As I settle in to teach for a week in Kuala Terangganu, Malaysia, I ask my hostess several questions about the religious and ethnic make-up of the area. Although the yoga studio here is predominantly comprised of the Chinese minority population, there are a few Malay and Indian students a well. Religious beliefs range from Buddhist to Muslim, Christian to Hindu, all within the same small town, and the studio as well.
This diversity, although more extreme here maybe than in other places, is becoming more and more common in the yoga room. And as the language of yoga crosses the line frequently into the language of spirituality, some students can find themselves questioning how religion fits in to the mix.
There is no doubt that the study of yoga includes texts and scriptures from religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. And while most teachers would be quick to tell you that yoga has no religion, and that you are free to choose any religion you like and still practice yoga, the fact is that some students still shy away from yoga or specific studios due to the Hindu statues and Sanskrit chanting.
Many are left wondering, what is the actual religion of yoga? And, how does this fit in with my own spiritual life?
Due largely to the fact that yoga arose out of India, many of the “rules” and belief structures of classical yoga derive from Hinduism, the primary religion there. Some traditions that continue to be followed by yoga practitioners include chanting, studying Hindu deities or mythology, and providing daily offerings to the various forms of Divine grace (often fruit placed on a alter or puja).
Although the majority of yogis, particularly in the West, are not Hindu, we often read and study these myths, and tell them in class. Philosophy teacher, Douglas Brooks, frequently states “we are every character in the story” when describing mythology. We are not only the characters with whom we can relate (i.e.; the “good” guys), but also the demon, the temptress, and the mischievous child; all are inside of us at any time, and only our ability to make choices dictates our actions at any given moment. Therefore, in present day yogic studies, we have much to learn from the stories, texts, and myth of all religions.
So, can you be a Christian and study yoga? Of course. Can you be an atheist and study yoga. Yes! One piece of advice is to look past the iconography, the statues and the outer form of the myth, and find the deeper connection to your life: what qualities does a diety such as Hanuman exhibit that you would like to foster, what message is told by this story? When I take the time to look deeper and to ask around, I have often found that similar stories exist across a variety of religions.
In addition, many modern day yoga schools teach about connecting to something that is bigger than just yourself. This teaching can mean many things to many people, and teachers often remain vague purposefully to encourage students to connect in a way that is meaningful to them. Whether for you “something bigger than yourself” means the evolution of the world around you, or whether it means God, or simply family, community, or friends is up to you. I know many people, myself included, who feel the strongest connection to divine presence simply by walking in nature.
If in yoga we talk about meditation, in your church you may call it prayer, but truly, it is not the name but the intention that matters. Whether I sit on a rock, on my yoga mat, or in a temple, my intention to sit in gratitude for my blessings is the same.
With peace and love,