Is Yoga a religion?
To discuss whether Yoga is a religion, it is first necessary to understand the origin and definition of both religion and Yoga.
The definitions, according to the Oxford Dictionary, are:
- The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods
- [count noun] a particular system of faith and worship
- [count noun] a pursuit or interest followed with great devotion
Middle English (originally in the sense ‘life under monastic vows’): from Old French, or from Latin religio(n-) ‘obligation, bond, reverence’, perhaps based on Latin religare ‘to bind’
- A Hindu spiritual and ascetic discipline, a part of which, including breath control, simple meditation, and the adoption of specific bodily postures, is widely practised for health and relaxation
- The Yoga widely known in the West is based on hatha Yoga, which forms one aspect of the ancient Hindu system of religious and ascetic observance and meditation, the highest form of which is raja Yoga and the ultimate aim of which is spiritual purification and self-understanding leading to samadhi or union with the divine
Sanskrit, literally ‘union’
Therefore, using this source the definition of religion would not consider Yoga as a religion because it does not have a God, although the word ‘personal’ does indicate a dependence on the subjective definition of God and whether this is a deity or whether it could be applied to a wider force e.g. nature and/or the cosmos. The above definitions do suggest parallels between Yoga and religion because both definitions of Yoga reference religion or spirituality (relating to religion or religious belief) and the third definition of religion as a pursuit or interest followed with great devotion could be applied to Yoga. In addition, the origin of both religion and Yoga reference the notion of ‘union’ or ‘to bind’, further consolidating the similar semantics of both Yoga and religion.
However, dictionary definition alone cannot answer this long debated question. Buddhism is commonly referred to as a religion but it is not a system of faith and worship owing any allegiance to a supernatural power; Buddhism does not demand blind faith, but a confidence based on knowledge (saddha). Buddhism and Yoga are sister traditions which evolved in the same spiritual culture of ancient India; while there are a number of distinct differences, they use many of the same terms and follow many of the same principles and practices. Swami Vivekananda, the first great figure to bring Yoga to the West, examined the Buddhist Mahayana scriptures (Sutras) and found much similarity between their key teachings and those of Vedanta. Classical Yoga is one of the six schools of Vedic philosophy which accept the authority of the Vedas and quote from Vedic texts including Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Puranas for deriving their authority. The Buddhist schools share many ideas with Vedic spirituality e.g. Karma and rebirth but did not accept the authority of the Vedas and rejected a number of Vedic principles. Buddhist schools also employ meditations and some add more specific Yoga practices e.g. Pranayama and Mantra. They both have common values of protecting the earth, non-violence, recognition of the law of karma and the practice of meditation and therefore, the similarities between Buddhism and Yoga could suggest that Yoga could also be coined as a religion.
Some parallels can also be identified with the hierarchical nature of both Yoga and religion e.g. Christianity. In both religion and Yoga there are graduated levels of knowledge, authority and understanding e.g. a Catholic priest is considered as an authority and teacher in a similar way that a guru is in Yoga. Further similarities can be identified between Christianity and Yoga in terms of the belief in a trinity. In Christianity this trinity is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; in Yoga the Hindu trinity is Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver) and Shiva (the destroyer). It should be noted that there is currently a debate in the Christian faith as to whether it is appropriate to practice Yoga within church halls and there are differing opinions as to whether it is acceptable. Some Christians believe that Yoga is a religion and therefore should not be practiced within the Christian church as it is contradicting their religious teachings, whereas other Christians perceive Yoga as a compliment to their religion and therefore encourage its practice.
Although the origin of Yoga is historically religious and culturally entwined, Yoga is not part of any religious dogma proclaiming that there is only one God, church or saviour but Yoga is a system from the Hindu religion. It does consider the nature of the soul, God and immortality, which are the main topics of religion throughout the world and therefore it is not merely focussed on exercise and health. According to Swami Jnaneshvara:
“Yoga is in Religion. Religion is not in Yoga. While Yoga may be in Religions, the many Yoga practices with body, breath and mind, along with their transcendent goal of direct experience, are generally neither characteristic of Religions, nor typically practiced by the adherents of Religions”.
He then goes on to list the differences between Yoga and religion:
- Yoga has no deity to worship.
- Yoga has no worship services to attend.
- Yoga has no rituals to perform.
- Yoga has no sacred icons.
- Yoga has no creed or formal statement of religious belief.
- Yoga has no requirement for a confession of faith.
- Yoga has no ordained clergy or priests to lead religious services.
- Yoga has no institutional structure, leader or group of overseers.
- Yoga has no membership procedure.
- Yoga has no congregation of members or followers.
- Yoga has no system of temples or churches.
Swami Jnaneshvara recognises that Yoga is contained within religions, religion is not contained within Yoga and they are therefore inherently connected and to point out that Yoga is in religion but religion not in Yoga, are not facts opposed to religion.
When debating whether Yoga is religion, it should also be recognised that in the 21st century there are diverse systems of Yoga which vary in both underlying beliefs and practice. Some modern Yoga variations refute any connotations with religion and are focussed purely on the physical practice of the asanas and Yoga’s use as an exercise regime. Some Yoga teachers may practice their own religion in the context of Yoga and present that to their students and therefore a blend of Yoga and religion results. Some systems of Yoga may practice chanting, which in itself could be deemed to have a religious connotation (as chanting appears in some religions) or it may be understood as an expression of devotion and homage. The use of the term ‘Yoga’ is now becoming increasingly dissociated from the roots of Yoga in Hindusim and the current age of technology and easy accessible (and often misleading) information can further exacerbate the modern misconceptions of Yoga as solely a physical sport. There are also parallel debates with regard to whether Yoga should be considered as a science. For example, one of Swami Rama’s messages (a belief shared by Swami Satyananda Saraswati) was that Yoga was neither exercise nor religion but a systematic science; its teachings are an integral part of most religions but yoga itself is not a religion. Most religions teach one what to do, but yoga teaches one how to be.
In conclusion, this question has long been debated and the answer to the question “Is Yoga a religion” has evidently been answered differently by various sources and is therefore subjective and will be answered depending on the belief system and personal experience of both Yoga and religion. There are many thousands of religious denominations and sects within many diverse religions and this diversity is also apparent in the many systems of Yoga currently practised today. Within each of these systems of religion and Yoga, there will be a continuum of practice and belief and each person will be placed on a different point of the spectrum in accordance with their subjective experience. Whether Yoga is described as a religion by an individual will depend on their combined placements on the continuums of both Yoga and religion and the correlation between the two, which best-resonates with the individual and their personal understanding and belief system.
Today we are entering into a global age and the potential development of global spirituality; however we should allow various cultures to preserve their unique forms and not combine all together to make one universal truth with no distinctions. True unity is universality that fosters creative multiplicity. As the Vedic Rishis stated, “That which is the One Truth the seers teach in diverse ways”, which is particularly pertinent when considering that diverse belief systems and subjective experience of Yoga and religion today.
 Anatomy of Hatha Yoga: H. David Coulter (preface)