Is Yoga a Religion Part 1, The Great Debate

Is Yoga a Religion Part 1, The Great Debate

This question has been heavily debated recently, especially as yoga becomes more and more mainstream and incorporates into schools. Earlier this year the California Court of Appeal ruled in one case that yoga does not violate religious freedoms and does not encroach upon the separation of church and state. So that’s it, case over, right? Not even close.

So is yoga a religion? Everyone wants an easy answer, but I’m afraid there isn’t one. The short answer is no. The slightly longer answer is it’s complicated. And the most thorough answer is that it depends on the individual or group answering the question and the tradition of yoga that he or she or they are adhering to.

Yoga can get categorized as a science, as a philosophy and sometimes as a religion. The reason for these categorizations is not arbitrary, but based on the practice being taught and the purpose behind the practice. If this issue is already feeling terribly convoluted to you, it’s because yoga is a thoroughly complex system of knowledge with an even more complex history. In the West, yoga as we tend to know it is a very secularized version of the ancient tradition. In fact, the yoga we see in studios and schools today is more of an entirely new practice with yoga-esque elements.

I just made a big statement there that needs to be qualified. In the ancient yoga texts there is no reference to the sun salutations, warrior poses, or vinyasa flows that are the foundations of yoga we see in the West. Most of the main body of the yoga poses we practice seem to have only shown up in the last century or so. (Listen to this interview) In many ways what we view as yoga is really just a modernized, westernized adaptation of the yogic darshan, primarily focused on the physical practice. 

Is this right or wrong? Again, it depends on who you ask. For those concerned about yoga imposing religious beliefs on practitioners, it is probably a good thing that our Westernized yoga practiced has been stripped of most of its spiritual elements to focus on the physical and mental benefits of yoga practice. But another person might say that taking the spiritual or metaphysical elements out of yoga deprives the practitioner of the greatest, more transcendental benefits that yoga can offer.

This viewpoint is best illustrated by Gary Kraftsow in a Yoga Journal interview

“The spiritual dimensions of yoga were used by many different religions. Although religious-specific faiths taught yoga, the actual yoga teachings were used by many different religions. So I think this distinction between yoga as a spiritual journey that supports religion versus yoga as a religion is very useful.

And then the current modern context is that yoga is secular. Yoga is adaptable. So yoga can be presented in a secular context that has no elements of spirituality, or it can be presented as a spiritual discipline that supports the Christian faith or the Buddhist faith or the Hindu faith.”

Just to highlight how controversial the topic is, here are a few examples. The Hindu American Foundation launched a campaign in 2008 to “Take Back Yoga” by bringing light to yoga’s Hindu roots. Meanwhile, Holy Yoga practices yoga in a Christ-centered approach for Christians. At the same time, in those Encinitas, California schools mentioned earlier, the court stated that "...while yoga may be practiced for religious reasons, it cannot be said to be inherently religious or overtly sectarian."

Did you think this was going to be easy? I’m sorry if you did. I wish I could give you a straight answer, but in reality, there isn’t one. I have been practicing yoga for 12 years now (it’s not terribly long, but it’s something), I’ve dived pretty deep into the physical, philosophical, and spiritual facets of yoga, I got my yoga certification in India, I have actively sought straight answers from teachers, and textbooks, and ancient texts. But the mystery remains, almost as heavy as it ever was. The best I can do for myself, and maybe for you is tell you the answers that I’ve come to through my own practice and my own understanding. That will be in the next part of the big question “Is Yoga a Religion?”


To Be Continued in Part 2


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Photo Credit: By Michael Pravin from Chennai, India (Surya Namaskar) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons