outdoor yoga practice by Jean Herrique Wichinoski via Flikr

Yoga and religion: The “Is Yoga Against My Religion” Debate

From the origins of yoga to the meditative state some people achieve, there are a quite a few reasons people believe practicing yoga goes against their religious beliefs. In an effort to practice religious tolerance, I am not a believer in telling people whether or not yoga is against their religion. Instead, I like to promote lively, thought-provoking discussions surrounding yoga and religion.

I sometimes have students come to me and ask, “Is yoga against my religion,” or tell me that, in fact, yoga is against their religion. Either way, I reply in with this question:

“Why do you believe yoga is/would be against your religion?”

Here are some of the most common reasons I hear regarding yoga and religion:

  • Mountain pose. Copyright Body and Mind by MunaPracticing yoga equates to practicing Hinduism.
  • The chanting is against my monotheistic views, as the chants are to call to polytheistic gods.
  • Allowing your mind to become disconnected and free from the present is a gateway to allowing bad/negative thoughts and emotions in.
  • Everything about yoga is against my religion and moral beliefs.
  • I’m not sure, but I was told it is.

So I ask people to take a step back and ask, “What is the point of yoga?” and “What part of that conflicts with my beliefs?”

Yoga foundations

There are a lot of reasons people practice yoga. Most mainstream yoga focuses on asana, aka the physical practice of yoga. But a true yogic lifestyle encompasses more than that. Here are the 8 limbs of yoga (the major driving forces behind each practice):

  1. Yama is based around five ethical standard. This includes non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence and non-covetousness.
  2. Niyama is based around five pieces of self-discipline. Including cleanliness, contentment, spiritual austerities, study of scriptures and one’s self, and surrender to God.
  3. Asana are the postures or physical poses we practice.
  4. Pranayama is breath control.
  5. Pratyahara is withdrawal from the external world and instead focusing our attention inward.
  6. Dharana is the practice of deep concentration.
  7. Dhyana is meditation or contemplation – also known as uninterrupted concentration.
  8. Samadhi is the point in which you reach a state of ecstasy and uncover your true Self.

meditation final rest. Copyright Body and Mind by MunaI find that most people – regardless of religious affiliation – can find at least some good guidance from the 8 limbs. I think most people can agree that non-violence, truthfulness, physical activity and stress-relieving breathing techniques are good things to strive toward. Those are pillars of many religions, and for good reason.

For many, the issue comes from the last four limbs. Withdrawing, deep concentration, meditation and ecstasy are not found in many major religions. Because of this, some religious groups have sworn off practicing yoga in any form. The questions for many is: If I don’t agree with one part of yoga, can I do the exercise and forget about the rest?

My answer: I think people have the ability to pick and choose which part of yoga they want to follow and practice.

Yoga and religion

While there are plenty of religious organizations and congregations that believe yoga is against their religion, there are many more that don’t. I have found that no matter your religious affiliation, someone in your community practices yoga. That includes Christian, Muslim, Jewish, atheist, agnostic, Hindu and Buddhist among others. In fact, I can almost guarantee you that there is at least one yoga instructor who affiliates themselves with your religion.

Just do a quick Google search, and you’re sure to find plenty of information about instructors and/or studios that cater specifically to your religious beliefs.

If you truly believe that yoga is against your religion, no one should try to force you into practicing. Healthy debate and conversations around the topic can be great, and provide an opportunity for both sides to express their opinions.

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