Let's Talk About Yoga & Faith
Yoga Journal|November - December 2021
YJ Senior Editor Tamara Jeffries set out to answer some perennial questions about whether yoga is secular or spiritual. What she discovered: It’s both. And more.
By Tamara Jeffries

I WAS ROLLING UP MY MAT AFTER CLASS —I had just taught yoga at the small, Methodist– affiliated women’s college where I also taught journalism—when one of the students hesitantly approached me.

She was a Christian, she explained; her mother was a minister. She was concerned about how yoga aligned with her faith. “Will this make Jesus mad?” she asked.

“Oh my goodness, no!” I said. I explained to her what I had been taught myself: that yoga was a series of exercises developed by Hindu teachers to prepare their young students to sit in meditation. It was brought to the West by Indian teachers who willingly shared it with Western practitioners. It had South Asian roots, but it was a secular practice. I told her that the class would mostly be stretching and breathing, and when we covered the Eight Limbs, she could think of the yamas and niyamas as a yogic Ten Commandments. She could dedicate her practice to Christ; she could meditate on whatever or whomever she wanted. She left relieved.

I didn’t think of the encounter again for five years. Then this past spring, the Alabama legislature made headlines with a bill to lift a 28-year ban on yoga being taught in public schools. I reported on the contentious debate: Proponents of the bill touted yoga’s mental and physical benefits and said it was harmless stretching and breathing. But conservative groups, including the Foundation for Moral Law and the Alabama chapter of the Eagle Forum, argued that yoga is a Hindu practice that had no place in schools. “Many Christian parents are uncomfortable with another adult leading their children through meditation and guided imagery exercises that can affect their psyche, especially when the parents are not present,” the Eagle Forum of Alabama said in an email supporting the state’s ban.

Some Hindu practitioners, such as Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, agree that yoga is rooted in Hindu culture, but point out that people have been doing this beneficial practice for decades without being converted to Hinduism.

I thought back to the conversation I’d had with my student. I wondered: had I been telling her—and other students—a colonized version of yoga history or teaching a whitewashed version of the practice? Almost all of my students were Black women, at risk for the mental and physical health concerns that science and tradition promised yoga could address. But many of them were also Christian. Was I disrespecting their religious beliefs in order to make yoga more palatable? I was raised in the Baptist church; I have practiced yoga for decades. But who am I to say what Jesus would think about yoga?

I needed better answers if I were to make sense of— and peace with—yoga’s complex place in the Western world and in my own life. I turned to leaders, scholars, and people of faith to answer my questions. Here’s what I asked them—and what I discovered.

Is yoga a religion?

It’s complicated. Susanna Barkataki, author of Embrace Yoga’s Roots, describes yoga as “a practical, structured, scientific framework and embodiment practice that aims at curing our personal and social ills.” It’s part of a religion for some, but it isn’t inherently religious.

A statement by the Indian government’s Ministry of External Affairs explains it this way: “Yoga is essentially a spiritual discipline based on an extremely subtle science, which focuses on bringing harmony between mind and body. ... [T]he practice of Yoga leads to the union of individual consciousness with that of the Universal Consciousness, indicating a perfect harmony between the mind and body.”

The statement also explains yoga’s connection— or lack thereof—to religion: “Yoga does not adhere to any particular religion, belief system, or community.” Anyone who practices can reap its benefits, “irrespective of one’s faith, ethnicity, or culture.”

While many people equate the term “yoga” with stretching exercises, the full practice—all Eight Limbs of Yoga—includes instructions on personal behavior and ethics, focus, concentration, meditation, and samadhi, or connection with a higher power.

Barkataki also cites Patanjali’s definition of yoga as “the calming of the fluctuations of the mind in order to find unity within.” Yoga is the practice, but also the result of the practice: a union of mind, body, and heart.

What is yoga’s relationship to Hinduism?

Most definitions of yoga root it in ancient Hindu culture. Though there are some who say yoga also has roots in Egypt and in Europe, the yoga most often practiced in the West evolved from practices brought from India by Hindu teachers.

South Asian yoga teachers I talked to say yoga is a Hindu practice that anyone is welcome to engage in, regardless of their religion. (A 2008 letter to Yoga Journal from the Hindu American Foundation calls yoga “one of the greatest gifts of Hinduism to mankind.”)

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