Yoga and religion

Yoga is not a religion. I hear that often, and I have to agree. Yoga never refers to any specific god or goddess. Although it does acknowledge that there is some kind of higher power, it leaves this higher power undefined.

As I continue through yoga teacher training, however, I am increasingly aware of just how much yoga is a spiritual practice. Although many people think of yoga only as the physical postures that make up the asana practice, even those physical postures are designed as one route (among several that yoga offers) to bring about greater spiritual wholeness.

People often make the distinction between spirituality and religion, and while I’ve long had an intuitive sense of what the difference is between the two, I’ve often found myself hard pressed to define it in words. Some of this perhaps is due to the way that this distinction was (and still is) mocked in the religion of my childhood.

I recently came across a post on Elephant Journal called Yoga & the Religious Attitude by Matthew Remski and Scott Petrie that helped me find a new way to think about this problem. Their post is primarily a reaction to a comment that someone made to one of their previous posts where they had questioned some aspects of yoga. The commenter had essentially said that the reason they did not have full understanding was because they did not have an “authentic” teacher/guru to teach them and expressed concern at the discomfort that the lack of perfect understanding must be causing them.

The authors, however, were feeling no discomfort and were enjoying the opportunity to explore possible explanations and meanings for the subject they were exploring. They also felt fully qualified to come up with their own explanations and understandings without the need to find an “authentic” teacher or guru to enlighten them to the “true” meaning. They claim that their commenter has moved away from the non-religious nature of yoga by bringing a religious attitude to it. What do they define as a religious attitude?

They posit that the foundational indication of a religious attitude is that the adherents of the religion feel that they must give away their authority to the authorities of their religion in order to belong. Religion, therefore, is a means of trying to find safety by giving our authority to others. They go on to point out the challenges this presents when it comes to determining who has the right to study and comment on a religion’s set of dogmas.

“The Outsider to a religion can’t understand it, says the Insider, because she lacks the ecstasy of faith. The Insider to a religion can’t understand it, says the Outsider, because he lacks rational perspective. The Insider defends his private feelings against intrusive analysis. In so doing, he pushes the Outsider further to the periphery. The Outsider’s language must become more penetrative. As Outsider intelligence becomes more penetrative, Insider defensiveness recommits, and recommits.”

It’s no wonder that discussion of religion brings about such strong feelings, if each side of the conversation has preemptively decided that the other side’s opinion is invalid!

Their whole discussion gave me some food for thought in pondering the idea of what differentiates spirituality from religion. According to their ideas, I could say that spirituality has to do with our spiritual natures and our understanding of the spiritual world around us and that spirituality becomes religion when we give up our authority in the spiritual realm to let someone else decide what we will believe about these matters.

I’m still pondering this, and I’m not sure that I think this is a perfectly accurate distinction, but I do think there is some truth in it. When I consider the faith of my childhood, beyond the obvious idea that God held ultimate authority in deciding right from wrong and good from bad, there was always a person or group within the religious structure that had the authority to define exactly what it was that God had decided. Each denomination did things a bit differently, but in every case, there was someone who dictated what was “truth.” In the Catholic Church, that person is the Pope; in the Southern Baptist Church, it is the denominational authorities. To be considered an adherent of the particular church or denomination in question, a member must agree to believe whatever the ultimate church authority said is true.

This brings me back to yoga. In yoga, the ultimate goal is to bring myself to a point where I can discern what is true based on my own practice and my own experience. Yes, there are traditions and historical practices that are used as guides to help one reach that point, but there is not the same sense that there is one true way things are done, or one set of beliefs that must be accepted. This is part of what draws me so strongly to yoga.

Yet, as I observe the plethora of different traditions that have sprung up within yoga, I can see the ways that we tend to bring our religious attitudes even to a practice that is fundamentally non-religious. There are so many yoga traditions now that each have their own specialized training programs; you must train with qualified teachers within that tradition to call yourself a teacher in that tradition. While I can see the sense in that to some degree, I also see the danger of opting for safety by finding someone else to give my authority to.

I have no answers on this one, but it does give me much to ponder as I continue down this path.

A Note on Comments: A chrysalis is by nature a very fragile place, and it takes a good deal of vulnerability to share this personal journey of transformation so openly. Therefore, I need this to be a safe place for exploration and sharing for me and for my readers. Comments sharing your own journey, even if your experience is different from mine, are always welcome and encouraged. Expressions of support or encouragement are also welcome. Comments that criticize, disparage, correct, or in any way attempt to undermine the validity of another person’s experience or personal insight—or the expression of that experience or insight—are NOT welcome here and will be deleted.