The Great Debate: Yoga and Religion

yoga religion india
Photo by Eric Lon

In the past few months, headlines have surfaced in the UK regarding a ban on yoga for Children in the church. Now, having grown up in the mountains of Tennessee, this was not at all an uncommon occurrence. In the buckle of the Bible belt, the suggestion of bringing yoga classes into a church was likened to the proposal of teaching the main concepts of black magic. Because of yoga’s close association with Hinduism, many Christian groups believe it is dogmatic and corrupt. I was raised in a small Methodist Church in upper East Tennessee. I have only returned there a handful of times as an adult, and have come to expect the raised eyebrows and stern looks of judgment when asked “so what are you doing now?” It would possibly be more acceptable for me to respond “money laundering” instead of “yoga teacher.” At least the former sounds clean.

The fact is, yes yoga originated in India, the birthplace of Hinduism, and yes, some styles and practices of yoga directly invoke Hindu deities, and yes (I’m really going out on a limb with this one) Christianity opposes exposure to beliefs that are fundamentally different from it’s teachings. However, the fact is that the practice of Hatha Yoga as we have come to know it is unrelated to religion. The use of Sanskrit terms is often a red flag in the Christian communities. But truth be told, Sanskrit was a language, not a religion, and the use of the terms in yoga is no more religious than the use of Latin (the language of orthodox Catholicism) in ancient mythology.

The ancient text that guides many of today’s yoga practioners is The Yoga Sutra’s of Patanjali. This text is very methodical and practical, and spends less time dwelling on divinity than most of today’s self help books. The essence of the divine is referenced, but only in very non denominational ways. Patanjali’s mention of a higher being is limited to the word “Iswara” which means “lord,” or that which is omnipotent. That leaves lots of room for interpretation on any side of the debate. But, for the most part, The Sutra’s clearly define a path of ethical living, respect for all and dedicated discipline to reach the state of yoga, or union.

So many of the teachings in various religions are of openness and tolerance, but in practice these teachings are absent. To teach tolerance and exploration of other paths opens the door to a fundamental shift in viewpoint; that instead of abiding by the teachings you are given, you trust in your own faith. If the teachings you use to identify yourself are questioned, then the foundation of the entire structure of religion is at risk of crumbling. This fear, this separation, ironically, is specifically what the practice of yoga is working to address. Not a change in fundamental beliefs, but the cultivation of that inner faith that is so steadfast and unwavering that no amount of exposure or exploration could guide you away from it. If the thought of yoga as union with God is too scary or sacrilegious to your belief system, then I propose a shift in the interpretation to, Yoga as union with the faith in God that lies in the deepest part of your Self. In the last few lines of chapter six of the Bhagavad Gita it states that faith, above all else, is what leads us to realization and union with the divine. When we cultivate faith in our deepest beliefs, fears and rejection will effortlessly fall away.

Some Christian faiths are beginning to embrace yoga, as a support for health and faith. So, perhaps there is a revolution coming. Maybe, just maybe, the paradigm of fear in our religious institutions is starting to shift. Hopefully, there is a place where body, mind, and spirit dissolve into the experience of faith seamlessly and without judgment. I’ll keep my fingers crossed!

Comments 9

  1. I agree with you completely that yoga is unrelated to religion, it is up to each person to incorporate the God of their understanding, or lack there of, into ones practice. Yoga is one of the healthist things I do not only for my body but for my soul. I have come to realize over the short couple years I’ve been doing yoga just how beneficial it is to my relationship with the Lord. I fully believe in God as the trinity, and in my personal experience, the Holy Spirit basically just loves yoga. I believe when I practice I am becoming more ‘yoked’ with Him, and in turn coming alive in a deeper place then I ever knew exhisted. I have recieved some strange questions about yoga and the principles behind it, however, it seems to be based on positive and somewhat neutral spiritual principles, and I believe we are all our own person and free to interperet things as we please. I choose to interpret ‘the divine’ as Jesus, the Son of the living God, and He loves yoga because its good and i enjoy it and ultimetly, in my personal practice, brings me closer and gives glory to Him. I completely respect the fact that not everybody agrees with that, and ‘the divine’ can be whatever anyone persons spirit decerns as the truth. I think that, in general, when you know the truth about any given situation, you are not threatened by lies. So when I find truth in my spirit, whatever it may look like, I hold on to it and respect when others do the same.

  2. I have been wonderfully blessed by Yoga as a spiritual tool for healing in my inner “woman”, and can only attribute the source of this healing as being from God. It delights my soul to no end, that God uses all things in our lives to bring forth who we were made to be, if we allow it. If we have ever studied the Bible at some point, we discovered that Jesus fought fervently against “dogma” and the chains of legalism during his life on Earth, confronting the Pharisees without reserve, and challenging them to start living a spiritual life from the inside out. As a “secure” Christian, I know that I cannot go anywhere in this life without Jesus with me. Further, if we accept the belief that Jesus is the Creator of all things, then there is nothing to fear from Yoga, or any other spiritual exercise, that produces wholeness, healing, and growth in our lives.

    I too, am saddened by the rejection of many of my fellow believers of this wonderful tool of healing…bringing the spiritual into the physical, and literally changing our lives for the better. I have had the fortunate opportunity to experience Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy in recent months, and practice it privately in my home. If all good things come from God, as the Bible says, how can this possibly be from some “evil” source? In Jesus’s own words, “you must cleanse the inside of the wine cup, before the outside can be cleansed”. Change begins on the inside. Yoga turns us to our own hearts and spirits; connects us with the Source of Life, bringing that Source into our physical beings. It is simply another wonderful tool God uses to take our wounds, our grief, our sorrows, and all the good, to produce our own unique gardens that are blooming with love, beauty, Grace, and blessings for the world around us. That to me at least, is the epitome of a Christian life. Yoga connects us with Love, so that we can be Love.

  3. Now that i have just not started practicing yoga i have found myself calmed down enough in my daily activity to be able to connect even more with my christian side. So yoga has brought be to a place where i can actually talk to God and be able to listen to him and not be interupted with my daily life. So i do not agree with people who say yoga is not for Christians only because they think it is a form of Hinduism. You have to have the right teacher who knows and cares where you want yoga to take you. The main thing is try it before you criticize or reject it right away.

  4. I learned a long time ago, as a non-Christian, not to lump ALL Christians into the same boat. Yes, there are groups of people who self-identify themselves as Christians who scare me to death, with their hate-filled hearts and their smug rhetoric and their willingness to ensure violence against people who don’t think exactly like them. I learned a long time ago to NEVER discuss my religious faith with ANYONE because it’s just a good way to get a smack upside the head from the one guy who just NEEDS to be right.

    On the other hand, I feel perfectly safe in a room full of self-identified Christians sitting on yoga mats. I’ve found they tend to be people escaping from the previous group who use Jesus as the excuse for their toxin and poison. I’m sure every religion is blessed with these yahoos. I just get it from Christians because I live in a predominantly “Christian” society.

    I’m grateful for the fact my yoga teacher ‘low balls’ the spirituality in the classes. She understands, and we’ve discussed the topic at length in advanced class workshops, that many people are highly traumatized by their religion of origin and yoga may be the only place on earth for these people to explore spirituality in a safe and supported fashion. I am welcomed there as a fellow traveler, not as a potential convert, something to save, or Public Enemy # 1.

    Personally, I welcome keeping religion out of yoga classes. Yoga should be safe for everyone. I dread the idea of it becoming the property of people who are offended by the use of Sanskrit or refuse to figure out that yoga has a cultural history. I cringe, as in protect my head and shoulders, whenever I see the Yoga remade for Christians signs. At the same time, I’m grateful that they have the courtesy to put the signs out that say “You, heathen, pagan, non-believer, sinner, are NOT welcome in our select group”. At least, I’m not going to accidentally end up there under the false pretenses of yogic fellowship.

  5. I was raised in a strict Catholic family, and sent to the most Catholic of Catholic schools until my junior year of high school. I found that the religion became suffocating to me, and many of the people in positions of authority, in both the school and the church communities associated with it, were extremely hypocritical. Because of this experience, I have been pretty “lost” you could say when it comes to issues of religion. It has been 5 years since I was in a Catholic school, and Im starting to transition my aversion to an open-minded curiosity of beliefs – all beliefs, not just Christian doctrine.
    This summer, I decided I would register for a yoga class through Caldwell as a way to de-stress and stretch my body. I have always been curious about the practice, and I decided to take the plunge and sign up. I can honestly say my experience has been amazing. I love the feeling directly after class, I am completely at peace with myself and the world around me. My body also feels very at ease, but this feeling goes deeper than the physical. This is a deeper satisfaction than I ever felt through any sort of religious experience in my life.
    When I was talking to my grandmother earlier in the semester however, she made the remark that before she knew it, I would be “burning incense and chanting mantras instead of blessing myself and praying before meals.” It was a joke on her part, but it struck me because I had not associated yoga class with religion at all before that point. This may be a harsh statement, but I believe a lot of the Christian objection to practices outside of the traditional Christian realm comes from a fear of the unknown. If it does not fit into the pre-made “box” of accepted practice, it must not fit. This does not apply to all or only Christians, but I do propose to those opposed that they just give it a chance, open their minds, and then make the call. Anyone who feels what I feel after a session of asana and pranayama practice will not be as opposed as before they approached the mat, regardless of their religious background. :)

  6. I teach Yoga in our church. I had a few people who were not happy with this decision, but most did not mind. There were a few questions, but as I explained thatit is not a religion, but a path to deeper spirituality, they were fine with it.

    Did I mention I am the minister of this church?

  7. I’m about a year late on this subject but I just read this post.
    I also am from TN and understand sister Kelly’s struggles. I was a member of a very conservative church and am a Elder in the church, but I am also a person who believes everyone must come to a personal understanding of the Truth and I respect every individuals right to do so and am interested in the light that they have personally received no matter what religion they may be affiliated with or whether they choose no religious structure. One of my favorite books is “God Without Religion”. My fellow church friends are still in shock since I opened a yoga studio in January 2008 (in the foot hills of the TN mountains), but they will live and get over it and I did offer them a great discount. I do stay away from any religious tones but do encourage them to meditate since the bible does tell us to do so. God loves us all.

    Namaste friends
    Amos

  8. Many of these comments from 2007/2008, and here it is 2012! This is still an important subject, and I recently read an article by a published Christian author that railed against “Christian” yoga.

    I do agree that yoga should not be “saved”, or made Christian. It doesn’t need to be. It seems to me that the Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist religions are older and more evolved than the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. There is a new religion in their midst – Bahai, which is only about 160 years old. Baha’ u’llah and the Bab are two prophets who came to Islam in the mid eighteen hundred. They are the Islamic equivalent to John the Baptist and Jesus on the Jewish side of the house, and through the Bahai scriptures it is easier to understand how these four religions are actually the same religion.

    There is an ongoing challenge for yogis in the West. There are huge, huge social currents and forces in our society. There is one such force that is bringing together Jews, Christians, and Muslims over Jerusalem. The occupation of Palestinian land by Jews is one of the root causes of 9/11 and Muslim angst at the Christian West. Where as Jews seem to believe that Jordan is the land that was given to Muslims, and that all of Palestine should be theirs – Palestinians should move into Egypt or Jordan.

    The Eastern religions do not seem to take their faiths so radically. They don’t get so hung up on whether or not these stories are literal. But the Abrahamic religions do take things to be very literal, and in fact can not seem to accept that there is anything figurative about the bible – even down to the seven day creation model. There are ministers every week who teach that anything but the literal truth of it is a lie.

    So, for Yogis we do have a mission. That is to practice our yoga and lead by example. Let the yoga do all the work. I believe that in this time, and in the time soon to come, all of the religions will come together like a single large tapestry which illustrates the cultural anthropology of mankind. And I believe yoga will be the stitching that will hold this tapestry together. Namaste.

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