By Stephanie Adams, all rights reserved
Yoga …in itself is not an institutionalized religion, per se. Hinduism is related to yoga through a common recognition of the Vedas as an authoritative source, and both Buddhism and Jainism share many of the core values of the Yoga tradition. But Classical Yoga is best understood as a system of spiritual practice, rather than a particular religion. Being non-sectarian in its essence, yoga represents a body of practices that may be fruitfully taken up by anyone who is serious about their spiritual development, regardless of their individual religious affiliation.
Although some people practice yoga out of devotion to a guru, there are others who follow their own guidance. Although yoga does not necessarily require belief in a Creator as we understand God in the traditional Western religious sense, the Yoga Sutra advocates devotion to Ishvara or the “Lord” who is described as an ultimate being forever unafflicted by worldly concerns. Whether this Lord is understood as God Almighty or as the yogic ideal of the liberated “Seer,” the decision about how to conceptualize Ishvara is (a) very personal one. By remaining deliberately ambiguous and non-dogmatic about such ultimate theological issues, the Yoga tradition establishes itself as a positive proponent for individual spiritual development for persons of all religious backgrounds and creeds.
The following are taken from writings from three world-renowned yogic scholars who have studied the ancient yogic texts for decades. Yoga is a non-sectarian science/philosophy. It has been used by religions, but it is not a religion. Many yogic scholars today say that yoga is clearly not a religion, and does not conflict with religious beliefs. It is a science of mind that can be used to understand the body/mind and, if you choose, to enhance your personal spiritual beliefs.
Think of the separation of yoga and religion as similar to the separation of church and state. Yoga was meant to be a safe haven for all. Here are a couple examples:
"Is Yoga a Religion? No. This confusion arose in our culture because Yoga evolved over thousands of years in the context of the spiritual and religious traditions of India. The practices of Yoga were appropriated into most of the different religious traditions of the East. When these teachings were first transmitted in the West, they were often taught by teachers who were also practicing one of the many forms of Hinduism, Sikhism, or Buddhism. The pure teachings of Yoga were therefore often mixed with the cultural and religious associations of the particular teacher.
Although the practices of Yoga were appropriated by these religious traditions, most of them dismissed Yoga as a secular science. Yoga is actually more correctly understood as a science of mind oriented towards understanding the mind/body relationship. Indeed we can see that many similar practices evolved and were appropriated into the religious traditions of the West. The pure teachings of Yoga have no theological orientation. The practices of Yoga when correctly taught will help anyone of any religious tradition deepen their own faith."
~ Gary Kraftsow
"When the word Yoga is mentioned, most people immediately think of some physical postures for relaxing and limbering up the body. This is one aspect of the Yogic science, but actually only a very small part and relatively recent in development. The physical Yoga, or Hatha Yoga, was primarily designed to facilitate the real practice of Yoga – namely, the understanding… So the actual meaning of Yoga is the science of the mind.
We all want to know more about our minds: how they work and how we can work with them. This field is closer to us than anything else in life. It may be interesting and useful to know how to fix a car or cook a meal or how atoms are split. But something that holds a more immediate and vital interest for thoughtful people is their own mind. What is the mind? Does it determine our behavior and experience or do we create and sustain its activity? What is consciousness? …
Patanjali is completely scientific in this respect. He sees Yoga as a rigorous science and never hesitates to give all the aspects of the practice and their ramifications. It is the duty of a scientist to understand and explain every aspect of his discoveries. It is just as when a chemist formulates a medicine. He has to explain its proper usage as well as any adverse reactions that could occur if not used properly."
~ Sri Swami Satchinanda in his commentary and translation of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
"Yoga does not belong to any religion. Christ was a great yogi. Buddha was a great yogi. Yoga is the expansion of consciousness. Om represents all aspects of God. It is beyond our intelligence and the moment we try to explain it, it will no longer be its true meaning. We can say this, Om is universal connectedness and represents three levels of wisdom/knowledge: