No matter how well prepared I hope my teacher trainees are when they graduate from the Rethink Yoga Academy, when they begin their adventure of teaching public classes, there are a lot of fears to be faced and overcome. One of the most daunting is not knowing if you will have answers to your students questions. (Actually, that fear survives the early years of teaching and doesn’t dissipate until you finally realize it’s OK not to have all the answers.) When one of my recent teacher trainees took on the topic of yoga and religion for her writing assignment, I was intrigued. Jen was facing down a topic for which there is no final answer and no shortage of strong opinions.
The Relationship Between Yoga and Religion
By Jennifer Kimak
I began yoga as a physical practice. Later, I became interested in the history of the practice. I wanted to understand how the philosophy fits into our modern Western lives, if it does at all. Other people are also curious, or even skeptical, about this when I mention yoga. As a yogi, I feel it is important to provide interested parties with the best information possible in order to help them along their journeys on and off the mat.
There are differing opinions on whether yoga in and of itself is a religion or simply a philosophy. As yoga becomes used more and more as a physical exercise, questions have arisen from all sides about its relationship to religion. Some oppose the secularization of yoga, while others feel it does not matter how or why one comes to practice. Religious orders are unsure of how it will affect their followers.
According to anthropologists all known cultures have religion of some form. Dictionary.com defines religion as “a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects”. This often includes “devotional and ritual observances and containing a moral code governing conduct”. By this definition, it seems traditional yoga, as laid out in the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali, could be considered a religion. Swami Satchidananda even compares the Sutras to the Bible in the preface to his translation of the text.
Yoga developed as a Hindu practice to bring the practitioner to salvation. Though Christianity has become divided into denominations, the majority of them share the idea that the way to salvation is through the acceptance of Jesus Christ. In his book World Faiths, P. Oliver discusses Hinduism, a religion preceding Christianity by almost 2000 years. Oliver writes that Hinduism has developed a “number of different strategies for trying to achieve salvation”. For this reason, he states, it is a difficult religion to summarize. Oliver sites that the devotional practices are many and there is no comprehensive outline, such as the Quran or Bible. Yoga is only one of the ways to spiritual enlightenment.
Though rooted in Hindu tradition, yoga is often regarded as a philosophy that many feel can be separated from organized religion. The practical teachings for how to live a life without suffering are appealing, as that seems a desirable, though near-impossible, goal to most human beings. Still, the foundation texts read by many yogis, such as the Upanishads and the Vedas are Hindu.
In their December 2011 issue, “Yoga Journal” published an article exploring questions regarding yoga and religion. Andrea Ferretti interviewed Brooke Boon, David Frawley, Gary Kraftsow, and Stefanie Syman, four yogis of different religious backgrounds. Frawley, founder of the American Institute of Vedic Studies, explains, “yoga’s not a belief system. And many of the other traditions coming out of India- Hindu and otherwise- are not belief systems like Christianity, which has one singular perspective that followers have to adopt.” This freedom allows people to follow their own path to spiritual truth. Western traditions often fear yoga for this reason.
Boon, founder of a Christian yoga ministry, Holy Yoga, posits that most Christians are uneducated about yoga. According to Frawley and Syman, an Ashtanga yogini, the mystical experience and Self-realization aspects of yoga can be in conflict with other religious traditions. One woman who feels this is true is Laurette Willis, founder of Praise Moves. Willis was a yoga practitioner who followed “New Age” tradition and studied metaphysics for 22 years. Now a Christian, she renounces yoga as “a dangerous practice for Christians” that leads people away from God. Though her website www.praisemoves.com, Willis shows graphics of traditional asanas, but states that she is opposed to the name yoga for Christians and markets Praise Moves as “a Christian alternative to yoga”.
One solution to this has been to extract all spirituality from yoga, stripping it of references to God and leaving behind Sanskrit as it becomes more mainstream. TheBabarazzi.com, a yoga blog opposed to this practice, refers to it as “yoga bleaching”. In many places yoga is little more than the physical asana, historically one limb of eight, which includes meditation and pranayama (breathing). To Frawley the problem is that yoga is “primarily a deeper spiritual experience.” He concedes that the physical, secular practice has many health benefits that should not be overlooked. Kraftsow, founder of the American Viniyoga Institute agrees, adding that those who see it as sacred should be respected.
There may never be a consensus in the yoga community or the religious world regarding how yoga and religion fit together. Many people find yoga beneficial to their spirituality, regardless of their preferred religion. I find yoga a beautiful way to connect to the divine. Though I do not identify as a Hindu, I feel it is my responsibility as a yoga practitioner to know and respect the origins of my practice.
As a teacher, it is not my place to preach any religion or spiritual path to my students. Rather, I am there to create a safe space for students of all religions and faiths. I feel it is my responsibility to understand that there are differing and strong opinions surrounding this area of the practice. I would like to help cultivate respect of the historical practice in those I reach. In the future when a student, or potential student, asks if yoga is a religion I will be able to provide them with the best possible platform for understanding. What they do with that is up to them.
Jennifer Kimak has been practicing yoga for 10 years. While teaching in Africa last year, her practice was a way to energize and let go of the day. This experience drove her decision to pursue teaching training. Jen recently graduated with her 200 hour teaching certificate from the Rethink Yoga Academy.