Simply put, the answer is NO.
Individuals practicing yoga often come up against the question of whether yoga is a religion. It is an issue that has gained prominence as more and more yoga is taught in places like schools and churches. Yoga does descend from a religious tradition but it does not require adherence to a belief system, creed, obligations or rituals. Yogis practicing today come from all sorts of different religious backgrounds. Some have a solid definition of God while others are adamantly atheists. Either way yoga is a deeply personal practice and yoga does not ask that a student believe in certain things in order to participate.
T.K.V. Desikachar, a prominent figure in the yoga community, was quoted as saying:
Yoga was rejected by Hinduism because yoga would not insist that God exists. It didn’t say there was no God but just wouldn’t insist there was.”
Though yoga has roots in religious tradition and has been defined as a way of reaching spiritual enlightenment, it does not attempt to define what enlightenment is. That is dependent on the religious tradition you belong to. In the United States, some yoga is taught stripped of it’s spirituality and focuses solely on the physical aspect of the practice.
When I first started practicing yoga, I asked one of my teachers, “What if I don’t believe in God or a higher being?” And her response was, “Well, whether or not you believe in a higher being, there is something outside of yourself that you are working towards, working for or answering to – be it your family, your dreams or something like that and so even in that context we are not functioning in isolation.” It made a lot of sense to me within the context of my practice.
So can you continue with your yoga practice while having your own belief system?
The answer is a resounding YES!
Ultimately, yoga is a personal journey and is open and flexible (pun intended) enough to accommodate your religion or lack thereof.
If you are a yogi or interested in become one, I encourage you to learn a little bit more about the history of yoga and its traditions. Don’t be afraid to explore, push boundaries and ask questions. A few of the books I would recommend are:
- Light on Yoga: Yoga Dipika by B. K. S. Iyengar
- The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (there are many interpretations)
- The Bhagavad Gita (Classics of Indian Spirituality)