Last updated on September 23rd, 2023.
Yoga is a popular physical exercise nowadays and can help people better themselves in both mind and body, but many are confused about the religious and spiritual origins of yoga. Within the yoga community, it is hotly debated whether yoga can be practiced secularly or if it must always be linked to a specific spirituality.
Is yoga a religious practice? Yes and no. Yoga began as a religious practice, but modern yoga practice has been adopted by individuals to fit their specific needs, often ignoring the religious past.
Yoga has existed in one form or another for over 5,000 years. Yoga-like traditions were practiced even before the word “yoga” first appeared in a written text. Yoga itself has evolved through several different forms. Patanjali’s “Yoga Sutra”, the foundational text for yoga, was written over 2,000 years ago, but even the form of yoga presented in this text is vastly different than the yoga practiced throughout the world today.
Is Yoga a Religious Practice?
Nowadays, yoga has been incorporated into the belief systems of several religions and spiritualities, but it is also practiced by some individuals purely for its positive physical and mental effects. There are also some individuals who believe that practitioners of certain faiths should avoid participating in yoga due to conflicts with certain doctrines of those faiths.
Yoga certainly began as a religious practice, but since the 20th century, it has changed dramatically from its original form and is now commonly practiced as a disciple that combines physical workout with meditative thinking.
There are some yogis who believe severing spirituality from the practice of yoga is either offensive to those who use yoga as a religious practice, or it changes the practice so much that it ceases to be true yoga. Check out this article to learn more about the history of yoga.
Other yogis believe that adapting yoga to fit the individual, regardless of their chosen faith or spirituality, can help introduce those who are more hesitant to participate in the practice to other worldviews and philosophies. There are even some yogis who believe it is entirely acceptable to utilize yoga as a physical workout without any desire to delve deeper into the spiritual aspects of the practice.
Some forms of yoga are still used as religious practices, but in the modern-day, yoga is often adapted to fit individual needs. Some practice yoga as a part of their Hindu, Buddhist, or Jain faith. Some combine the more spiritual principles of asana yoga with their personal dogma while others remove the spirituality of yoga altogether to pursue a purely physical workout.
What is the True Purpose of Yoga?
With so many individual purposes for practicing modern yoga, it can be difficult to ascertain what the true purpose of yoga.
Yoga originated in India, but when yoga was first practiced, it was not as physical of a practice as it is known as today. Originally, yoga focused more on philosophy, ethics, meditation, sound, and breathing than it did on posture and physical fitness. Yoga did not become a form of physical training until the 20th century.
Since the 5th century CE, yoga was used to achieve liberation (Moksha) and union. The word yoga comes from “yuj” meaning “to yoke” or “to connect.” Liberation is achieved by using yoga as a meditative practice to help increase awareness of self, others, and the world.
Traditionally, yoga has also been used to improve focus and discipline. With this increased awareness and improved discipline, the mind, body, and spirit become connected and this frees an individual from desire and memories of the past.
When linked to spirituality or faith like Hinduism, Buddhism, or Jainism, liberation and mind-body-soul unity lead an individual closer to the spiritual goal of enlightenment and/or transcendence. These spiritualities use yoga to strive after the truth of the universe.
In the early 20th century, as a conflict between Indian citizens and British colonizers became more likely, a need for physical strength became apparent. Teachers combined hatha yoga, European gymnastics, and Indian wrestling techniques to create a combat style that would help to strengthen the bodies of potential revolutionaries. Around the same time other teachers, like Manick Rao, added weight-resistance exercises to their yoga styles.
These more physical forms of yoga were encouraged by the Indian government to improve the physical fitness of their citizens and the popularity of postural, or asana, yoga was increased by T. Krishnamacharya’s innovative and global teachings.
Modern yoga gained its popularity and spread throughout the West beginning around the 1930s. This yoga retained a lot of its spirituality, but over time, as other cultures interacted with the practice, its spirituality was adapted to fit other belief systems. In some instances, the spirituality of yoga has been removed altogether and the goal of yoga has become simply to better one’s body and find relaxation.
Despite the frequent stripping of spirituality from the practice of yoga, the roots of yoga are religious.
What Religion is Yoga Based On?
Yoga is commonly described as a Hindu practice, but there are forms of yoga practiced by Buddhists, Jains, Christians, atheists, and peoples of various other faith backgrounds. Yoga has also been adapted to facilitate those who want a physical workout without any sort of attachment to a deeper spirituality.
The foundations of yoga pre-exist the Rigveda and the Upanishads. Yoga’s origins can be traced back to approximately 3000 BCE: 1500 years before the start of Hinduism, 2,400 years before Buddhism, and 2,500 years before Jainism. During this time, yoga-like practices belonged to the cultural tradition of the Indus valley civilization.
Eventually, the meditative practice of yoga was established as a religious practice of Hinduism, but when Buddhism and Jainism began, yoga was incorporated into these religions as fundamental components.
The yoga that is practiced today is predominantly influenced by Hindu tradition, but it also displays influences from Buddhism and Jainism. As time goes on and yoga becomes more popular around the world, yoga continues to be influenced by other religions and spiritualities. One example of this is Holy Yoga. Holy Yoga uses the practice of yoga to strengthen Christian spirituality and increase understanding of the Gospel.
This site investigates the origins and evolution of yoga in greater detail. In the practice of modern yoga, there is a growing issue that stems from the separation of spirituality from yoga.
Is Namaste a Religious Word?
Nowadays, the experience of attending a yoga class can vary depending on the studio and the teacher. While some yogis believe it is acceptable to remove spirituality from the practice of yoga, many yoga classes feature traces of yoga’s traditional spirituality. These traces are found in chants, mentions of the Bhagavad Gita, and the frequent use of the word Namaste.
Using these elements of traditional yoga can be acceptable if done in a way that reflects and honors the traditional spiritual nature of yoga, but sometimes teachers use these elements as an empty gesture to add to the “experience” of the class. The hollow use of these traditional elements of yoga can be viewed as offensive by some.
Namaste is a religious word that is very meaningful to practitioners of Hinduism.
This does not mean that you must be Hindu to use namaste, but if you use the word or any other traditional spiritual aspect of yoga, you should be aware of the meaning behind it and use it respectfully.
Namaste translates literally to “I bow to you.” The more spiritual meaning of the word is “I bow to the divine in you,” or “the divine in me bows to the divine in you.” Namaste is usually accompanied by a bow and folded hands.
It is a phrase that acknowledges the beauty of creation in every person and is a gesture that denotes respect and affection to the receiver of the gesture. The use of the phrase is believed to connect two people in a sacred and intimate way.
Namaste is a beautiful word that carries a sacred meaning to many. It should be used with great reverence and respect for this symbolism.
Regardless of your faith, yoga practitioners should strive to learn about the foundations of traditional yoga so they can practice yoga in an ethical and socially conscious way. Understanding these foundations can also improve your understanding of the world.
What are the 7 Spiritual Laws of Yoga?
A great book that teaches the fundamentals of yoga spirituality is Deepak Chopra’s The Seven Spiritual Laws of Yoga: A Practical Guide to Healing Body, Mind, and Spirit. This book illustrates the connection between traditional yoga and modern yoga through the 7 spiritual laws of yoga.
These 7 spiritual laws are:
1. The Law of Pure Potentiality – Om Bhavam Namah:
- Our essential nature is pure consciousness – the essential source of everything in the physical world.
- Every individual is infinitely creative and eternal.
- The ability to let go of judgments is necessary in life.
2. The Law of Giving and Receiving – Om Vardhanam Namah:
- Giving and receiving are two expressions of the same flow of energy in the universe.
- Individuals need to give and receive in life to maintain abundance and love.
- Equal exchange in our lives is necessary.
3. The Law of Karma – Om Kriyam Namah:
- Every action that you put out in the world will return to you in kind.
- If you put negative energy out in the world, negativity will come back to you.
- If you act in a way that brings happiness to others, happiness will come to you.
- Making conscious decisions about our actions is essential.
4. The Law of Least Effort – Om Daksham Namah:
- When motivated by love, all endeavors you undertake are accomplished easier.
- The law also teaches us to stop resisting the power of the universe.
- It is necessary to trust the natural order of the universe.
5. The Law of Intention and Desire – Om Ritam Namah:
- When you put your desires and intentions into the world and allow the universe to take control, the universe can fulfill your desires with minimal effort on your part.
- Setting intentions is vital for a successful life.
6. The Law of Detachment – Om Anandham Namah:
- Things will occur in the way they are meant to.
- Stop trying to force things to go your way.
- Accept what happens and allow opportunities to come to you.
- Flexibility and acceptance are essential for happiness.
7. The Law of Dharma – Om Varunam Namah:
- Everyone has a purpose in life and this purpose can be achieved by embracing and using your unique gifts to serve and love others.
- Inward reflection is necessary in life.
Yoga is a practice that originated in India and is typically associated with the practice of Hinduism. Though yoga has changed a lot and has been adapted to support many other faiths and spiritual beliefs over time, yoga remains ingrained with deep meaning and spirituality.
The spirituality of yoga is necessary to fully understand the practice of yoga and yoga practitioners of all spiritual beliefs should learn about these spiritual foundations. The following books are great resources for more information about the spiritual foundations of yoga:
- Light on Yoga: The Bible of Modern Yoga by B. K. S. Iyengar
- The Eight Limbs of Yoga: A Handbook for Living Yoga Philosophy by Stuart Ray Sarbacker