Xenophanes: “Ethiopians imagine their gods as black and snub-nosed; Thoracians blue-eyed and red-haired. But if horses or lions had hands, or could draw and fashion works as men do, horses would draw the gods shaped like horses and lions like lions, making the gods resemble themselves.”
What makes religion? Is it merely a system of beliefs or principles? Or is it defined by its ritual, deities and institutional structure? By the first definition, many things could be considered religion such as existentialism or humanism. However when most Westerners think of religion; organization and structure come to mind. Secondly, to group together all types of yoga from Ashtanga to Bikram is inaccurate and misleading. From these perspectives we can determine whether yoga is traditionally a religion.
Conventionally speaking, a religious practice involves ritual and ceremony. To many observers, the asanas and chants that are practiced seem suspiciously like religious ritual. It is important to clarify here that within a religion the ritual serves the purpose of worshipping or communicating with a higher being. In yoga, these practices are essentially tools to harness our own consciousness. Within most yoga practices one is not taught to offer up their practice to a particular deity, nor are we encouraged to have belief in a particular religion.
Western religionists may benefit by considering this excerpt from the Christian Bible and Jewish Torah “Be still and know that I am God. (Psalms 46:10). What is this stillness? How can it be achieved? Certainly a rational person can realize that constant distractions do not aid in the search for God. Yoga at the very least is a way to quiet the mind, so that one can hear their own personal truth. That is the key factor here, that personal truth is not determined for you. If you find Jesus, Buddha or Krishna in that ultimate stillness, that is your own intimate practice.
If one were to look at Bhakti yoga, it is clear that the Divine is celebrated and focused upon. Devotion is part of the meaning of the Sanskrit word bhakti. Or perhaps Jivamukti yoga, which advocates vegetarianism, devotion to God and Sanskrit chanting, is the yoga they refer to. Is this what so many are afraid will destroy their faith? No, because fear often does not allow people to even explore this far. The practice of yoga is lumped together as one “odd Eastern religious sort of thing”. Furthermore, it seems as though some are not afraid of lack of faith, but the “wrong” faith. Western religious leaders may be afraid of losing practitioners to the “wrong” God. If this is indeed their concern, there are several schools of yoga which will allow the practitioner to continue with their previous belief system all while reaping the rewards of this ancient tradition.
Such a complex issue deserves careful consideration. For us to draw a conclusion about anything, understanding must be strived for. Ignorance in any form will further perpetuate miscommunication and discord. Yoga, as “union” can bring us together from all walks of life and backgrounds through the commonality of the human experience. This, in part, is its beauty.