Is the Sticky Mat an Altar?

A survey of opinions on whether yoga is a religion offers a range of answers to suit any predisposition or bias. Passionate, polarized debates on ‘what yoga is’ surface time and again in books, on websites, and during awkward discussions with family members or friends trying to understand what it is that has drawn their loved one to this mysterious ancient practice. Is it religion masquerading as exercise? Eastern mysticism? A fitness regimen? Applied Hinduistic theism? A sister tradition to Buddhism? Pantheist philosophy? An atheist doctrine bent on sabotaging Christian beliefs? The answer—or at least a template for diagnosing the sources of conflicting viewpoints—lies in a nuanced understanding of yoga’s complex history and an appreciation of the underpinnings of the word ‘religion’ itself.

Employing yoga’s broadest definition — any act aimed at self-surrender to merge with truth — it is able simultaneously to embrace, to entirely bypass, or to strengthen religion.

Is yoga religion? Yoga practitioners and teachers show up on different sides of multiple fences in deliberations on this question, just as religious groups widely differ in their views on whether religion and yoga practice are equivalent sides of the same spiritual coin. Depending on the definer’s bias and whether a given definition focuses on just one limb of classical yoga’s eight-point system, yoga is described with equally confident conviction as: a Hindu theistic philosophy; a pantheistic value set involving an elaborate moral code; a system of exercises for attaining bodily or mental control and well being; an organized science for establishing a link between the individual and universal consciousness; and a spiritual discipline to unite body, mind, and spirit.

A handful of religious groups periodically stir up headline-grabbing opposition to yoga, forbidding or strongly discouraging their members from studying or practicing it. In extreme cases, resistance manifests as dire warnings and threats of reprimand or censure for congregation members who take up yoga. While the specific reasons given for the opposition to yoga vary, at the more strident end of the reaction spectrum most are variations on the theme of gullible individuals lured to yoga with the promise of physical benefits who are subsequently duped — transformed into unwitting agents of disguised, even ‘demonic,’ proselytizers covertly intent on toppling established religions or other belief structures.

Most yoga studios in the US operate unimpeded and some offer explicit assurances that yoga does not seek to interfere with a student’s existing faith. Some religious communities, moreover, enthusiastically embrace yoga and encourage members to partake of its physical and stress relieving benefits. Reassurances by the yoga community play an important role here, particularly if there is an effort to voluntarily codify a pledge to steer clear of disrespecting a student’s existing spiritual practice or religion. Embedded in the California Yoga Teachers Code of Conduct, for example, is a pledge to “show sensitive regard for the moral, social, and religious standards of students and groups,” that specifically assures students that teachers will “avoid imposing [their] belief on others, although [the teachers] may express them when appropriate in the yoga class.”

Several strands of traditional faiths openly embrace yoga by merging the meditative qualities of a physical practice with their existing faith, but with contradictory estimations as to whether yoga is a fresh expression of their most deeply held beliefs or a benign, secular mechanism for relieving physical discomfort. The author of an article inChristianity Today tells readers, “To dispel the stereotype at hand, let me witness that yoga has never had any negative influence on me, and it doesn't trigger any harmful religious impulses. Just the opposite is true. The three hours a week I spend doing yoga not only make me more flexible, tone my muscles, and relax me. They also draw me closer to Christ. They are my bodily-kinetic prayer.”

DeAnna Smothers, the co-founder of “Yahweh Yoga,” describes her experience in slightly different terms: “With each inhale, know the Holy Spirit did create the breath of life. Breathe in all he has to offer. Yoga is not a religion. Yoga is a system of wellness.” The Yahweh Yoga Studio in Chandler, Arizona advertises its classes as a means to achieve a “peaceful, balanced lifestyle that combines physiology, mental and emotional poise with a spiritual core.”

In his book, Desert Father — a portrait of asceticism viewed through the spiritual exploits of the desert fathers’ Christian prototype, Saint Anthony the Great — author James Cowan offers an account of a seeker’s search for answers through a consciously deep and sustained prayer/meditation practice that is reminiscent of Patanjali’s descriptions ofpratyahara (control of the senses) dharana(one-pointed concentration), and dhyana (sustained, effortless concentration). Speaking at Christian-Buddhist retreat sponsored by the Kwan Um School of Zen in 1998, Father Kevin Hunt echoed the themes in Cowan’s account. “We know that from the earliest times within the Christian church prayer and meditation were seen as essential,” said Father Hunt.

He continues: “These two terms — prayer and meditation — were generally used interchangeably, where the first tends to emphasize a vocal, conceptual way of praying, and the latter tended to be silent.” And finally, Father Hunt notes, “The gospels tell us that Jesus frequently went off into the mountains to pray by himself. The strong tradition of prayer and meditation also appears, for example, in the Acts of the Apostles, where we read that the Deacon Philip had five daughters who were virgins (which was a lifestyle in the early church) and that they were given completely to prayer and meditation. The same traditions tell us also that Peter and Paul often prayed and meditated.”

More than a few articles addressing yoga’s compatibility with Islam by practicing Muslims suggest that there is, overall, ease within the mainstream Islamic community when it comes to practicing yoga and even integrating it with Islamic life. Most of the available literature suggests that Muslims who practice yoga do not view it as religious syncretism, but emphasize yoga as a set of “techniques and skills” that enhance the practice of any religion. Some Islamic scholars cite Patanjali’s avoidance of naming any deity in the Yogasutras as assurance that practicing yoga does not spiritually invalidate Islamic beliefs. An exception to the rule, however, came to light in 2004 when the Associated Press surfaced an undated edict signed by Egypt’s highest theological authority calling yoga an “ascetic Hindu practice that should not be used in any manner of exercise or worship” and said that yoga was “forbidden religiously.”

Scores of scholars of Judaism have embraced yoga with no difficulty, emphasizing yoga’s ability to refine Jewish practices intended to cultivate holiness, balance, and transformation. Ida Unger, who runs the Yoga Garden Studio in Santa Monica, tells visitors that yoga “makes your relationship with the divine a more physical, tangible reality. With that, God is just more present in life.”

A movement embracing a select set of Judaic traditions — “Jewish Renewal” — attempts to reinvigorate Judaism with mystical, musical, Hasidic, and meditative practices, including yoga. One of the movement’s primary contemporary leaders, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, observes that the four levels at which human beings operate — physical body, emotional child, intellectual adult, and spiritual self — share much with Kabbalah as well as “the four yogas,” which he categorizes as hatha, bhakti, damiana, and raja.

Kabbalah, an aspect of Jewish mysticism, ponders the nature of divinity, creation, the fate of the soul, and the role of human beings. It consists of selected meditative and devotional practices that were traditionally taught to a select few and regarded in popular literature as an esoteric offshoot of Judaism.)

Both Confucianism, with its emphasis on relationships within the family, between friends, between governments and citizens, and Taoism, with its stress on increasing the amount of Tao (chi) within oneself, are theistically attuned with the broadest definition of yoga (mystic union). A cursory survey of available literature turns up little to suggest that practitioners of these Asian spiritual paths have strong opinions regarding yoga. Indeed, Taoists — dubbed by yogi Paul Grilley and others as “Chinese yogis” — have acted as a force multiplier for the modern practice of yoga, highlighting the level of awareness of the persistence of opposites (Yin and Yang) that unite in a single purpose called “Tao.”

Yoga’s introduction into education systems periodically sparks fiery debates in religious communities across the globe.

In 2003, some parents and religious leaders objected vehemently to the teaching of yoga in an Aspen, Colorado public school, arguing that it violated the separation of church and state. A local pastor argued that it was impossible to separate yoga from spirituality, observing, “Why not teach Pilates or aerobics if it’s just stretching?” The school’s principal countered that yoga was a means of offering students skills to learn how focus better and be more attentive. The yoga curriculum was subsequently altered to eliminate any language that might be construed as religious, but a dozen families refused to allow their children to participate in the classes out of concerns about religious overtones.

US schools and churches aren’t alone in their ambivalence about yoga. The same year as Aspen’s school system wrestled with whether yoga was appropriate in its public school curriculum, across the Atlantic in Croatia, the country’s Education Ministry came under fire from the Roman Catholic church following the Ministry’s decision to award a grant to Swami Maheshwaranda’s ‘Yoga in Daily Life’ group to defray the costs of teachers taking yoga classes. Plans to hold free sessions for teachers in three cities were abandoned when the Croatian Bishops Conference said the “heretical” program offered an “unacceptable favor to an organization and its founder who wants to introduce Hinduistic religious practice in Croatian schools.”

Yoga ran into similarly strong resistance just two years earlier in Slovakia, but in that case, the opposition focused on yoga’s alleged advocacy of atheism rather than Hindu theism. After 400 teachers were trained by Swami Maheshwaranda’s organization to introduce yoga on a voluntary basis at gym sessions in primary and secondary schools, a letter from bishops described the Catholic Church’s strong opposition to yoga in state schools as akin to “protecting the home from a stranger who enters, doesn’t introduce himself, touches your children, and wants to take them away.” The letter declared that, “yoga rejects faith in God the Creator, it rejects Jesus Christ, the whole act of redemption, and [therefore] Christianity.” The government eventually shelved a formal vote on the proposal after critics called the program “a path to total atheism” and the Church issued a pastoral letter noting that Slovak Christians did not need to “search for some dubious substitute faith.”

The scuttled plans to introduce yoga into Slovakia’s state schools briefly pitted elements of the country’s coalition government against one another, with the leader of the Christian Democratic Movement Pavol Hrusovsky declaring that the proposals amounted to a continuation of the liquidation of Christianity in Slovakia.

Far removed from the heady levels of high politics and statecraft, the issue of yoga’s relationship, if any, to religion, arises on more local levels, in intimate settings with friends or family. An enthusiastic new student conveying his or her captivation with yoga may meet with furrowed brows and uncomfortable questions. Is there a difference between the yogic experience of exploring one’s interior life and the rituals, doctrines, and ceremonies generally associated with spirituality’s external counterpart (religion)?

The "R" Word

Even dedicated yoga practitioners flinch at the topic. When facing questions such as, “Have you taken up a new religion?” it’s often simpler to default to defensive, oversimplified, and not-always-entirely-honest reassurances that yoga is nothing more than specific body poses for physical exercise. More than a few yogis — even if they’ve discovered something more profound from classes or a home practice than a physical openness that comes from releasing contracted energy through asanas — struggle for words to depict the panoply of emotional, spiritual, and metaphysical gifts that yoga offers. Fear of getting tangled up in esoteric squabbles on personally sensitive issues regarding matters of faith can stop even the most devoted practitioner from an honest conversation about the issue.

Definitions Don't Help

Strict dictionary definitions offer little clarity. Webster’s dictionary says that if the word is capitalized, “Yoga” is a Hindu theistic philosophy. Uncapitalized? Then yoga (small “y’’) is a system of exercises for attaining “bodily or mental control and well being.” Religion, on the other hand, is variously described in dictionaries as “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature and purpose of the universe” and “something one believes in and follows devotedly.”

Apparent parallels between the Sanskrit word yuj (to yoke, or join) and the Latin religio (the linking of man to God/Spirit/Source), for some, offer sufficient evidence that yoga is, indeed, a religion. Religious scholar Huston Smith observes, however, that the English word yoke carries a double connotation: to unite (yoke together) and to place under disciplined training (to bring under the yoke, or “take my yoke upon you”). He notes that both connotations are present in the Sanskrit word, meaning, “yoga is a method of training designed to lead to integration or union.” “But,” he asks, “integration of what?”

Others unpack the definition of religion and its relationship to yoga another way, citing the absence of any requirement in yoga for its adherents to profess a strict allegiance, demand religious obligations, attend worship services, or perform a devotional pilgrimage as proof positive that yoga and religion are not remotely synonymous.

Still, the classical text on yoga — Patanjali’s Yogasutras — is often referred to in etymologically charged shorthand as the “bible of yoga.” Moreover, the moral codes and disciplines elaborated by Patanjali — the yamas and niyamas— are understood widely as a credo reminiscent of the philosophical doctrines that underpin many established, organized religions. Is there a meaningful difference between the concepts laid out in the spiritual exercises described by ascetic Ignatius Loyola, the 15th century founder of Catholicism’s Jesuit order, with their rich descriptions of the stages of meditatio,n and Patanjali’s portrayal of the levels of cultivating consciousness through meditation? How wide, really, is the gulf between Patanjali’s advocacy of compassion, karuna, toward the suffering of others (Yogasutras 1.33) and “Do unto others” (Matthew 7:12)?

Profound confusion for the new Western practitioner attempting to sort out the puzzle arises when various scholars point to one or another ancient Indian text as the singular most authoritative guide to yoga’s “real” roots. The Sanskrit word ‘yoga’ first appeared around 3000 BCE in the Vedas — the oldest surviving texts which grew out of an oral tradition and served, many centuries later, as the primary texts of Hinduism — but the elaboration of a systematic presentation of yoga did not appear until roughly the 2nd century CE in the Yogasutras, an elegant outline of the eight-limbed yogic path.

Some theistic scholars insist that yoga’s origins are inseparable from Hindu tradition and counsel against focusing exclusively on the Yogasutras in isolation from the earlier Vedic teachings — most notably the Rig Veda with its eloquent treatment of the value of yoking mind and insight. David Frawley, a US-born Hindu scholar from the American Institute of Vedic studies, urges his counterparts to find a balance between ensuring that yoga’s spiritual roots are acknowledged while not going overboard in the other direction and, “in the name of defending Yoga’s spirit, attack those who choose to practice and teach it without also being Hindus.”

But not all strains of Hinduism accept yoga. And the conspicuous absence of any mention of Hindu gods and goddesses in the Yogasutras combined with Patanjali’s only brief mention of surrender to Isvara (variously translated as ‘God,’ ‘Lord,’ or ‘the source of creation’) strongly supports the notion that yoga demands no adherence to any particular theology. In his 2006 book, The Wisdom of Yoga, author/psychotherapist Stephen Cope concludes from his own deep dive into yoga’s history that it emerged primarily from the sramanic (“striver”) stream of practical mystics who were disillusioned with the ritual practices of Vedic religion. These ‘dropouts’ from mainstream religious culture, in search of living liberation, began investigating body and mind and, over the course of hundreds of years, eventually formed a loose, esoteric tradition that emerged as yoga.

Cope’s dissection of yoga’s history dovetails with the extensive work of prominent yogi, author, and teacher T.K.V. Desikachar, who spotlights yoga’s embrace of all faiths and offers a similar framework for describing how yoga emerged outside the mainstream spiritual hierarchies of Vedic religious streams. Desikachar told a New York gathering in 2000, "Yoga was rejected by Hinduism because yoga would not insist that God exists. It didn't say there was no God but just wouldn't insist there was,” adding, "Yoga is not a religion and should not [affiliate] with any religion." He emphasizes that Patanjali’s Yogasutras, the guide he prefers over any other text, does not force or reject God and thus makes yoga more comprehensible across cultures than any other.

The bewildering lexicon mingles with some fledgling yoga schools’ presumptive fear of opposition from church groups to nurture reluctance to highlight the spiritual dimensions of a yoga practice. Moreover, since classes offered at many yoga schools, gyms, and fitness centers indeed center solely on poses (asanas), the avoidance of any discussion of yoga’s non-physical benefits is often less an etymological disguise than an accurate reflection of the content of what’s offered. Visiting a representative sampling of websites for dedicated yoga studios can easily reveal more about what’s available for sale at their in-house yoga clothing and jewelry boutique than its overall guiding philosophy or whether classes embrace any non-asana dimensions of yoga.

Surprise! Spirituality.

Practiced with any regularity, meditation — a centerpiece of yoga — cannot help exposing the practitioner to an experience that can begin to feel at least vaguely spiritual. And there’s the rub. The exploration of one’s interior life that arises spontaneously from sitting in stillness can begin to reform and rebuild an understanding of the relationship of “self” to family, to community, to the planet, and even to the cosmos.

This investigation, in turn, can deepen one’s existing spiritual or religious beliefs or it can unleash fresh doubts about organized religion, particularly if the practitioner perceives that the dogmas or creeds accepted on blind faith in youth fail to account adequately for the unexplained revelations and insights unleashed by meditation. Old spiritual allergies that often result from intense, unquestioned, early exposure to a creed or dogma may mutate into a fresh interpretation of spirituality and highlight strategies that yoga may offer for wrestling with life’s challenges.

Even practitioners initially determined to discount yoga’s spiritual side can be caught off guard as the alchemy created by releasing contracted physical energy alongside even the simplest breathing practices gives free rein to insight that goes well beyond reshaping the gross, physical structure. Cope wrote in 1999, “Yogic practice intentionally recreates the physical structure: the musculoskeletal, neurological, digestive, respiratory, circulatory, and immune systems are all literally remade through the regular practice of postures and conscious breathing.” The asanas, he observes, build the physical structure capable of containing the reorganization of the psyche.

This ‘reorganization of the psyche’ catches aspiring yogis by surprise, particularly in the West where yoga is habitually depicted as a fitness regimen that’s just vaguely a little more exotic than Pilates or jazzercise. Students appear in yoga class solely in search of the practice’s physical benefits, but end up bumping into something they hadn’t anticipated. Paraphrasing yogi/author Erich Schiffmann: ‘People come to yoga class for tighter abs, reluctantly participate in some meditation, then one day get a ‘hit’ of that and whoooosh, suddenly something else, something big, something totally unexpected and wonderful is happening. Then they’re hooked.’

What Are We Left With?

Cope’s disentanglement of yoga’s lexicon in the appendix to his 1999 book, Yoga and the Quest for True Self, offers a coherent framework for aligning yoga’s relationship with religion. Using yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein’s paradigm as his roadmap, Cope categorized four distinct meanings of yoga and examines how each would — or would not — apply to concepts and key prototypes associated with different religions.

In the first, broadest, definition, yoga is “any technique of mystic union” and thus embraces any psychospiritual technology that “creates a reunion with the truth.” Virtually all of the Eastern contemplative traditions fall easily under this umbrella and, according to Cope, it would not be inaccurate to apply ‘yoga’ in this sense even to practices of Christianity or Judaism. One who practices a spiritual discipline with the goal of uniting with an ultimate reality, therefore — including St. Teresa of Avila or Ignatius Loyola — is a yogi.

Narrowing the definition further, yoga is a broad term for Indian spiritual discipline, and is characterized by a practice that is highly “experiential and experimental, and usually is associated with a kind of radical renunciation and intense spiritual definition.” Here, observes Cope, Mahatma Gandhi or B.K.S. Iyengar are practicing ‘yoga.’

Next, particular forms of yoga (bhakti yoga, karma yoga, raja yoga, and so on) act as the leitmotif to narrow the definition still more, and depict the relatively recent organizing principles under which most American yogis practice.

Finally, classical yoga, as codified in Patanjali’s Yogasutras, offers a definition that Cope describe as the “most specific.” Cope observes that Patanjali’s expression of the yogic path was sufficiently convincing to Indian metaphysics scholars that it was accepted as one of the major systems of philosophy (darshanas) to stand on equal footing with the other five accepted schools — Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Sankhya, Purva Mimansa, and Vedanta.

In the end, yoga remains an intensely personal investigation practiced in a cultural context that is in continuous flux. Its permutations are limitless, defying construction of an orderly, unanimously satisfactory lexicon that captures its association to religion for every practitioner. Using the broadest classification, yoga’s content is universal, posing a threat only to dualism, or to any conviction that we are disconnected from and unaccountable to the rest of creation.

Predictably then, yoga surfaces spontaneously and authentically across all cultural traditions and settings: as meditation on the name ‘Allah’ in Sufi spiritual practice, as Kabbalah in Judaism, as prayer in the Egyptian desert by Christian monks in the 4th century, and as theology-free gratitude for the universe by anyone staring into a starlit Montana night sky.

Yoga, then, simultaneously transcends, complements, and offers no particular opinion on, religion.