For many, even those who have learnt and practised Yoga, the practice is often associated with prayer and chanting and God. A lot of these observances seem very similar to religious Hindu practices today and this makes people think that Yoga is a religious practice primarily meant for those who follow the Hindu religion. This is a question I have been asked quite a few times by people of other faiths. Is Yoga religious? Let us find out!
Is Yoga Hindu?
The simple answer to that question is, yes, it is; but it is also much more complex than that. To understand this complexity, we need a little understanding of the origins of Hinduism as a religion. Without this information, it is almost impossible to understand the connection of Yoga with everything else.
The word Hindu dates back many centuries but when it first came into being and for a long time after, it had nothing to do with religion. Hindu was a term used for people living on the land south of the Indus river, traditionally called the Sindhu river. Those communities living south of the Sindhu were Hindu; it was a geographical descriptor for a community living in a particular place.
This community of Hindu people, over time, wrote many philosophical texts about life, the universal, the soul. There were texts about medicine, astronomy, faith, mental and physical health, morals and ethics, profession and choosing what’s right for each person, and much more. It is a vast body of literature that survives to this day. Yogic texts were part of this literature.
During these early times, there was worship and faith but there was no known organised religion that existed. There was a strong belief in God as a higher power and a universal energy but there was no specific entity that everyone was expected to follow or believe. This system was generally referred to as the Sanātana Dharma.
- Sanātana – eternal, perpetual, constant
- Dharma – duty
From this belief system that gave guidelines on how to live righteously and happily emerged the religion that we call Hinduism. Many philosophical texts from the Sanātana Dharma were included in the Hindu religion, and its beliefs and observances were influenced by these texts. The Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Itihāsa texts of Rāmāyana and Mahābhārata are some of the well-known scriptures borrowed by the Hindu religion from the Sanātana Dharma.
Is Yoga religious?
If you have come this far in the article, you probably already know the answer to that question. Yoga is Hindu in its origin but it is NOT a religious practice. Yoga has nothing to do with God in the religious sense of the term. Anyone from any religious faith can safely practice and study Yoga philosophy without going against their religious beliefs or rules; and if you’re an atheist, you’re welcome too! Our personal beliefs have absolutely no bearing on whether we can and should practise Yoga because everyone can practise Yoga if they feel like it.
There are many Yoga classes that include religious chanting and prayer, and if we are not comfortable with any of it, we can choose to not participate in that part of the classes or look for classes where we are truly comfortable. That is the way I have approached all the classes and courses I have attended.
Before we decide to stay away from all Sanskrit chanting, though, we might want to understand the meaning behind those chants. Many of them have nothing to do with God or religion; they are simply prayers to focus the mind, pray for happiness in the world, and seek the Guru’s blessings. I stayed away from them initially, but when I truly understood what they were saying, I fell in love with the practice of chanting.
As an example, this below chant is one that I end all my sessions with my students. It is an ancient Sanskrit chant; if we look at the meaning, every single religion has a prayer saying exactly this in some way or another.
If we wish to learn Yoga, we can absolutely practise everything that Yoga teaches while holding on to our personal religious beliefs and the God or Gods of our choosing. Authentic Yogic practices do not interfere with our personal beliefs and faith and will, in fact, encourage us to deepen our faith.
Hope this article answers some questions and doubts about Yoga practice in the context of religion and religious beliefs. I hope this ensures you do not stay away from the practice only because of your religion despite wanting to learn about it. If this has aroused your curiosity, do reach out to me and we can talk more about this!