Is Yoga a Religion?

This questions pops up every now and again, usually in response to news stories of nations banning or recommending against yoga.

Yoga Journal Buzz blog recently asked a spin on this question to readers:  Should yoga be included in religion study?

Now, I’m no theologian nor can I claim an in depth knowledge to any particular religion, so I relied on my Librarian Skills to try and decipher this knotty question.

What did I do?  I looked the words up in the dictionary. 🙂

The Oxford English Dictionary defines religion as

a belief in or sensing of some superhuman power , entitled to obedience, reverence and worship, or in a system defining a code of living, esp. as a means to achieve spiritual or material improvement; acceptance of such belief (esp. as represented by an organized Church) as a standard of spiritual and practical life; the expression of this worship etc.

The Oxford English dictionary defines discipline as

Instruction given to pupils or disciples; teaching, education. Instruction fitting one to perform an activity; training.  Controlled and orderly behavior resulting from training.

Finally, the dictionary defines yoga as

union of the self with the supreme being; a system of practice and meditation.

Using these dictionary definitions, one could safely make the argument that yoga is a religion.  The eight limbs of yoga work together to achieve union with a greater spiritual power.  The path of yoga outlines ways of living and behaving that help the practitioner achieve this relationship.  The term discipline also applies, but seems too narrowly defined to include all that yoga encompasses.

However, the modern use of the word religion is fraught with cultural baggage.  It implies a more dogmatic view of the world with much stricter rules for behavior and belief.  I think this is what makes people so uncomfortable calling yoga a religion — they’re operating from the cultural definition rather than the dictionary definition, where, for the most part, all social context has been removed.

Is yoga a religion?  Should it be included in religious studies?  I say yes, on both counts.  The study of yoga, both personally and academically is a worthy and enlightening path, as is any open, curious and unbiased study of any religious disciple.

What do you think?  Is yoga a religion or a discipline?

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13 responses to “Is Yoga a Religion?

  1. Interesting read.

    Yoga definitely doesn’t fall under the standard social definition of religion, however, in terms of history it is a a practice deeply related to Hinduism and mentions of it appear in the early Upanishads.

    So, it does fit neatly into the religious studies area and have seen it studied in at least a master’s religious studies department.

    • Good point about the close relationship to Hinduism! I wanted to get into that in the blog post, but for argument cohesion and brevity, I was hoping it would come up in the comments. Thank you for making that happen.

  2. I think yoga *can* be a religion, but doesn’t have to be. Similar to how Judaism can be a culture or a religion (atheist Jews anyone?). More simply put, just because you do yoga doesn’t mean it’s anything more than exercise to you, but it also can be much more than just exercise.

    • I totally agree with you on the point that yoga can be both and it’s up to the individual to figure out which works best for them. It makes me curious about those who self-identify as a religious Christian or Jew (or any other faith) and use yoga and meditation to enhance their spiritual connection. Are they practicing two religions, or just adopting aspects of one to use for the other. I’m not suggesting there are answers to this — just musing aloud 🙂

  3. This is a great post and something I’ve thought about often. To me, yoga is a religion – my religion. From sprinkling water on my YogiToes (kind of baptismal) to joining your hands in prayer position, yoga is where I go to give thanks, get centered, and offer joy, peace, and good energy to those in my life. It may not be in a church, but to me it is the one spiritual thing that I do in my life that fulfills me more than sitting in a pew.

    • Beautiful PBJ’s Sister. It’s true, isn’t it … all the little rituals we do before and after a yoga class. The way we feel after savasana. A good studio (or your own living room) is a sacred space, just as much as a cathedral can be for someone else.

  4. I’m with PBJ’s Sister, Sister!! I am a fan of union of the self with a supreme being and leave all the dogma to the conformists!

  5. Yoga is much more than a religion in my opinion. I recently wrote a post about Modern Yoga on my blog, perhaps this can shed a little light to how yoga is perceived in the west.
    In my opinion, yoga is not only a way of life, but it IS life for those who truly practice it.

  6. The word yoga derives from the Sanskrit word yunakti which connotes a meaning of union. And has the Sanskrit root “yuj,” meaning “to control,” or “to unite.”

    A question that I believe to be worthy of discussion here is: are the physical poses found in various types of yoga a religion in themselves?

    To this I say no.

    Does Kneeling on one’s knees make one a Christian? Do Muslims have a monopoly on kneeling to the east? If someone can dance Hip-Hop do the have to wear a gold chain and a grill?Is one a true yogi when he/she can put both feet behind the ears?

    Albeit, if one is chanting to some deity or some god(s) and also subscribes to the Hindu philosophy/path, that is another matter.

    There are plenty of yoga studios that do not include chanting…

    What in your heart?

    Religion, derived from the Latin word ligare: to bind; to tie; bind, tie, fasten is at its core is a “way of life” one is freely bound to, and not just a dogma or how one prefers to to exercise.

    Four people are praying/meditating side-by-side, one Muslim, one Hindu, one Buddhist, and one Christian. What makes each quote “religious?” How they rest in their bodies, or what is upon their heart?

    Spirit unites us and religion insofar as commonly defined, separates.

    So what if a ten different faiths end up in class together…

    All I have to say is: Namaste, Amen and Hallelujah!

    ~J.T.

  7. I think further study of Buddhism and Hinduism, as yoga refers to one of the six schools of Hindu philosophy, should be include in a religions course. Also, since India is a growing participant in the global economy and has a population of over a billion, awareness both culturally and religiously is important.

    Granted, not every Hindu is Indian, and not every Indian practices yoga. However it would be prudent to have a course that delved further into an understanding on the separate practices of prayer, meditation, and yoga.

    On the scale of particulars, insofar as development is concerned: how can one have interaction without information cascades, without losing the independence that’s such a key factor in identity and intelligence?

    – Keep an open mind
    – Keep yourself exposed to as many diverse sources of information as possible
    – Engage in groups that range across hierarchies

    I we all have much to learn from each other to achieve individual and collective victories, that is why yoga needs to be taken out of the box and not be type cast solely as a religion. No more than any one religion has a monopoly on, self-realization, personal-growth or health. As the old saying goes, “There are many ways to get to the center of town” and we all have a piece of the puzzle.

    I think the expansion of yoga, at least in the West has been stifled due in part to certain agendas. Can the water be separated from the milk? Possibly!

    In short, not only should yoga be included in a “Religions Course,” it should also be included in any kind of course, class, setting pertaining to growth and illumination.

    I have seen first hand what can happen when yoga is taken out of the box…and it is beautiful.
    Vegas Hot! Yoga ( bikramyogalasvegas.com ), here in Nevada is 3rd largest studios in the U.S. with only 20% of class participants long-time yoga enthusiasts!

    Cheer and Joy for the New Year,

    ~JT

    PS, Excellent topic Abby! Do you think the yoga community is open to becoming more mainstream?

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