Is yoga a religion?

Is yoga a religion?
By Nancy B. Loughlin
Published in News Press on October 29, 2013.  Posted with permission.

The answer is no.

But I’d like to know why it matters.

Yoga’s benefits to health and happiness are amply documented. Madeline Ebelini, director of Integrated Mindfulness in Bonita Springs, describes yoga as a means for quieting the fluctuations of the mind and strengthening the innate connection between mind and body. It has been shown to benefit many including people with cancer, anxiety and chronic pain.

“Why would anyone be adverse to that?” Ebelini asked.

Apparently, some California Christians were. They were so agitated by yoga being offered in the Encinitas Union School District that they filed a lawsuit. Why? Because teaching yoga was teaching religion. (These concerned parents weren’t as interested in the Pledge’s “under God,” but we’ll let that go for now.) The parents lost. Yoga won. This summer, the judge didn’t say yoga wasn’t religious, but he claimed that the yoga the school offered was secular. You know, like Christmas trees.

I believe it because the program called Lotus pose “crisscross applesauce,” and all Sanskrit was stripped from the practice.

I’m a language specialist not a theologian. If you want to delve into this quagmire’s religious intricacies, I’d recommend Googling “Shukla and Chopra: The Great Yoga Debate.” Yoga predates Hinduism, but even after reading it, the issue will remain a smear of gray.

But if you must get to the bottom of it, here are two things to consider:

Many people who claim to be doing yoga are not really doing yoga.   They are doing asana, the physical postures, only one of the eight limbs of yoga.

This is why it is easy to erroneously claim that yoga, unlike religion, doesn’t have a creed or a fixed set of beliefs. Yogis do not worship deities, but to say that there isn’t a creed isn’t exactly true. Yoga students who just perform the physical exercise are not exposed to the full picture of Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras which offer guidelines for living including yamas (how we conduct ourselves in life) and niyamas (self-discipline), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (withdrawal from the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (state of transcendence).

These seven limbs usually aren’t addressed by Wii Fit or at the gym while hip-hop music blasts outside the door. Incidentally, I recently practiced with an instructor whose playlist included “Move B*tch. Get Out of the Way.” Religion?

There are so many different types of yoga. Some do emphasize the spiritual aspects more than others. Chanting the names of Hindu deities at a Kirtan does not a sacrament make any more than a cry of “Oh, my God!” from a teenager’s lips constitutes prayer. Spirituality (and I can only speak for myself) is a continually evolving personal matrix of transformative experiences. As layer after layer is lifted, the authentic, energetic self, stripped of ego and all the stuff of the material world, is revealed.

Yoga, when practiced authentically, calls for self-reflection. Others prefer to find solace in scriptures and dictates because they make their lives easier. Follow the rules, and you will be fine. But there’s that duality again.

In yoga, the authentic, energetic self that revels in ambiguity, paradox and mystery is complicated. It promises and delivers self-knowledge and unity. It is a personal and sometimes painful journey. But yoga will liberate you from the trappings of the mind, and that includes religion.

Buddha wasn’t a Buddhist; Christ wasn’t a Christian. I believe their common groove was love, forgiveness and compassion. And start with ourselves.

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