Some people think yoga is a religion (or has religious overtones) and won’t give it a go as a result. I’ve seen churches kick classes out of their halls and community centres when they realise there are yoga classes happening under their roof.
This is a real shame because people could miss out on yoga’s physical benefits if they listen to these ill-informed views.
That said, 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:
This means restraint. Yoga is about restraint from unhealthy actions such as cheating, stealing, and violence.
Niyama means observance, or being content, pure, tolerant, remembering and studious.
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 are breathing techniques such the complete yoga breath.
This is the moment before meditation begins, effectively preparation for meditation. It means the withdrawal of the mind from the senses.
Dharana is concentrating on one object for a length of time.
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.
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.
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 peddle 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.
Over to you: This is a tricky subject. 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.
Update: Since I wrote this blog the UK press published an example of Catholic church banning a yoga class based upon it’s incorrect view that yoga is a religion. Madness.