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.

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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!

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