Is Yoga A Religion?


Every so often, I will be at a social event and someone will introduce me to his or her friends as their yoga teacher and the friend will ask, “So do you study Hinduism or Buddhism?” There is an assumption that because of the use of Sanskrit words, chanting, or the study of ancient yogic texts such as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra that yoga has a religious affiliation.

According to T.K.V. Desikachar, a prominent yogi credited with being a driving force behind the resurgence of Hatha yoga in recent decades, “Yoga is not a religion and should not affiliate with any religion”. Yoga has no religious obligations, no singular creed and it has no rituals that profess a faith such as baptism or confirmation.

So, if yoga is not a “religion” is it a hobby, a sport, an exercise routine, or a discipline such as the study of medicine or martial arts? In some ways, yoga represents all these things and more.

Many students come initially to yoga for the many health benefits. Eventually with regular practice, many find the meditative effects on the mind and emotions can become a spiritual experience.

So then, what is spirituality?

Some equate spirituality with praying, meditating or even reading enlightening literature. In its basic form, it’s your level of consciousness. It’s the way you get in synch with yourself, connecting with who you are on a deeper level. It’s the connection to our inner self. If religion could be referred to as the external frame or organizational structure for it’s congregations, then spirituality would be the internal connection and understanding of one’s self and their place in the universe.

Yoga puts us in touch with this inner self, no matter our outer beliefs.

8 thoughts on “Is Yoga A Religion?

  1. The BIG “assumption” is that yoga is not a religious practice. The various yogas (Karma Yoga, Bhakti Y, Hatha Y, Raja Y., Mantra Y, etc.) are the religious/spiritual teachings and practices of Hinduism and sects. True, yoga in itself is not ‘a’ religion, just as Mass, Communion, Torah, Bar Mitzvah,etc. are not ‘a’ religion. They do, however, separately belong to a specific religion and can not be ethically uprooted/stolen/misrepresented/exploited from them. Ex. Mass and Puja are both prayer services but they are different and of different religions. As to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, if not part of a religion, i.e., Hinduism, why are they considered one of the six religious/philosophical orthodox texts of Hinduism? That’s like saying, someone adhering to the Bible is not involved with Chrisianity…do you see delusion in spurious “yoga”? Here are some facts in contrast to the many false myths the phoney yoga movement has absorbed:
    ~Sanskrit: The ancient language of the Hindus [Webster’s] Note: all subsequent terms are Sanskrit (Skr.) and thus Hindu
    ~Aum/Om: The most sacred syllable in Hinduism [Oxford World Religions]
    ~yoga: Skr. “Hinduism” [Webster’s]
    ~yoga: Oneness of Atmana and Brahman [Dict. of Skr. Names]
    ~yogi/yogini: (male/female) Hindu Ascetic [Oxford World Rel.]
    ~Atmana: Skr. Self/Spirit; Hinduism [Webster’s]
    ~Brahman: Skr. Hindu Religion [Webster’s]
    ~yoga: Skr. A Hindu discipline [Oxford Am. Dict.]
    ~ yoga: Skr. A system of Hindu religious philosophy [Thorndike Barnhardt]
    ~yoga: Skr. general term for spiritual disciplines in Hinduism [Columbia Encyclopedia]
    ~Swami: Skr. Title of respect of a (Hindu) Holy man or teacher. [Oxford World Religions]
    ~Guru: Skr. A teacher of worldly skills…more often of religious knowledge…liberation (Moksa). [Oxford World religions]
    ~Moksa: Release/liberation – the fourth and ultimate goal of Hinduism. [Oxf. World Religion]
    ~Veda Skr. The most ancient sacred literature of the Hindus. [Webster’s]
    ~The first recorded evidence of the Skr. word “yoga” is found in the Vedas.”Seers of the vast illumined Seer yogically control their minds and intelligence.” Rig Veda V.81.
    ~Upanishads: Text in Hinduism which ends or completes the Vedic corpus (body of [Hindu] laws)[Oxf. World Religions]

  2. The BIG “assumption” is that yoga is not a religious practice. The various yogas (Karma Yoga, Bhakti Y, Hatha Y, Raja Y., Mantra Y, etc.) are the religious/spiritual teachings and practices of Hinduism and sects. True, yoga in itself is not ‘a’ religion, just as Mass, Communion, Torah, Bar Mitzvah,etc. are not ‘a’ religion. They do, however, separately belong to a specific religion and can not be ethically uprooted/stolen/misrepresented/exploited from them. Ex. Mass and Puja are both prayer services but they are different and of different religions. As to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, if not part of a religion, i.e., Hinduism, why are they considered one of the six religious/philosophical orthodox texts of Hinduism? That’s like saying, someone adhering to the Bible is not involved with Chrisianity…do you see delusion in spurious “yoga”? Here are some facts in contrast to the many false myths the phoney yoga movement has absorbed:
    ~Sanskrit: The ancient language of the Hindus [Webster’s] Note: all subsequent terms are Sanskrit (Skr.) and thus Hindu
    ~Aum/Om: The most sacred syllable in Hinduism [Oxford World Religions]
    ~yoga: Skr. “Hinduism” [Webster’s]
    ~yoga: Oneness of Atmana and Brahman [Dict. of Skr. Names]
    ~yogi/yogini: (male/female) Hindu Ascetic [Oxford World Rel.]
    ~Atmana: Skr. Self/Spirit; Hinduism [Webster’s]
    ~Brahman: Skr. Hindu Religion [Webster’s]
    ~yoga: Skr. A Hindu discipline [Oxford Am. Dict.]
    ~ yoga: Skr. A system of Hindu religious philosophy [Thorndike Barnhardt]
    ~yoga: Skr. general term for spiritual disciplines in Hinduism [Columbia Encyclopedia]
    ~Swami: Skr. Title of respect of a (Hindu) Holy man or teacher. [Oxford World Religions]
    ~Guru: Skr. A teacher of worldly skills…more often of religious knowledge…liberation (Moksa). [Oxford World religions]
    ~Moksa: Release/liberation – the fourth and ultimate goal of Hinduism. [Oxf. World Religion]
    ~Veda Skr. The most ancient sacred literature of the Hindus. [Webster’s]
    ~The first recorded evidence of the Skr. word “yoga” is found in the Vedas.”Seers of the vast illumined Seer yogically control their minds and intelligence.” Rig Veda V.81.
    ~Upanishads: Text in Hinduism which ends or completes the Vedic corpus (body of [Hindu] laws)[Oxf. World Religions]

  3. Why would one “assume” that “yoga has a religious affiliation” when Sanskrit is, by definition, “The ancient Aryan [noble] language of the Hindus;” when one chants Sanskrit/Hindu Mantras; when the Saiva, Hindu Guru Patanjali (among many other Hindus) wrote the Yoga Darsana (“one of the six orthodox systems of Hindu philosophy”)? Why would one make such an assumption? “Obviously” because all of real Yoga is Hinduism. Real teachers of Yoga are Hindus (or related sect).

    The real question is why would so many like Desikachar want to hide the facts? Ego, money, name, fame?

    Swami Param
    Dharma Yoga Ashram (Classical Yoga Hindu Academy)

  4. With all due respect, both previous commenters are making a critical error–that there is only one definition for a word and that it never changes.

    They are right, but only about one definition of Yoga. Even in Patanjali’s (author of Yoga Sutra) time, no one could agree on the definition of Yoga. It was already being used to describe a wide variety of practices, some religious and some not at all. Patanjali only barely mentions God in his text, and many analyst think he was just trying to cover all his bases and appeal to everyone.

    Not only are there multiple uses for a word like “yoga”, but it changes over time. You really can’t fight the progression of language. When millions of people use Yoga to refer to exercise, then that’s what the word means now. It also means a set of specific meditation and breathing practices that grew up as part of the Hindu tradition in India. It simply means both of these things now, not one or the other.

    The answer to your question, then is, Yoga is a religion for some people and not a religion for others. That’s the only answer that will ever be true.

    Thanks for you thought-provoking blog.

    Bob Weisenberg
    http://YogaDemystified.com

  5. Bob – Where are the scholarly definitions and support that yoga has ( genuine)definitions and (genuine) application outside of Hinduism. Also, please show support for “in Patanjali’s (author of Yoga Sutra) time, no one could agree on the definition of Yoga.” Who was Patanjali…a Christian monk teaching Christian students or Hindu Yogi teaching advanced male Hindu students? Outside of the various Yoga practices of Hinduism, designed to bring a Hindu to yuj/yog/yoke/relink the Atmana (individual Soul) with Brahman (Soul source). Patanjali never mentions God, that’s a Monotheistic word for male creator being. He refers to his Sishyas to develop intense devotion to Ishvara, a name most often for Siva…a Maha Deva (great spirit being) no way a Creator. The Y.S. continues to express there is no single creator in IV 16: “no one single mind is resposible for the existance of objects or what would happen to that object when the mind no longer perceived that object.” The word yoga can be used a bit different, but always in the context of Hinduism. So, for anyone who wants to continue to delude themselves and others they can unethically mis-define, mis-represent, exploit specific practices of a specific recognized religion. Once again, Y.S. I 9: “word knowledge devoid of facts is delusion” and as Swami Param noted, the Yoga Sutras are “one of the six orthodox systems of Hindu philosophy”. As to calling Yoga a religion, please refer to my comment of 9/7/9.

  6. Thanks for your response, yati.

    I can only repeat my previous response. It’s the answer to most of what you write above, too. There is more than one definition for the word “yoga”, and words naturally develop over time, without any nefarious motives.

    My sources for Patanjali are mostly Swami Satyananda Saraswati in “Four Chapters on Freedom” from Bihar School in India and Chip Hartranft in “The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali”.

    Bob Weisenberg
    http://YogaDemystified.com

  7. Thanks Bob- One’s motives are not the litmus test for right/wrong, moral/immoral. People who stole land, uprooted culture from Native Americans, killed six million Jews, felt/feel women and minorities do not warrant equal rights , etc., do not feel there is anything “nefarious” in their thoughts or deeds. Likewise, those who distort and uproot Yoga/Hinduism do the same. It is nefarious to redefine/steal someone’s sacred words/practices, in effect eroding their culture, dignity and rights as perpetrated in above examples.

    As to those sources, any honest research will show that all (real) yoga is Hinduism. Just reflect for a moment… on someone calling themselves Swami…what is a Swami and what would they (ethically) teach? What would you expect a Rabbi, Priest, or Imam to be teaching? As to Chip Hartranft, who I have no idea about other than obviously not Hindu by name, what depth of understanding would be expected from someones commentary on sacred scripture they have no first hand knowledge of? What other religion do you find the word yoga or Swami in? Anyone can write whatever they want, but look into scholarly texts on comparative religion, dictionaries, etc.

  8. Bob,
    What are the “multiple uses for the word yoga?” How do you know “in Patanjali’s time, no one could agree on the definition of the word yoga?”
    The fact is (And note you draw your facts from the Hindus Patanjali and a Swami. so what is the point?) that the Yoga that is misrepresented as simply an exercise is not that at all. In these so-called “yoga classes,” the “teachers” use other Sanskrit/Hindu terms and concepts without disclosing the (inseperable) Hindu connection. This new-age yoga is simply a matter of denial.

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