Sunday, December 11, 2011

If yoga is not a religion, why are so many religious types freaking out about it?

The above video by Kiki has been making the rounds of the blogosphere lately. Kiki responds to recent claims by a former Vatican exorcist that practicing yoga is Satanic. I think that Kiki makes some very insightful points here, and I'll like to use them as a launching point to think a little more about these issues. 

Is yoga a religion? First, I'd say it depends on how one defines "religion." If one defines "religion" very broadly to include any set of basic beliefs that any individual can use to guide his or her life, then yoga is a religion, insofar as many yogis do use the yoga practice and the ethical precepts of yoga as basic guides with which to conduct their lives. But by this definition, many other things that we do not normally consider to be religion would also qualify as religion. For instance, if I believe that making a lot of money is the most important thing in life to the exclusion of everything else, then we might say that money-making is my religion, in this sense. Or, to use another example, if I passionately believe that football is the most important thing in life, to the extent that I believe that my life wouldn't be worth living if I miss Monday night football, so that I arrange everything in my life around Monday night football, then one might also say that football is my religion.  

But I'm sure that the people who claim that yoga is a religion (and a Satanic one, at that) do not mean religion in such a broad sense. For these people--and, I suspect, for most people--for something to be a religion is for it to have a certain public organized aspect: In order for a religion to be a religion, it must espouse a publicly proclaimed set of beliefs involving adherence to a specific power or agency beyond the physical. It must also have an organized hierarchy, which typically involves some type of clergy, or at least some kind of formal organizational structure with a clear chain of command.

Yoga, as many of us know, does not fit this narrower, organized sense of "religion." Ishvara Pranidhana, the fifth of the niyamas, does prescribe some kind of surrender to a power greater than oneself, but it does not specify exactly what that power is. All it says is that some form of acknowledgement and devotion to something greater than oneself is needed if one's practice is not to degenerate into an ego-building exercise. Ishvara Pranidhana does not specify exactly what that greater power must be, leaving the practitioner free to practice yoga in tandem with his or her existing religious beliefs. Since yoga, unlike religion in the organized sense, does not specify the higher power or agency that one must surrender to, it is quite possible for one to simultaneously be a practicing yogi and be a practicing Protestant Christian/Catholic/Buddhist/Hindu/Jew/adherent-of-whatever-other-organized-religion-is-out-there.

So yoga is not a religion; at least not in the organized sense. In fact, if everything I said above is true, if somebody were to come into the yoga practice with a pre-existing religion, Ishvara Pranidhana would probably help that person cultivate the traits that would enable him or her to become a more effective practitioner of his or her pre-existing religion. So at least in principle, it looks like we should have a win-win situation: Somebody takes up yoga, enjoys the yoga practice, and becomes a better practitioner of his or her religion at the same time. Problem solved, right?

Well... maybe. If the problem is simply that the people who believe that yoga is a Satanic devil-worshipping religion believe this because of sheer ignorance or misinformation about the nature of yoga, then we can easily solve the problem by simply educating these people; perhaps we can get all these people to read this blog (and then my stats will shoot through the roof overnight, and I will finally get closer to my life-long dream of becoming a yoga bum ;-)).

But something tells me that the problem is not that simple. I mean, think about it: If a nobody like me can know about all the things that I just wrote above, why should we think that all the religious leaders who spout such anti-yoga propaganda are genuinely ignorant about what yoga really is? To be sure, some of them may be genuinely ignorant (if so, direct them to my blog: I will happily enlighten them, free them from the bounds of conditioned existence, and, in the process, make them better practitioners of the religions they profess to lead :-)).

But what if--just what if--at least some of these religious leaders actually know the truth about yoga? After all, it is not inconceivable that at least some of these religious leaders may have at one time or another "infiltrated" a yoga class in order to find out just what this whole yoga thing is about. Sidenote: Yoga teachers beware: You never know whether that over-eager brand-new student in the front of the room may actually be a "religious spy" sent over from some big religious organization/mega-church... hmm... actually, this may make for a great future post: 32 Tell-tale Signs That Somebody in your Yoga Class is Actually a Religious Spy :-) Maybe Claudia should write this post one day. She's good at these "32" posts.

But I digress. What I'm trying to say is, it is quite possible that at least some of these anti-yoga-propaganda-spouting religious types know the truth about yoga: That it is not a religion in the organized sense, but is really a set of bodily and spiritual practices whose goal is to, in Kiki's words, enable us to "have a calm, clear collected mind so that we are able to view the world around us with a sense of objectivity, rather than looking on the world, and be subjected to all of our psychological and emotional colors."

But if these people know the truth about yoga, and know that yoga is not an organized religion that is out to "compete" with them for followers, then why are they still spouting all this propaganda? Why are they still threatened? I think the answer is quite clear if we think about Kiki's words again. Yoga, as Kiki says, enables us to "have a calm, clear collected mind so that we are able to view the world around us with a sense of objectivity, rather than... be subjected to all of our psychological and emotional colors." Having a calm, clear collected mind and viewing the world objectively enables us to function more effectively as human beings in the world, allowing us to see everything in our lives in a wholesome perspective. This includes the religious beliefs and worldviews that we have held up to this point. When we can see our religious beliefs and worldviews from this vantage point of objectivity, we are able to see which of these beliefs work for us and enable us to live fulfilling lives, and which do not. We will then naturally keep those beliefs which work, and discard those which do not. In so doing, we come to realize that religion should exist (if it should exist at all) to serve individual human beings and further the human condition, not the other way around. It is in this way that yoga makes us better and more effective practitioners of our previously-existing religions. As such, the purpose of yoga, as I understand it, is not to supplant religious belief. Indeed, taken in its best sense, yoga enriches and gives renewed meaning to the religious impulse which seeks to make sense and meaning of human finitude in the face of a seemingly meaningless cosmos.

But could it be that these religious leaders do not want any of this to happen? Could it be that the last thing they want is for their followers to have a calm, collected mind which enables them to see the world (and them) objectively? Could it be that they would rather keep their followers in the throes of their own psychological and emotional colors, so that they can use these colors against them, and continue to manipulate them from a place of fear and control? After all, if everyone were to see the world objectively, everyone would see that there is no reason to believe that there is any sky-cake or sky-baklava or sky-anything. Oh, wait: I forgot that you may not have seen the Patton Oswalt standup skit below. Well, in this case, I guess I'll end my post with a video, since I started with one. Enjoy!


  1. I will never, never be able to thank you properly for showing me this Patton Oswald clip.

  2. I TOTALLY AGREE, and I am saying that in caps of course. Many churches are losing memberships, yoga invites us to think for ourselves, and not only that but also to UNLEARN everything we have been programed to think... DANGEROUS...

    As per the 32 Tell-tale Signs That Somebody in your Yoga Class is Actually a Religious Spy... I'M ON IT!!! ha ha ha!

  3. My pleasure, Sereneflavor and Yyogini. The clip's too good not to share.

    Yes, Claudia, yoga is TOTALLY DANGEROUS to many religious leaders out there and their agendas. I am looking forward to your post :-)

  4. Been thinking about the 32 ways, but cannot get myself to make fun of things like this... I've never seen a religious fanatic in yoga class... which may explain why the video... BUT I still remember that I said I would eat the stinky fruit and have not done it.

  5. Hey Claudia, I meant the 32 ways as a more or less tongue-in-cheek remark (although if you do choose to write that post at some point, I'll happily read it :-)).

    But yes, do eat that stinky fruit at some point. There must be some place in NYC Chinatown that has it :-)

  6. I've never know about this topic. It’s really interesting to read.. I like this blog to know about new things. Thanks for this.

  7. yoga is absolutely a part of a religion.

    I am a hindu born and bred, the way you westerners undermine and demean my culture by selling it as exercise is insulting.

    you westerners think asanas are yoga?, asanas are poses. Attaining enlightenment by scripture and practicing dharma in all forms is the true way of yoga. None of you consider the hard work it takes to become a true yogi. instead you cherish shortcuts and select what you want and package it to the masses.

    you lot need to dig deeper than that. what you practice is only the shell of true yoga.

    let me ask you..

    are you willing to study the gita?

    are you willing to study the vedas?

    are you willing to practice dharma in every way?

    do you know what is the true purpose of yoga?

    do you even know the true meaning of the asanas you do?

    stop and think. am i doing this to get fit or to get enlightenment?

    follow this link and learn children :

  8. to the blog author :

    Dont try to butter it up, it is what it is. Follow that link, learn its true nature and respond to me.

    I am a hindu, every day i grow weary of westerners using my culture as a workout. worse still they deny its true nature and fabricate their own version.

    We indians are typically straightforward till the end. a stone is a stone, a spade is a spade, yoga is a religion.

    we dont mince words, the system we designed 5000 years ago that you now use is straightforward too.

    We its creators do not like the distortion that westerners and new age groups have put on what we created. There are ridiculous forms of yoga coming out like power yoga, warrior yoga and worse still "christian" yoga.

    The way people dilute our system today is horrifying. its like saying kung fu is ok, because its all acrobatics. while ignoring the need for meditation and buddhist discipline by ignoring it totally.

    yogic teachers in the west are far worse, they use terms like vibrations.. auras and even dharma (duty) like catch phrases. With utter disregard to any true hindu philosophy.

    Its time the west wakes up to yogas true meaning and acknowledges it. Do not water it down, either take it as it is or leave it.

    I am also the poster above, i am not afraid. you can flame me if you want. all i ask is that you lot enlighten yourselves.


    1. Dear Ash.g (?),
      I think everything boils down to this:

      1. You think yoga is a religion.

      2. I (and a whole bunch of other "deluded/corrupted" people) think yoga is not a religion.

      3. Maybe you are right.

      4. Maybe we are right.

      5. One way or the other, we are each happy believing what we believe.

      So what's the problem? :-)

  9. Wow...

    Sure some have over commercialized asana in the west, turned it into a circus, and some of these people came from the east, Rajneesh/Osho, Bikram, there are many more. Lot's of false guru have come to these shores selling out their own culture and history to make a buck off the ignorance of those in the best. Many have taken the bait.

    And a lot of people in the west are also genuine practictioners, practice asana along with the other 7 limbs, study the sutras, gita, vedas. Many good teachers have come through here. Sivananda and Yukteshwar wanted their students to go to the West and help keep the light of truth alive. And that fire still burns. SwamiJ is a great example of a Western Yogi. Their are many others.

    But none of this matters. We each have our Karma, some will realize, some will not. Some will get lost in bitterness, bland generalizations, and false knowledge. Some will spend all their time pointing the finger at others, condescending to others, deepening their own bond to samsara. Some will get lost in their own vanity and pursuit of fitness and miss the point entirely as well. Some will get stuck in the trap of my religion/my practice is more genuine than yours. Oh well.

    Yoga does not belong to any one person, religion, or country. SwamiJ would be the first to tell you that. There are still many bearers of the truth, and many who fail to get it. It will likely always be that way. That is not what matters, it is how you handle it that matters. That is the best indicator of a 'true yogi.'

    Peace to all!

    1. Thanks for giving such a detailed response, Tom. I have thought about many of the things that you have brought up, but I felt that I lacked the detailed knowledge and understanding of the various lineages to give such a detailed response.

      I definitely agree that it is too simplistic to simply label all yoga in the west as fake, and all yoga in India as genuine or the real thing. As you point out, many in the west are genuine and sincere practitioners. On the other hand, an Indian friend also recently pointed out to me that there are many fakes and charlatans posing as self-realized yogis in India as well.

      Moreover, I get the sense that all too often, people in both India and the west have the tendency to judge what somebody's practice is like by external appearances, whether we are talking about asana achievement or the appearance of being well-spoken and "saint-like." I feel that many people who appear to be superficial or even crass on the outside may actually be very evolved beings, whereas many who appear "enlightened" or well-spoken on the outside may turn out to be dupes on closer examination.

      Given all this complexity, who am I to judge anything?

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  11. Ishvara is defined in the Samadhi Pada and is said to be a unique entity not bound by klesha, karma, its fruits or seeds and further is understood to be akin to the pranava -Om.

    I am amused by all the mainstream-press blogosphere responses by touted experts who all seem to present the same weak thesis - yoga is a SPIRITual practice. And then to support this they follow by saying it affects the MIND.

    Ok experts, which one is it?

    Mind you, Pattabhi Jois often said "Yoga is MIND control."
    Can the practitioner know his own mind?
    Slowly, Slowly.

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