Yoga & Faith, Part 1: Is Yoga a Faith-Based Tradition?

faith-and-reason

Today’s topic here at “The Living Yoga Blog” comes from our current philosophy program, in which a student asked the important question: “Is Yoga a faith-based tradition?”  This is actually such a significant topic that we will be exploring it over the course of two articles.  In today’s segment, we’ll begin with a look at why the Yogis considered both faith and skepticism to be equally important prerequisites for growth on the spiritual path.  We’ll then continue in our next article with a discussion of how we can cultivate both stronger faith and more discerning skepticism, along with ways in which we can build the ability to gauge when a situation calls for one above the other.

Some Opening Reminders

Before we begin our discussion, it’s important to acknowledge the fact that faith is a complicated topic, in part because the concept is frequently challenging to those of us who have more of a critical or skeptical nature.  For that reasons, if you happen to find the concept of faith uncomfortable, I’ll encourage you to try to keep an open mind during this first part of our discussion, just as I’ll encourage those who are more at ease with the concept of faith to be equally patient when the time comes to discuss skepticism.

It’s also important to understand that both faith and skepticism come in many forms.  We’ll be clarifying this issue as we go, but again, if you find yourself inclined to dismiss either out of hand, I’ll encourage you to stay open to the possibility that there may be a way of thinking about each concept that might actually make it something you can comfortably endorse.

Why Faith Is Essential

Starting with the question “Is Yoga a faith-based tradition?” the initial answer is very much both “No” and “Yes.”

On the one hand, the Yogis considered the teachings of Yoga to be very-much empirically-based.  They were not only derived from personal experimentation and study, but were also meant to be tested by each of us so we can ascertain whether they are as true for us as they were for their developers.

At the same time, they also realized that we cannot take this important step of testing such concepts unless we have sufficient faith to apply ourselves diligently to the process.  In other words, if we don’t have confidence that a given concept process may be valid, as well as faith in our ability to discern if it applies to us, we will never explore it with the sincerity and rigor necessary to reach a valid conclusion.

In order to know whether something is true, the Yogis believed we need two equally important processes: we need to test it to see if it holds for us, and, in order to test it with all diligence, we need a certain amount of faith to motivate our actions – in other words, if we are too skeptical to even consider an idea, we will never be able to test it in a form that offers any genuine proof.  Thus, for the Yogis, we need to actively apply both (logical) faith and (healthy) skepticism if we are to grow spiritually.

In this way, Yoga is very much like any scientific discipline – if a fellow-chemist or physicist asserted a given truth, we wouldn’t accept it without evidence, but we cannot test that evidence if we don’t have at least some faith in the possibility that the assertion might be valid.  Now that we have an initial answer to our question, let’s take a closer look at each of these concepts.

Understanding the Many Forms of Faith

Part of the challenge of talking about faith is that many of us think of it as a form of blind compliance, or worse, as an approach that inherently avoids or even denies logic.  The Yogis definitely did not advocate this form of faith, which is evident when we consider the fact that Yoga is based very directly on logic and analysis.

When the Yogis speak of faith, they are not speaking of thoughtless acceptance of a set of external truths, but rather belief in three relatively simple principles.  The first principle is that, while we all have our differences, we also have our commonalities, which means we often can learn from the experiences of others.  The second is that there are people who have discovered ideas and practices that have helped them live with greater peace and productivity, and that we might benefit from their discoveries.  Finally, the third principle is that we have the wisdom to discern, through careful consideration and experimentation, which of these concepts and practices might apply to us and which do not.

In this sense, the Yogic view is that we need these three forms of faith if we wish to grow smoothly and efficiently on the spiritual path.  However it’s worth noting the fact that they also acknowledge that it is absolutely possible to advance without the first two.  In other words, if we feel no one has figured out the answers before or that those answers are not applicable to us, we can still advance as long as we believe in (and apply) our own powers of discernment.  The first two premises obviously make things easier, as it is generally simpler to adjust teachings to meet our unique nature than to build them from scratch, but the Yogis believed we can advance without them.  However, this last form of belief – faith in our ability to discern what practices and concepts help us and what do not – is absolutely essential for true spiritual growth, otherwise we become paralyzed by doubt and are unable to advance.

Before we move on to the topic of skepticism, it’s worth noting that all three of these forms of belief are rather different from what most of us mean when we say a religious tradition is “faith-based.”  For most of us, the assertion would bring to mind something like belief in a particular deity or the afterlife.  As discussed in previous articles, Yoga definitely allows for the possibility of both of these, but belief in either is by no means necessary in order to practice Yoga or to advance on the path.  For this reason, while Yoga is indeed built on certain beliefs, many would say that it is not a “faith-based” tradition as we would conventionally use the term, just as we wouldn’t use the term to describe mathematics or biology, though they, too, have their set of core principles.

The Importance of Skepticism

Once we understand the importance of faith, particularly as a necessary starting point for movement forward on the path, it is equally important to understand the role of (healthy) skepticism.  As already discussed, for the Yogis, faith is not helpful if it is blind compliance – in fact, it is a serious impediment.  If we simply subscribe to teachings without evaluating them, we end up applying practices that may be false, or that may be valid for others but not for us.  This is a common stumbling block in all spiritual traditions, and Yoga is no exception – if we simply embrace an ideal or activity because it is endorsed by others, we may end up doing ourselves harm rather than good.

For this reason, the Yogis understood that judicious skepticism is every bit as important as faith – we need to know what to take in and what to dismiss, and we cannot do either without a blend of trust and analysis.  The Yogis often describe this balance with an unusual but poignant analogy regarding the eating habits of cats, goats and cows.

Cats of course are notoriously finicky, often eschewing food that would be good for them.  Goats, on the other hand, are equally well known for being indiscriminate in their diets, often consuming foods that cause them harm.  Cows, by contrast, demonstrate a healthy balance of these two, grazing in order to take things in, but then ruminating to eliminate the things that don’t serve them and absorbing those that do.  A good student, the Yogis remind us, should be like a cow, taking things in so we can see what benefits us, but then eliminating those things which do not.  Again, this provides yet another way of understanding the importance of balancing faith and skepticism on the Yogic path.

Of course, it’s worth noting that, just as faith has many forms, the same is true of skepticism.  For that reason, we’ll continue our discussion with a look at the varied ways skepticism can be approached and why some forms are healthier than others.

Skepticism, Cynicism & Healthy Openness

Just as faith can be understood as ranging from prudent trust to blind gullibility, so skepticism can be seen as covering a spectrum from judicious analysis to equally-blind denial.  We all know people who are rather quick to believe in things, from the latest diet to the most recent self-help program.  Similarly, we also all know people who have allowed their skepticism to define them, crossing from healthy scrutiny to constant cynicism and distrust.  Most important of all, we know that both groups tend to be rather unhappy.

For the Yogis, finding mindful balance in our skepticism is as important as balanced faith.  The foundation of skepticism is rational inquiry, and when we blindly presume that something is impossible or that someone cannot be trusted, we move from open analysis to illogical assumption.  In fact, when we do this, we fall into an assumption that is arguably even more dangerous than the article of faith we are challenging, and that is the belief that our own assumptions are above the scrutiny we apply to the beliefs of others.

The Boy Who Cried ‘Wolf’ – A Yogic Interpretation

A marvelous example of this can be seen in a standard Western fable.  Interestingly, the Yogic interpretation of this tale  is radically different from our own – a difference that speaks rather poignantly about varying levels of social- and philosophical advancement.  We all know the story of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” a story used in the West to teach the perils of lying, but one which has a far deeper lesson that we often overlook.

Of course, the Yogis do not eschew this first moral, but they also draw a much more powerful set of teachings from this simple tale.  The Yogis point out the important fact the boy is not the only person who suffers as a result of his or her actions.  The boy dies, in part because of his deception, but it’s also true that the parents lose their son, and the people of the village lose a member of their community as well as their sheep, all because they assume that, since the boy lied previously, he must be lying now.

Yes, the boy had lied before, and as a result there was a chance that he was lying again.  But the Yogis realized that, for the parents and villagers to fall into inaction, they had to make a couple significant errors – errors that can be seen as “miss-applied” or illogical skepticism.  Let’s take a look at these.

First, even the most meager reflection teaches us that past actions do not necessarily establish future behavior.  We all have the capacity to learn and grow, and to assume that others lack this ability is to see and often precipitate the worst.

Second, even if past actions suggest a probability, any intelligent person would want to weigh that probability against the possible outcome of a mistaken assumption.  This can be thought of as a social version of “Pascal’s Wager.”  You’ll recall that Pascal suggested that believing in a God that doesn’t exist is arguably less of a risk than not believing in a God that does – in other words, when we cannot be certain, we need to consider what we risk in making a false assumption.  In the case of the boy who cries ‘Wolf!’ we can ask ourselves: “Since I cannot be sure he is lying, what are the relative risks?  Well, if I trust him and he’s lying again, I will have wasted a bit of effort.  On the other hand, if I don’t trust him and he’s telling the truth, I will have lost his life as well as the lives of the sheep, plus I will have the lifelong sorrow of knowing that I should have trusted him when I didn’t.”

From this expansion of the understanding of the tale, you can perhaps better understand the Yogic view of what “healthy skepticism” is.  Yes, we want to be critical of externals teachings and theories, not necessarily assuming there is a wolf every time someone cries out, but we also want to be critical regarding our own process.  We want to ask ourselves what we are assuming as well as how rigorous our logical inferences are.  In this way, we are better able to see our own limitations, as well as those of the people around us.

One Last Caution on Excessive Skepticism & Ground for Building Faith

There is one final issue regarding skepticism and faith that the Yogis considered essential, and that relates to the limits of empiricism.  Simply put, as contemporary philosophers, physicists, historians, and many others have observed, there is no way to be completely certain of the results of our actions.  No matter our intentions or skill, a well-meant act might lead to the suffering of others, just as a malicious act may lead to their well-being.  For this reason, the Yogis realized that if we wait until we are utterly sure of what results we will generate before we act, we will find ourselves waiting forever.

The Yogis understood that, for any course of action, the levels of causality are so vast that even the most brilliant mind or powerful computer cannot begin to calculate what the consequences will be.  Of course, this doesn’t mean we should not reflect, it simply means that we cannot let the quest for certainty prevent us from acting.  By understanding the fact that, ultimately, every choice is built on a blend of speculation and faith, we allow ourselves to find a healthy balance of the two, fostering mindful examination, trust, and openness.

In Our Next Article…

Now that we have discussed the importance of faith and the equally-significant element of healthy skepticism, we are ready to explore the ways in which the Yogis suggested we can actively cultivate the two, which we will examine in our next article.  Until then, as always, wishing you the best in “Living Yoga….”


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