Sunday, March 3, 2013

Why yoga is not a religion



  1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
  2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects.

I am not sure why this continues to be a controversial discussion point, as it is really very clear if you stop to think about the definition of a religion. But in light of my recent post about staying true to the philosophical roots of yoga, and in light of conversations going on elsewhere in the yoga blogsphere, here are 4 reasons that, for me, make it vividly clear that yoga is not a religion.


  1. Does not in any way pertain to the cause, nature, or purpose of the Universe, nor does it propose any theories about how it was created. Wait, isn't that what science does?
  2. Has no specific or fixed theological perspective. It does not specifically recognise a deity, nor does it deny the existence thereof. It's theological openness means that it cannot BE a religion in itself, but neither does it demand that people are with or without religion - basically, you are free to devote yourself to a superhuman force or being, if that works for you, or you are free to concentrate purely on your inner experience, if that works for you.
  3. Does not prescribe one or more fixed paths: it explicitly recognises that different people may take different paths and even proposes many different ways for individuals to try. Much like the scientific process of trial and error, yoga allows us each to find what works for us, and doesn't make any judgements about which way is correct or "better".
  4. Emphasises individual practice and experience, not doctrine or belief.  In yoga, it's not enough to hear or to believe - realisations must be experienced. The individual seeker must cultivate understanding based on questioning one's feelings, beliefs, actions and assumptions, and we are free to find answers to those questions from within or from a divine source or scriptures - or to not find answers at all. There are no prescribed findings - only suggested techniques for inquiry. 

So, let's be clear, outrageously ill-informed online dictionaries: Yoga is NOT a "Hindu discipline". It is a discipline which originated in India, yes. So is Buddhism, by the way, and Jainism, and the Beatles' White Album.  It is a discipline in which you are free to be Hindu, Christian, Athiest, Muslim, Jewish, or none of the above, because it is based on the questions, not on the answers.



  1. the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, esp. when considered as an academic discipline.

Although the yoga tradition can be traced to the Vedantic culture in India circa 3500 BCE (known as the Indus Valley Civilisation), the yoga theory that we know today is mainly based on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which were written around 200 CE. Don't get fooled by the sanskrit name! As discussed above, the Yoga Sutras don't set out any theological principles. Rather, they outline a philosophical problem, and propose a solution. It goes sort of like this:

  • The human experience is characterised by discomfort and suffering. We just aren't happy, which is a bummer.
  • The good news is that this suffering is kind of like seeing the glass half empty: if we are able to overcome the confused states of the mind (the citta-vrtti-nirodhah) that cause us to dwell in suffering, we can shift our perspective and alleviate our predicament.  It's like that scene in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, where Little John thinks he's drowning and yields to Robin, who then "saves" him by telling him to simply stand up - he was so overwhelmed by the fear of drowning, that he nearly drowned in water he could actually stand in.
  • There are two fundamental states in the human experience, prakriti, the "seen", i.e. the ego-self that is basically completely self-obsessed (and likely to drown in misunderstanding), and purusha, the "seer", or the higher self / true self / inner self, that is able to inquire deeply and see things the way they really are (for example, that the water is not actually that deep).
  • People are unhappy because we over-identify with the ego: we live constantly chasing the desires and fluctuations of the ego, chained to the idea that one day, achieving all these desires will "make us happy".
  • Being obsessed with the ego, the true self becomes suppressed, neglected, and forgotten. We subsume the desires of the true self to those of the ego-self, like in a co-dependent relationship, instead of creating a healthy, balanced relationship by nourishing both parts of ourself.
  • When we are living from the ego-self, we act in misguided ways, pursuing self-gratification, bouncing between the extremes of clinging to some things and despising others, and living in a desperate desire to hold onto life. We think that these actions will make us happy, but instead, our unwise thoughts, actions and words plant the seeds of themselves, and lead to more unwise actions, in a vicious cycle.
  • However, if we cultivate things that make our true self happy, if we instead plant different seeds, we can transform our experience, because those seeds will grow and take root instead, and lead to more actions, thoughts and words that make us happy, until eventually they no longer require effort, but become effortless. (Science nuts, see neuroplasticity and habit formation).
  • Yoga proposes the yamas (restraints) and the niyamas (constructive actions) to help guide us towards these positive actions, and away from the misguided or ego-centric ones.
  • To help "awaken" or "liberate" our mind (so that it can realise that the water is actually shallow), yoga proposes a variety of techniques including awakening and focusing the energy the body (asana), breath-work (pranayama), concentration (pratyahara), and meditation (dharanadhyana, and samadhi). Together with the yamas and niyamas, these form the solution to the problem of our self-percieved suffering.
  • Even when you have attained this 'liberated' state, the world continues to be as it is, and you continue to be in the world. You don't evaporate in a puff of smoke or rise up to sit on a luminous cloud. Only your suffering dissolves. You cease to be "tied down" by what your mind believes is real, and you become 'liberated' from the constraints of a limited (ego-bound) perspective. And that is what happiness is - freedom from our own imaginary limitations, by recognising that we are more than our ego-experience.

So, yoga is not a religion. 

Yoga is a TECHNIQUE to reduce our experience of suffering, based on a philosophy about the nature of the human condition.

The technique can be applied against any theological or a-theological background. The only fundamental assumption is that every individual has the ability to reach a state where they are happy and free.


  1. Love this! And thank you for posting. I have been practicing yoga for 12 years and I am a follower of Jesus. I appreciate you offering this perspective. Great blog post. L

  2. Thanks for commenting Anonymous! It's great to hear your experience. :)

  3. Namaste yogisister!
    I appreciate your inspirational way of writing and de scribing your yogic way of life and i enjoy to read your blog.
    Almost everything you've said i can agree upon!
    Except for this article about religion versus yoga.
    Studying latin and sanskrit i simply must clear up the terminology.
    Religion comes from latin and means literally re - again and ligion - unify/gather
    Yoga comes from sanskrit meaning union (to yoke)
    I am pretty sure both refers to the same oneness and union with the divine!
    Aum shanti

    1. Hi Britt - thanks for sharing your perspective! It's true that the literal definition of the word 'yoga' is often interpreted as 'to yoke'.

      But the practice of yoga is certainly more than simply the definition of the word. If one is searching to define yoga as a practice, Patanjali offers a very explicit definition of yoga as "the restraint of the modifications of the mind".

      And while the Yoga Sutras do refer to "isvara", which is most commonly interpreted as "lord," and generally equated to "god" or the "divine" in Hinduism, in Mahayana Buddhism the same term can be used to refer to a boddhisatva, an enlightened human being. The key point being, for me, that in the Yoga Sutras and elsewhere, there is no clear direction as to what we are to yoke ourselves to - you are free to choose how to interpret that. So you can certainly choose union with the divine as the focus of your practice, but you can also choose a different path.

      But that's just my interpretation! Thanks for sharing yours. :)