Is Yoga Appropriate for All Faiths? – Understanding the Pros & Cons

103959685Since its arrival in the west, a frequent question about Yoga has been whether it’s appropriate for those of other faiths.  Many believe Yoga does not belong in schools since, in their perspective, it is a religious practice, and there are those who feel should not be practiced at all by those of their faith because it is, to their understanding, antithetical to their beliefs.

On the other side of the issue, practitioners of Yoga generally feel Yoga is ecumenical and is appropriate for anyone, regardless of faith.  Further, they feel that, as a practice that promotes health, stress-management, and greater mindfulness, it is valid not only in the classroom but even in churches and synagogues and can in fact benefit those of any faith.

I believe there are valid grounds for both perspectives and that the issue is more complex than both sides realize.  For that reason, I’d like to share a bit about the validity of each view, in hope that some who have avoided Yoga for religious reasons might reconsider and that some on the other side might be more understanding of why those who oppose Yoga may in fact have a valid view.

Pro: Yoga iNot a Branch of Hinduism

Starting with the ecumenical aspects of Yoga, one of the most common misunderstandings about Yoga is the belief it is a form of Hinduism.  In fact, Yoga is not only not a branch of Hinduism but in fact evolved as a criticism of and alternative to it.  Of course, this mistaken belief is easy to understand – many books and teachers in the world of Yoga refer to Hindu deities or rituals, making it natural to assume an affiliation between the two, but the assumption is nonetheless false.

Simply put, while Yoga refers various beliefs and practices of the Hindu tradition, it makes clear that none of these are necessary in order to practice Yoga or to achieve its ends.  These references exist solely for two reasons: first, classical Yoga does advocate the use of spiritual practices and ideals to the extent an individual is drawn to them; and, because Yoga evolved within Hindu culture, these references naturally uses images and rituals from Hindu ideology.

That much said, if you look more deeply, you’ll see two very important distinctions between Yoga and Hinduism.  First, again, all classic texts of Yoga make clear none of these beliefs or rituals are necessary in order to practice Yoga – that is, they are presented as valid but not necessary.  This is obviously in profound contrast with most spiritual beliefs.  For example, imagine a Catholic priest who considered confession optional or an orthodox rabbi who felt keeping kosher was a matter of personal preference – most would consider such people outside their professed faith.

Second, and equally significant, those familiar with Hinduism will realize the specific gods and practices referred to in Yogic texts are actually drawn from variety of differing and even conflicting branches of Hinduism, making it clear Yoga is not affiliated with any.  Again, to make this more clear, imagine a talk where the speaker said: “You could take communion, or observe Sabbath, or pray to Allah, or skip them entirely….”  Again, students of religion realize these are all part of the Judeo-Christian faith.  But we would also realize each is distinct, and therefore the speaker is outside any of these traditions – particularly when he or she says: “…or skip them entirely.”  We would understand these practices refer to three distinct faiths and in turn the speaker is making it clear none are required to achieve the goal referred to, and the same is true for Yoga.

In this way, Yoga draws examples from what members of Indian society would instantly recognize as a religiously diverse set of theologies, while at the same time presuming and preaching none of them, nor excluding those who might not embrace any.  In this sense, Yoga is clearly not only distinct from Hinduism but in fact “outside” of it.

Pro: Yoga Is Not (Necessarily) “Religious”

A second argument in favor of seeing Yoga as appropriate for all stems from the above, which again is the fact none of these practices or beliefs are considered necessary to be a yogi.  Once more, while chanting, prayer, and pujas have classically been part of Yoga, all the primary texts make it clear none are in any way essential for progress on the Yogic path – in fact, they can even be obstacles if we do them out of assumption or in a rote way.

To highlight this, when I was lived for several years at a Yoga ashram, I noticed many of the swamis never participated in ceremonies, simply because they were not drawn to them.  In fact, there were many who not only skipped the Hindu ceremonies but instead focused on rituals from their own faiths, such as observing Yom Kippur or Lent.

On top of this, while most of the altars at the ashram had pictures of our teacher and his guru, there were also numerous images of Christ, St. Francis, Mother Mary, Martin Buber, the Buddha, Black Elk and figures from a wide variety of traditions, making it clear Yoga considers any form of faith equally valid as well as completely optional.  In short, both practice and form of worship as a whole are, from the Yogic perspective, entirely up to the practitioner.

Con: Yoga Is Not (Necessarily) “Non-Religious”

Of course, while the eclecticism of Yoga is often cited as proof of its inclusiveness, it is equally important to understand this very fact goes against some faiths.  To clarify, while Yoga for example considers the practice of confession valid if we are drawn to it, it does not consider it in any way necessary.  Obviously, for many Catholics, this openness goes against what they consider a crucial belief and act – for them confession is absolutely crucial for the salvation of the soul and to treat it as “optional” is to do any adherent of the faith a huge disservice.

To continue the example, in this sense, while it is true from the Yogic perspective anyone could practice Yoga and Catholicism without conflict, it is completely understandable some Catholics might feel the “open” nature of Yoga is not only misleading but perhaps even a hindrance to true faith and salvation.  Of course, many comparable conflicts potentially exist between Yoga and other faiths – again, anyone who believes a certain practice or belief is essential for spiritual growth may feel the flexible nature of Yoga actively hampers or detracts from that goal.

Personally, I feel Yoga is welcoming to and potentially beneficial for all.  However, I believe it is equally important to respect the fact some have very firm beliefs – whether baptism or keeping kosher or praying at appointed times daily – without which they sincerely believe a person is risking his or her spiritual well-being.  While Yoga allows room for these, it is important to acknowledge it not only doesn’t endorse them but treats them as equivalent with other practices, including those a given faith might challenge.  Obviously, if I think faith in Christ is essential for salvation, it is understandable to prefer a community which actively supports this, even if a Yogic community may welcome me.  This is a point I think it is crucial for contemporary teachers and students of Yoga to understand and respect.

Con: Yoga Does Include Strong Beliefs

A second aspect of Yoga which I feel is often overlooked by those who maintain it is suitable for all faiths, is the fact Yoga does include some very specific spiritual beliefs – particularly regarding the existence and nature of the soul, the relationship between body, mind, and soul, and the ideas of karma and reincarnation.  While these of course vary between different branches of Yoga and can be said to a degree to be optional (for example, the teachings of Yoga can be fully understood and implemented even if you don’t believe in reincarnation), the fact is some of these ideas do indeed go against the beliefs of other faiths.

To give an example, our tradition believes having a guru or receiving shaktipat (direct transmission of spiritual energy from one’s teacher) is in no way essential for spiritual growth, but both are embraced as potentially useful spiritual tools.  Obviously, there are some who believe even the idea of a human spiritual leader is false and misleading and should not be considered or that the idea of transmission of spiritual energy is unhealthy or even “evil.”  While I may not personally agree with either of these, it is crucial to respect the fact that, for such people, it would be wrong to insist they should see Yoga as appropriate for those of their faith.

Equally important – and again related to an issue mentioned previously – there are many beliefs held as essential by some that Yoga does not include.  For example, if I believe in Original Sin, I will not find any direct counsel in the world of Yoga – peripheral, yes, but not the direct treatment and endorsement something of this magnitude requires if it is part of one’s beliefs.  Imagine going to a doctor for a vaccine and having him say: “Oh, you’re welcome to get that elsewhere, but I don’t offer it…” – obviously, while this is his or her prerogative, it would be wrong to insist that he is the right doctor for everyone, “welcoming” or not.

Simply put, while the Yogic perspective may be that there is room within Yoga for a wide range of beliefs, it is hasty to assert observers of all faiths can benefit from Yoga, for the simple reason that for some the beliefs and practices of Yoga actually distracts from principles and practices they hold essential.  In this sense, while there are certainly many who are missing out on the benefits of Yoga due to misunderstandings, it would be equally short-sighted to assert that anyone who doesn’t feel Yoga fits with their faith is acting from misunderstanding.

In Conclusion

I hope this has perhaps leant at least a bit more perspective to both sides of the issue.  Obviously, in an age where religious difference can easily and powerfully divide, it is crucial to be as open and respectful as we can, not only to those who hold a faith that differs from ours but also toward those who may have strong beliefs when we ourselves do not.  Ultimately, it is important not only to be open and welcoming, but also to remember that religious prejudice is not limited to those of faith and is just as frequently committed by those who think of themselves as “above” it….

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