Is Yoga a Religion?

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Is yoga a religion? Does participating in yoga compromise one's religious allegiances? In order to answer these questions fully, it is necessary for us to look at the differences between religion and spirituality.

What Is Religion?

This is one of society's big questions and is difficult to answer succinctly. For our purpose, let's confine our inquiry to organized religion. People who participate as members in an organized religion accept their denomination’s particular deity or deities as supreme and worship them through a system of long-established rituals.

They may read sacred texts that outline a moral code, which they follow, and they may attend prayer meetings lead by religious leaders who have been ordained as authority figures. One of the hallmarks of organized religion is a certainty of primacy to the exclusion of other faiths.

What Is Spirituality?

By contrast, we can define spirituality as the quest for understanding ourselves and our place in the universe. Many use organized religion as the conduit for their spirituality, but spirituality can also exist outside the bounds of religion. In other words, spiritual practice is essential to religion, but religion is not essential to spiritual practice.

So Where Does Yoga Fall?

Yoga does share some things in common with religion, including the study of ancient texts and gathering of like-minded individuals for study under a learned teacher, but these things alone do not constitute a religion.

Though some yoga practices encourage meditation on or reverence for a universal life force that connects us all, which may even be called God, the nature of that God is left open to interpretation. Practitioners may fill in that blank with the God of their choice if they practice an organized religion or choose not to fill in the blank at all.

Some people are confused by yoga’s relationship to  Hinduism, since yoga’s language borrows heavily from the Hindu lexicon. Though yoga and Hinduism are both originated in India and were closely intertwined at the time of yoga's origins, they have evolved along separate paths. The original yogis were Hindu holy men, but their practices bear little resemblance to yoga as we know it today. As modern hatha yoga, the study of yoga postures, developed into its modern form in the mid-twentieth century, it established itself secular pursuit, available to people who belong to any religion or to none.

Yoga can be a spiritual pursuit, but it is not a religion because it does not dictate the nature of a God to be worshiped. Therefore yoga may be practiced by religious people without worry that they are straying from their core believes.