When you hear “yoga,” what do you think of? People bending themselves into crazy positions? Yogis sitting cross-legged as they chant? Young people drinking beer and flowing at a brewery? Believe it or not – yoga is all of these things.
Yoga stems from the Vedas, a collection of poems, prayers, and holy texts composed in Sanskrit around 1900BC in India. Along with yoga, three major religions developed from these Vedic texts: Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism.
The true aim of yoga, its definition, and whether or not it’s a religious practice, really depend on whom you ask. Yoga is a combination of philosophy, science, and religion.
Yoga as a Philosophy
The philosophical components of yoga are derived from The Yoga Sutras, the authoritative text on yoga. The sutras describe eight limbs of yoga – these eight limbs serve as guidelines for how to live a meaningful life. The eight limbs of yoga are: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi.
1. Yamas are five ethical practices that dictate how to interact with the world. These include non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, energy conservation, and non-coveting.
2. Niyamas are principles that describe how we can better ourselves. The focus here is on internal observances. These include purification, contentment, discipline, self study, and devotion.
3. Asanas are the physical postures associated with yoga (think Warrior I, Mountain Pose, or Tree Pose). Asana is often how people first discover yoga.
4. Pranayama is breath control and involves several breathing techniques which provides various benefits.
5. Pratyahara is withdrawal of the senses, or training your mind to notice sights, smells, or sounds without focusing on these stimuli. Similar to pranayama, pratyahara is also a preparatory step for meditation.
6. Dharana is a type of meditation during which you focus on a single object, mantra, or image.
7. Dhyana is the next level of meditation, through which you are able to concentrate on one object (breath, mantra, or place of focus) for a prolonged period of time.
8. Samadhi is a state that occurs once you merge with the object you’re meditating on.
The goal of the eight limbs of yoga is to reduce internal suffering, as well as suffering in the world around us.
Yoga as a Science
The far-reaching benefits of yoga have a strong scientific foundation as well. Scientific studies show evidence that a strong yoga practice can treat physical ailments including back pain, anxiety, depression, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). More scientifically-proven health benefits of yoga include:
– An increase in activity in the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which slows the heart and lowers blood pressure, allowing the body to relax.
– An increase in neuroplasticity, or your brain’s ability to form new connections and pathways.
– Decreased levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.
– Increased secretion of melatonin, a hormone that plays a crucial role in sleep regulation.
– Increased vital capacity, or the amount of air that can be expelled from the lungs.
Yoga as a Religion
Yoga philosophy includes many spiritual and universal laws, but these principles are not necessarily tied to a particular system of faith and worship. However, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, religion is defined as “a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance.” For some individuals, their yoga practice is pursued with true devotion, fitting this definition perfectly.
For many, yoga is a spiritual discipline to support and strengthen existing faith. When practiced as a sacred spiritual discipline, yoga brings them closer to God, their Divine Self, Inner Self or God within.
So let’s return to our original question: Is yoga a religion?
Think of modern day yoga as a spectrum, ranging from a spiritual, devotional practice to a simple workout. It truly depends on what the yogi intends to get out of their yoga practice.
If you want it to be, yoga can simply be a physical practice used to gain strength, mobility, and flexibility. Like any form of physical activity, practicing yoga on a regular basis will help you lose weight, improve cognitive function, promote healthier sleeping patterns, and manage or prevent many health problems and concerns.
Or, if you want, yoga’s moral and ethical values can be immersed in aspects of everyday life. Many yogis who embrace the mental and spiritual components of yoga see yoga as a lifestyle, not just a physical practice that ends when they step off the mat. By cultivating self-awareness, and observing their relationship to the world around them, these yogis aspire to achieve a healthy balance between the mind, body, and soul.
Because yoga is adaptable, it can be presented with or without elements of spirituality. Today, we see yoga being taught in schools, corporations, public parks, yoga studios, and religious establishments.
Yoga can be just about anything, depending on what you want it to be. Think of it as a beautiful journey to explore the role of this practice in your life, and to discover what it means to you. At Om Yoga, we believe everyone’s yoga practice is equally valid, special, and inspiring. We love and accept students of all faiths and beliefs, and we would be thrilled to hear your thoughts on this topic!