Yoga is a science, a physical science, a mental science, and a spiritual science, but it is not a religion. Yoga has no gods, although it does borrow from the gods of Hindu scripture. Yoga has no commandments, although it does have the yamas and niyamas, which are part of the eight limbs of yoga, and which are communicated not as things you must do if you want to reach heaven and avoid hell, but which are actions that will lead to an embodied life and personal spiritual growth. Yoga has no holy book, although the Yoga Sutras, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika are some of the most important texts of yoga philosophy. Yoga has no religious holidays, although Ashtanga Yogis do not practice on Moon Days (when the moon is new or full) to allow the body, mind, and spirit to rest. Yoga doesn’t utilize prayer, but yogis often do chant mantra, everything from Om, the sound of universal creation, to chants to Ganesha or any other god.
However, lately there seems to be a lot of energy surrounding this idea of “yoga as religion” and it is making people, especially religious people, very angry. They claim you can not be a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim and study yoga at the same time. They say that yoga is in direct contradiction to Christianity. Some even view yoga as “demonic” and urge their followers to reject it. Some have called yoga “pure occultism” and claimed all yoga teachers are Hindu or Buddhist missionaries. Even Yoga Journal published an article in the December 2011 issue exploring this very question among “experts”: yoga teachers, religious scholars, etc.
A friend of mine who studies and lives a Tantric lifestyle says she’s not surprised at the backlash. Embodiment is one of the greatest threats to religion there is. When people discover their own truth, there’s no need for an external system of control to keep you in line, to tell you what is right/wrong, and to tell you how to behave. Even yoga’s Sutras don’t tell you if you don’t follow the yamas and niyamas, you’re a bad yogi. You may notice a difference in your practice and life if you are rejecting ahimsa and being mean and crotchety to yourself and everyone around you, but it won’t land you in Hell (although your personal karma may then attract more and more hellish situations).
Could the interest in this topic be a reflection of the tension building between the people (the 99%) and the social, cultural, economic, political, and religious structures that have been created to keep them in line? As we become more independent in mind and spirit, will the “powers that be” (read: those in political, religious, and cultural power) become more threatened by a system that encourages and builds freedom in the practitioner? These are interesting questions to consider as humanity approaches a tipping point and begins to see through the tattered rags of the Emperor’s Clothing. More and more people are noticing a larger and larger gap between what we’ve been told to do to feel secure, connected, and expressed and what really provides us those opportunities.
What do you think about the debate?