice. Frankly, there is a lot of crossover anyway between Hinduism and other religions, so if you explored Hinduism, you may be surprised that it is not so different, and in fact, much of Western religion has its roots in the older Easter religions, but I digress.
My point is that if you don’t believe in god or are agnostic, there should be nothing in yoga that compels you to change your mind. If you practice another faith, yoga will not try to convert you, and it is not going to be counter to your faith or worship. If you are religious or spiritual, you may find a lot about yoga resonates, but that is not a requirement, and most studios and gyms leave out anything that might put off people by being too spiritual. You are more likely to get those elements at a yoga ashram or with teachers and students who focus more on that.
Yoga is a lifestyle, and many faithful people of other religions will find that the tenets of yoga are in line with those of most religions.
For some people, whether or not you practice a religion or not, there are other aspects of yoga that make it an entire lifestyle, and you can practice the tenets of yoga both on and off the mat. I cannot pretend to be a guru or a master of the tenets of yoga, but I wanted to share a few with you that resonate with me, and that I think are widely applicable.
Ahimsa: This is the practice of non-violence or not causing harm. This is why many yogis are vegetarian or vegan because we believe that eating meat causes pain and suffering. Like many things, ahimsa, can be interpreted differently, which is fine. Many take this to mean protecting the environment and not causing harm by trying to live a more green life. It may mean not spraying for harmless insects in your home. It also means, of course, not harming other humans, so not fighting with, abusing or otherwise causing physical or mental harm to others. Many yogis are pacifists and anti-war. Human rights activism and yoga can go hand-in-hand. How each individual practices ahimsa is up to them, but I think most people can agree that not causing harm is a good thing and is not specific to yoga and is in line with all major religions.
Satya: Truthfulness. This means not only not lying verbally, but generally being truthful, yet kind, to yourself and to others. Pretty standard good human stuff.
Brahmacharya: This one freaks people out because they think it means celibacy. Yes, some people practice celibacy, but others practice tantra and kundalini, which both may include elements of sexuality and sensuality. For most of the world, practicing yoga does not mean not having sex, but it does mean practicing restraint and also ahimsa with regards to your partner(s).
Aparigraha: Non-possessiveness, simplicity. This is where practices such as non-attachment, aestheticism and simple living come into play. The yogic tradition believes in a simple life free from unnecessary stuff . Again, to what level you take this, is your call, but I think we can all agree that being judicious and recognizing ‘needs’ vs ‘wants’ is positive.
Asteya: This is sometimes translated as ‘righteousness.’ It includes ideals such as not cheating, stealing or coveting that with others have. This is pretty in line with the teachings of plenty of other practices and religions.
Santosha: Satisfaction or contentment. This follows along with the previous ones. Being happy with what we have and not wishing for more than we need allows for us to be more at peace.
Kara: People talk about “good karma” and “bad karma” and a sort of points system. Karma yoga is simply doing something for someone else that gives you no benefit other than the joy of doing it. Donating your time and skills can be considered karma yoga. I teach yoga for free right now and ask people to contribute donations, which I give to charity. This is my karma practice right now. It is more than writing a check, but it can be small or monumental: helping someone carry groceries they are struggling with, moving a wounded animal out of the road and calling for help, giving blood, babysitting for free for a single mom, being a foster parent. These could all be considered karma yoga and it is part of the holistic practice of yoga. God optional.
There are other tenets of yoga, and some do delve more into the realm of the more spiritual, so I will not get into them. I only wanted to share these because I think most people will believe that these practices are consistent with many religions and also many laws of modern society. By practicing yoga, meditation and relaxation, we can become more inwardly happy and find that these practices come more naturally.
For me and many practitioners, these impact our daily life. I mentioned being vegetarian or vegan because of the harm to the animal. For some, it might mean eating only ethically raised and killed meat or organic produce that causes less harm to farm workers and the environment. I have a cork mat that is sustainable rather than a plastic, chemically-based one. I also buy only ethically made yoga clothing from retailers such as Pact and Prana. I try to generally practice patience and kindness in my daily interactions. I don’t fill my home with stuff that I don’t need. I give money to charity and teach yoga for charitable donations. How you interpret these and the other tenets of yoga are up to you, but they do not need to change your religious beliefs or lack there of.
These practices may begin how you interact with others in your daily personal and professional life. Remembering ahimsa and satya in your relationships can help them to be healthier.
The names of the postures are in Sanskrit,
how do I know they aren’t Hindu?
The names of the poses are sometimes given in Sanskrit, sometimes English or whatever language is spoken where you take class. I take in Spanish sometimes, and they use the literal Spanish translations of the poses. A lot of the poses are named for animals, and at times, look a bit like the animal… if you use your imagination. Many of them, however, are anatomically literal, for example, padahastasana. Pada means ‘foot’ and hasta means ‘hand’ and they almost all end in asana, which means ‘pose’ or ‘posture.’ So this is ‘hand under foot pose.’ The only ones that have a more “religious” connotation that I can think of are ‘prayer pose’ or pranamasana and ‘goddess pose,’ but the Sanskrit used for that pose actually translates to ‘fiery angle pose,’ utkata konasana. Many religions use the palms pressed together and head bowed as a “prayer position.” My point is, the names are not Hindu nor religious.
I stumbled upon something called Praise Moves. The woman who developed this exercise format believes the opposite of me. She seems convinced that yoga is trying to convince you to be Hindu. Have a read of that page and let me know what you think. I think this person is wrong, but if you prefer taking ancient Sanskrit names and renaming them with something that aligns with your faith or agnosticism, yoga doesn’t mind. I take some issue with rebranding something that is already a thing and slapping a different name on it, but I am not going to engage in a big argument because yoga is about inclusivity and peace and harmony and oneness with whatever source you think is greater than you, even if that is nothing. She created nothing new; she simply took yoga postures, renamed them and added Jesus. Yoga is about acceptance not fear and indoctrination. (I’m not saying there have not been groups that have engaged in that, but like any cult, they are not being true to the spirit of the practice they claim to be promoting.)
But what about the chanting? That makes me uncomfortable.
Isn’t it a form of prayer to Hindu gods?
While in a yoga class, some teachers may include chanting or it may be played as background music, and this will almost always be in Sanskrit, so you likely will not understand it. Some of the mantras, may be name a Hindu deity or may reference “god” or something similar, but not always. The Sanskrit mantras are ancient and chosen not because of their literal meaning, but because of the vibrations of the sounds when they are spoken, sung and listened to. I read once that the vibrations of Sanskrit resonate at a very frequency, and those vibrations infuse our bodies with a feeling of well being. Whether you believe this or feel this doesn’t necessarily impact your practice. Knowing what the words mean is not necessarily important. If you have a teacher that chants or plays music with chants, enjoy the SOUNDS and worry less about the words. If the words are invoking a deity, no need to stress. You can’t be converted to Hinduism by hearing or repeating Sanskrit chanting, although you may start to feel energized and happy if you chant along! Many of you may have attended services in Latin, Hebrew and Koranic Arabic and also not understood precisely what was being said; I have been to services in all those languages and managed to not be converted to any of them. I LOVE sitting in Sikh Gurdwaras and listening to the chants. I have no idea what they are saying, but it is so calming to hear! As far as I’m aware, I have not become Sikh, but I have also never been turned away nor treated with anything but respect and mild curiosity when I have been entered Gurdwaras in India and in the U.S. I also enjoy going to Hindu and Buddhist temples and listening to the chanting and the bells while meditating, but that is just my preference. I am not Hindu nor Buddhist, but I just love the calming effect the music has.
You may have been in a class that ended with the word, namaste, being said by the teacher and repeated by the class with a bow. In India, this is literally a greeting one uses many times a day. Namaskar and Namaste are both greetings that you will hear. There is nothing religious about them. The translation of each is loosely, “I bow to you.” It is simply a respectful way of saying ‘hello.’ Often, we literally bow as we say the word, and sometimes with hands pressed palm-to-palm at the middle of our chest in “prayer.” When I was in India, I asked the difference, and generally, it seems that Namaskar is more formal and Namaste more familiar, but I also heard Namaskar used more specifically in the morning. ‘Sun salutation’ is translated as surya namaskar, literally to say “good morning” to the sun. Either way, at the end of a practice, saying the word and bowing to your teacher and your classmates, is simply a way of showing respect, thanking them and honoring the practice. There is nothing about god or religion in the gesture or word. You can skip it if it makes you uncomfortable. No one will mind.
You may also have been in a class where om was chanted or spoken and sometimes “om, shanti, om” or “om, shanti-shanti-shanti, om.” Om has no really literally translation, and it has been discussed by scholars for thousands of years, so I am not going to get into it. It, like many Sanskrit words, is more about the sound that it makes and the vibrations. If you feel uncomfortable saying it, you can skip it or say a word that resonates with you (“amen,” perhaps) or just, “aaaahhhhh….”
Shanti just means ‘peace.’ I don’t think anyone can find anything too religious or offensive in that! I distinctly recall a part of the Catholic service where we turn to the people around us in the pew and utter, “peace be with you.” If you don’t like saying shanti, say ‘peace.’
At the end of the day, you will put in and get out of yoga what you want. You can follow a more spiritual path or not. You can make yoga a part of your religious or spiritual practice or not. You can simply do the asanas and nothing more, or take yoga off the mat and integrate the elements of the practice into your daily life. The choice is yours and yours alone, which is the beauty of yoga! No one, least of all you, should judge you for how you practice yoga.
The only thing I want you to realize is that yoga will open its arms to you whichever god you believe in or if you believe in no god at all.
Yoga doesn’t mind!
I hope to see you on the mat soon.
- Yoga Myths (and excuses) #1 & 2#: “I’m not flexible enough to do yoga” and “I am not good at yoga”
- Yoga Myths (and excuses) #3: “I don’t like yoga”
- Yoga Myths (and excuses): #4 “Yoga isn’t enough of a workout for me” & #5 “I don’t like to exercise”
- Yoga Myths: #7 Yoga is Just Another Type of Exercise
- Yoga myths, excuses and questions: #8 Is Yoga an Example of Cultural Appropriation?
- Yoga Myths and Excuses: #9 Yoga and Pilates are for Women (and I’m a Man)
- Yoga Myths and Excuses: #10 I Don’t Have Enough Time (or energy) for Yoga