Yoga and Buddhism: How Are They Different?

Yoga and Buddhism

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.

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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?

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