Sense prevails in the USA – Judge rules that yoga is not a religion – but for some it can be a way of life.

I get angry when I hear people refuse to try yoga because they think (or someone told them) that yoga is a religion (or has religious overtones). I despair when I read about churches kicking yoga classes out of their halls and community centres because they think it offends their own religious focus.

It would be such a shame if people miss out on yoga’s physical benefits because they hold or have listened to these ill-informed views.

I have followed a legal case in the USA in the San Diego-area. A family had sued the Encinitas California school district for what it saw as government sponsorship of religion for its yoga classes. This is clearly complete nonsense I read with delight that a judge ruled on Monday that whilst yoga might have spiritual overtones – yoga is not a religion. And there is nothing religious about the way it’s taught in the Encinitas district. Common sense prevails in the USA.

yoga is not a religion
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It is important to note however that although yoga is definitely not a religion, it is a way of life for many people. For them it includes elements beyond the exercises and breathing techniques we focus on in yoga classes. These other elements are probably the ones that wrongly create the religious perceptions and concerns.

There are eight elements to yoga. In most western classes, or modern interpretations of yoga, we take part mainly in the third, fourth and fifth elements.

These are the eight elements of yoga:

Yama

This means restraint. Yoga is about restraint from unhealthy actions such as cheating, stealing, and violence.

Niyama

Niyama means observance, or being content, pure, tolerant, remembering and studious.

Asana

Asanas are the exercises that most people recognise yoga for. The poses have names such as warrior 2, downward facing dog, frog, tree and teachers will often use their Sanskrit names like Utanasana.

Pranayama

Pranayama are breathing techniques such the complete yoga breath.

Pratyahara

This is the moment before meditation begins, effectively preparation for meditation. It means the withdrawal of the mind from the senses.

Dharana

Dharana is concentrating on one object for a length of time.

Dhyana

This is meditation, the other yoga element that most people recognise. It involves the ability to create an image of an object, place or person and becoming immersed in that image. Or it could simply be clearing the mind of all thoughts.

Samadhi

Finally samadhi is realising your own nature, or becoming more self-aware.

I do not believe that any of these elements would be at odds with any religion a person may have. They are life choices in the same way as following a certain type of diet, or committing to an exercise routine agreed with a personal trainer.

yoga is not a religion
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It’s a different way of looking at yourself and the world. These elements can improve quality of life, regardless of your race, religion or profession. And of course you can find classes involving only the exercise element and nothing else – or classes that embrace all 8 elements. It’s up to you.

For me personally, yoga means stress reduction, better sleeping, better posture, greater flexibility and muscle tone, improved energy levels and other things I have written about in earlier yoga posts. Wouldn’t it be a shame to miss out on this simply for fear that yoga is a religion?

Perhaps those who pedal the myth, or those who close down community classes don’t really understand what yoga is about. If they put their prejudices aside and tried to understand it for what it really is then they might find that their main excuse for avoiding it is not an excuse at all.

Your turn: This is a tricky subject. Do you agree with the US judge? I know some will disagree with my view. Some might take a deeper spiritual view of some of the elements but I still don’t think that makes those that claim yoga is a religion right. What do you think? Leave a comment. Share your thoughts. Let me know.

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