Yoga, religion, spirituality. Can they go together or are they completely different?

A long term Yoga student of mine, following the recent ‘lock down’ contacted me to say that, (as have many of us, during this peculiar process) she had done a lot of inner reflecting and soul searching and had, as a result, converted to Christianity. As a result of this decision, and again after much thought and thorough consideration, she felt that she could no longer practice Yoga in any form, largely because of with Yogas’ links to Hinduism.

I was curious, and intrigued. Of course I completely respected her decision, but felt that for me as a teacher, and on a personal level, it would be good to know and understand this more. And so I began a short (it could last a lifetime and more) trepidatious journey into this somewhat contentious topic. I have never been christened, I never really attended Sunday school or anything similar at anytime as a child. I have vague memories of religious education at school but I really didn’t retain anything specific in terms of knowledge. I would say that I have a vague awareness of a few spiritual or religious approaches, but no great in depth of knowledge of any one in particular. 

My first line of enquiry was to go straight to the source, I messaged my Indian friend in Kerala, who I knew had been raised in the Hindu tradition. He immediately said that, in his view, Hinduism is not a religion, it is a culture (which is another whole potential debate in itself!), and that anyone can practice Yoga, regardless of their belief systems. I could’ve left it there, because this is kind of what I felt, but of course I also instinctively felt that there was more to be had.

I am incredibly aware of how sensitive this topic can be for so many, and so my intention is to present what I found or read in as impartial a way as I can. I’ve largely referred to Christianity because it is in the storyline of what brought me here, but really this can apply to any religion and Yoga. 

For me, Yoga is absolutely a spiritual practice. Because I teach what I myself practice this will come across in my teaching, even if I don’t intend it to. In my teaching practice I encourage students, if we are using a philosophical approach, to focus the devotional aspect of their practice however they wish, however this resonates the most naturally for them. They may wish to focus on a specific god or deity, or an energy, or to dedicate their practice to themselves. Just as the practice of Yoga is adapted for the individual can this part of the practice also be adaptable? Is this up for debate in the context of our practice and teaching of others, surely we should allow space for exploration and adaptation? Or should we be more directive in our approach? I was beginning to feel that there are no easy answers here. 

I will still curious, and becoming increasingly confused.

I put a post onto the Yoga Teachers UK Facebook forum. The (massive) response was incredibly interesting and illuminating. 

Some Yoga Teachers are Christian, and have Christian students attend their classes. There is even a branch of Yoga specifically for Christian Yoga practitioners. And yet, some church halls will not even rent the space out for Yoga. There is such disparity and misunderstanding, not just from the Christian (and other religions) perspective, but also from the Yoga community viewpoint. Even more confusing, some of the churches who refused to rent the halls out for Yoga then had clergy who then attended the Yoga at another location. It’s very frustrating and lacking in clarity, especially when even some Christian charity bookshops have even refused donations of Yoga books to sell. 

As I have already mentioned, some Religions feel that Yoga is largely linked with Hinduism, and this is believed to be a reason to recommend that people don’t practice if they are devoted and fully committed to another belief system. It is true that having any kind of identity, including a religious identity gives the individual person a sense of belonging and safety, especially during difficult times such as the covid crisis. A lot of religious organisations are just that, massive organisations. The sense of reassurance from belonging to one of such a huge number, who are highly organised and all focused on the same goal is incredibly powerful. Of course it is, we experience the same thing often in Yoga. It’s a good feeling to feel safe, to have a sense of direction, to feel emotionally and spiritually held, to be with likeminded people. How far this goes in terms of recommending how people live their lives varies from place to place, and again is probably a whole other debate. 

Is there a fear of emptying the mind as Yoga practice would state is the goal? Is there ignorance around this? Ignorance (Avidya ), is of course one of the kleshas (afflictions) in Patanjalis Yoga Sutras, it is also present in Buddhism. There are statements for people having experienced the energy or prana that we feel through our Yoga practice and of then feeling fearful of that sensation and experience.

One theory that I came across a few times whilst looking into all of this was ‘The lost years of Jesus’. There are records of Jesus life until he was 12 and then nothing until he reappears at the age of 29. It is not generally known or widely discussed as to where he was during these years. Think about how people are during this time. Young, full of life, curious. Some schools of thought feel that he would have travelled and studied and practiced during this time, as the Buddha did during his younger years, as people continue to do even now, especially in India. This is how we all begin to learn and to question, to discover. Other theories even believe that he was in India during this ‘lost years’ time, near Kashmir, and that he may have practiced Yoga. Ultimately Jesus then presented a different way of viewing spirituality, no doubt from his own experience, and this grew into and morphed into the multitude of religions we see around us today. It’s important to recognise and acknowledge that a lot of these belief systems and cultures, Hinduism, Buddhism, Yoga and Christianity all included, are based on the experience of an individual, and them then sharing with other people what worked for for them. Who are we to judge their experience, just as we would not wish to them or anyone else to judge ours. 

One insightful comment on the Facebook forum was, ”If faith is restricting you then it’s a religion and not a faith based in love and compassion’. Yoga predates all ‘structured’ religions. One could even argue that all religions come from Yoga! Yoga means (in very simplified terms) ‘union’. Oftentimes this is interpreted as union with the greater universe, with all of nature, purusha and prakruti. It may be that religions, who’ve a more external focus on a god figure, or a prophet, find this concept in conflict with their approach. It may be felt by some that Yoga opens up the intuition, opens up other spirit realms, and that this then induces a lack of control or focus. Yoga also aims to cease the mindstuff “chitta vritti nirodhah”. The mind in certain religious practice should be filled with thoughts of God. So the Yoga philosophy doesn’t really line up with the other religious philosophy, or does it? Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras presents us with the Yamas and Niyamas. This is beginning of the system to achieve enlightenment, known as samadhi, or union with the Divine. We also have Bhakti yoga, which is all about devotion and often focuses on a personal form of God, with manta and prayer.

Consider the Yamas and Niyamas (Yoga), The Noble Eightfold Path (Buddhism, also technically not a religion by the way) and the Ten Commandments (Christian). See the chart below and compare these.

Ultimately we are all after the same thing, a sense of belonging, and peace. What’s the difference between religion and spirituality? Religion seems to be a specific set of organised beliefs and practices, usually shared by a community or group. Spirituality seems to be more of an individual practice, and has to do with having a sense of peace and purpose. The two cross over in so very many ways, they seem to have common origins and common goals in many ways. Maybe Yoga is a mixture of the two, depending on your individual practice and approach. As usual the difficulty and confusion comes when it’s open to human interpretation. If you look at and compare the different systems below they are not so dissimilar, yes the Christian approach may be more God focused and external but even Patajali has this focus to some extent ”Ishvara Pranidhana (Complete surrender to God)”.

My first ever Yoga teacher, in Torquay, was a practicing Christian. Jenni attended Church regularly and was an active member of that community as well as a well respected Yoga teacher and Therapist. She often shared readings from the Bible and The Yoga Sutras and expressed the similarities between all of these offerings. I feel saddened that more people cannot be this tolerant and insightful in order to benefit from everything that all of these wonderful traditions have to offer. 

I feel quite apprehensive about publishing this. Religion is a controversial topic and who am I? I’ve not even been christened. Who am I to begin to approach this with any clarity whatsoever? My aim here is not to give clarity, or direction, or even any kind of answer, but to hopefully begin to open things up a little more, to create some understanding, so that we can begin to see that we are not so different after all, we just have a different perspective.

Buddhism Eightfold PathYamas & NiyamasTen Commandments
Right UnderstandingAhimsa (non-harming)You shall have no other gods before me
Right IntentSatya (truthfulness)You shall not make idols
Right SpeechAsteya (non-stealing)You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain
Right ActionBrahmacharya (chastity)Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy
Right LivelihoodAparigraha (non-greediness)Honour your father & mother
Right EffortSaucha (cleanliness)You shall not murder
Right MindfulnessSantosha (contentment)You shall not commit adultery
Right ConcentrationTapas (spiritual effort)You shall not steal
Svadhyaya (study of self/scriptures)You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour
Ishvara Pranidhana (Surrender to God)You shall not covet