Yoga and Buddhism: How Are They Different?

yoga pose buddha
Photo Credit: Rain City Girl {Marji}

Have you ever wondered what the similarities and differences are between yoga and Buddhism? In the West, both can evoke assumptions about foreign and obscure Eastern spiritual traditions, perceived to be one and the same. Yet while yoga and Buddhism evolved as sister traditions and share many similarities, notable differences distinguish them, particularly with respect to views on the existence of the self, soul and God.

According to yogic scholar David Frawley, yogic traditions assert the existence of an Inner Self or Atman (our true nature as consciousness, authentic self or soul) and God as the creator, preserver and destroyer of the universe. Self-realization from the yogic path requires complete faith in the Atman and surrender to God (Ishvara-Pranidhana). The Atman is different from the ego (Ahamkara), which refers to mistaken identification of the Purusha, or true inner self, with the body, mind or external world.

By contrast, Buddhism denies the existence of a fundamental self or God and views these beliefs as constructed by the mind. Buddhists assert that karma and conditioning explains the creation of living beings and the illusion of the self (which is actually a non-self or anatman). Point to evidence of a self to a Buddhist, says Frawley, and they will argue that this is merely a construction, a fleeting thought or feeling, rather than anything enduring.

For westerners, these epistemological differences can have important implications. Modern yoga may be more accessible to the typical westerner, in that it doesn’t require us to abandon the belief in individualism, the existence of a deeper self or soul or even God (indeed, modern yoga, bearing little resemblance to traditional yoga, accommodates all belief systems). Buddhism, on the other hand, significantly challenges these beliefs, positing they are delusional. Lacking the  concepts of “God,” soul and self, Buddhism may seem foreign or at worst, nihilistic to the typical western yoga practitioner.

Despite these key differences, explains Frawley, Yoga and Buddhism are both meditative systems that share many commonalities, including ethical values such as non-attachment, non-stealing, and non-violence. Both generally aim to facilitate transcendence of karma and rebirth, foster liberation through higher awareness, and reunite with the “true” reality obscured by the illusion of a separate self, or ego. Both also seek to reduce suffering intrinsic to all beings through realization of a higher consciousness.

Finally, it’s important to consider that what many in the West consider “yoga” bears little resemblance to yoga as practiced in India and explicated in ancient texts. Western yoga practitioners primarily practice yoga asana, although of Patanjali’s 200 yoga sutras, only three refer to asana, with most others referencing meditation, yoga’s primary vehicle for self-realization.

Without this deeper frame of reference and engagement in meditative practice, it can be easy to mistake the ego, personality, and “yoga body” so celebrated in US society for Atman, the soul or higher self. “God consciousness” in the modern yoga community is often a new-age cliché referring more to the cult of individuality, personality and manifestation-based practices rather than the ultimate bliss (Ananda) referenced in yogic texts, which requires non-attachment to ego and its affiliations.

Do you identify more with yogic or Buddhist perspectives on God or the soul?

Comments 8

  1. Hi Miss Tosca, I just want to say Buddhism has no concept of a Self or Soul, Hinduism believes in what is called Atman (Self or Soul) and that this Self never dies but is constantly reborn, but Buddhism believes in Anatta (No Self) And we basically do not believe in a permanent Self or Soul, but we believe in the five senses creating us and forming our personalities, but none of these senses are permanent, but they are always changing. Hope this was informational :)

    1. Post

      Hi Derek, Thank you kindly for your remark and clarifying this further for readers. I didn’t go too deeply into the sense formations here, given the word length and surface-level analysis, but I appreciate your mentioning it and other readers likely will too. Likewise with your mention of the impermanence vs. permanence of the self.

  2. Maybe certain sects of Buddhism, don’t believe in a Creator God, but I don’t think it’s accurate to characterize all of Buddhism that way. Not only do many traditional Buddhists in Asia believe in a number of gods, like Quan-Yin, demi-gods and saints but I think even skeptical Zen Buddhists scholars would say Buddhism doesn’t really have anything to say about a Supreme Deity’s existence or non-existence. The Buddha was very much concerned with addressing the human condition during a person’s earthly life. Recently I saw a documentary that had a Catholic priest who was also ordained a Zen Buddhist monk. I certainly don’t think that would be possible if Buddhism had an atheist bent.

    1. Post

      Hi Chris, Since writing this blog two years ago, I have come to appreciate that indeed it is far more nuanced than the word length and my knowledge at the time could afford. I would use different terminology had I the opportunity for a re-write, and emphasize the inclusiveness of these practices to all rather than the binary I articulated.

      In my limited understanding, which is influenced by the Vipassana tradition, the gods in the Buddhist traditions are commonly viewed as archetypes of capacities embodied within oneself, and are thus not gods in the sense we might understand them in monotheistic or pantheistic cultures. Thus, at least in the Vipassana tradition, devotion towards the Buddha would be paying homage to the golden Buddha nature that reflects one’s own capacities—rather than an omniscient, omnipresent, supernatural deity outside of us. Likewise to Quan-Yin, to the capacity for the boundless heart that resides within us all. Developing devotional practices to the qualities embodied by these deities can deeply support cultivation of these qualities within oneself without necessarily believing in these deities as something that reside exclusively outside; indeed, as in the metaphor of Indra’s net, they are as much a part of us as we of they, profoundly interconnected.

      It is this spaciousness that allows those of all faiths to engage in meditative practices should they so wish, without necessitating the renunciation of their belief in God (depending, of course, on whether their belief system will accommodate such practices).

      Despite what I had initially wrote in this blog, you’re correct that many on the path of the Buddha Dharma would not necessarily deny the existence of God. Certainly my teacher would affirm that this is unknown; we cannot know. Another seasoned teacher at a recent retreat offered a great story in which, facing the prospect of sudden unexpected death, her partner told her to “pray” in the absence of any other feasible action. I think there is a bit of a backlash in mainstream secular mindfulness practices to distance from the devotional aspects of these practices—which includes the deities that may make Christians or others suspicious of idol worship—in order to garner more widespread appeal, a worthy aim. But then something is certainly lost.

      Nonetheless, it is technically correct that there is no Creator “God” or self at the center of Buddhist cosmology and cosmology (that I am familiar with) when compared to Hinduism or other theistic traditions. As noted, I believe this fertile void provides a container for those of all faiths to seek refuge in the teachings. Feel free to educate me and readers if you know otherwise.

      One thing I most appreciate about the path of practice is its inclusiveness. There are those engaged in these practices who identify as atheists, agnostics, Catholics, and many others besides. The practice can enrich, deepen, and clarify one’s relationship to source, whether one’s orientation be conceptualized as atheistic, monotheistic, or polytheistic; I appreciate that richly. I sense room here for many cosmologies, and trust that the path itself and the wisdom it imbues will elucidate the topics we discuss to those who practice.

      Here are two posts that you may find helpful and more informative on the concept of God in Buddhism:

  3. I have listened to Joseph Campbell lectures on eastern traditions for a long time now, and think I understand that yoga is a broad label that includes a wide variety of practice. I think yoga practice likely predates Buddhism, and also “includes” that kind of thinking.

    As a hatha practitioner of approx 40 yrs I have a fairly solid sense of inner space that is beside the point of this or that teaching. You seemed to approach but not broach the idea of a Bodhisattva in your post.

  4. The Yogic school of thought do not assume that someone possess a soul i.e. “I possess a soul”. Instead, yogis and yoginis would argue that “I am a soul. When I die, I shall reincarnate in a fresh physical body”. If Buddhists, who believe in reincarnation, yet reject the existence of the atman (according to this website), then what is it that gets reincarnated?

    1. The karma is reincarnated, as in a new physical body (could also be a different kind of non-body form) as a manifestation of the karma.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *