Is Yoga Evil?

To help us with some of the remaining tasks in building YogaTrail, we recently tried to hire a certain web development company in a certain European country. They had plenty of positive reviews, and a few friendly emails went back and forth. But when we sent them an email describing our project, we were a little surprised to receive the following reply:

 Hello Sven!

We really appreciate you interest in our company. We work on permanent basis with few USA companies, and some clients from Europe… so, we would be glad to extend our work load. Your project is interesting, and we have available people, and would like to work with you, but not on this project unfortunately. The reason is our policy. We are believers, not fanatic.. just muslims. We believe in God and Judgment day, and we are trying to be fair with our clients, provide good services.. etc… not to do sins… for us is forbidden to work on Adult sites, Alcohol, Gambling, Night-life sites, Musical sites.. and religious sites. Yoga is the stuff which is proposed often.. but we cannot accept it, though, you are great team to work with, and we would like to do it.

We are sorry for this, and perhaps, this is something strange for you, though, this is our choice and religion.

If you have any other tasks, let us know please. Thanks.

Respectfully, *******
************ company

Wow. Apparently, in the eyes of some, our little baby YogaTrail is on the same level as a porn, booze, or gambling website.  This reminded us of recent news stories involving a Catholic priest banning yoga classes in a Southampton church hall (UK) two months ago, and last month’s lawsuit brought forth by parents of public school children in California who feel that yoga in the schools is a form of religion intrusion in government.

So, the question is: is yoga a religion? Is it “evil” for a devout Christian, Muslim, or Jew to practice yoga? This is not a completely crazy question, considering where yoga comes from, and what ‘yoga’ means for different people.

Up until relatively recently, yoga was understood to be a philosophical meditation system, developed thousands of years ago in India. The word ‘yoga’ is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘yuj’, meaning to unite or to bind. Interestingly, the root of the word ‘religion’ is found in the Latin words of ‘re’ and ‘ligare’, where ‘re’ is a prefix indicating return, and ‘ligare’ means to bind – suggesting that the etymological roots of ‘yoga’ and ‘religion’ are not dissimilar.

The basis for the historical understanding of yoga lies in the Yoga Sutras, a text attributed to the sage Patañjali that dates back almost two thousand years. It describes a system of meditation and philosophy consisting of eight “limbs”, or aspects, which for the most part involve thought processes leading to a healthy and happy mental existence. There isn’t a lot of talk about ‘asanas’, i.e. physical postures. So when some yogis claim that yoga is just a form of exercise and stretching, and that it’s nothing to do with spirituality, they don’t quite cover the whole truth, at least historically speaking.

Maybe that’s why last year the Vatican’s long-time chief exorcist proclaimed that “yoga is satanic, because it can “lead to a worship of Hinduism”. And why in 2010 the president of Southern Baptist Seminary called for any Christians practicing yoga to stop. Yoga practice is also apparently forbidden for Muslims in Indonesia, according to the top clerics in that country; this decision in the world’s most populous Islamic nation follows similar edicts in Malaysia and Egypt. Some Orthodox Jewish groups have issues with yoga, as well.

Why do some religious groups strongly discourage their members from practicing yoga? The specific reasons can vary, but the general fear seems to be that an unsuspecting individual may initially be lured into a yoga class by promises of health benefits, only to then end up indoctrinated into some kind of cult.

To address these kinds of concerns, many yoga studios offer explicit assurances that yoga won’t seek to interfere with a student’s existing faith. It’s also quite common for teacher training programs and yoga associations to spell out in their yoga instructor guidelines for yoga instructors to be particularly sensitive to various belief systems that yoga students may subscribe to, and to not interfere with these.

So, back to the question: is yoga a religion or does it pose a threat to religion? Actually, the Yoga Sutras don’t contain any passages that demand the acknowledgement, nor the rejection of, any God. Prominent yogi, author, and teacher T.K.V. Desikachar says “Yoga is not a religion and should not [affiliate] with any religion.” In fact, yoga offers no particular opinion on religion.

Having said that, the practice of meditation — often a prominent feature of yoga — can produce an experience that feels spiritual. Spirituality is the quest for understanding oneself and one’s place in the universe. It’s kind of required in religion, but religion isn’t needed to have or experience spirituality. Meditating, this “gazing at the self”, could lead you to all sorts of revelations: it could deepen your existing spiritual or religious beliefs, or it could conjure up some doubts about them. Ultimately, yoga is an intensely personal investigation practiced in all sorts of cultural contexts.

Most mainstream religious communities have no problem with yoga. Even across all of Iran, a country that’s renowned for the strict adherence to religious rules, yoga is extremely popular. Many religious groups enthusiastically embrace yoga and encourage their members to reap its physical and stress relieving benefits. There are catholic priests who are yoga gurus. Several religious groups have made yoga their own, and in the process created new and different yoga styles. Like Christian Yoga, for example. Or teacher training courses for Jewish women. In some yoga classes, students may chant “all…aah..ou” instead of aum at the start.

Maybe we’re slightly nuts for daring to write about religion and yoga. All of us at YogaTrail have nothing but respect for any- and everyone, as well as their beliefs. I sincerely hope to not have offended anyone in this article. We merely would like to suggest that yoga is a wonderful thing that’s not necessarily incompatible with your religion. Whatever your beliefs, whether you’re an anarcho-atheist or a nun living in a monastery – we’re pretty sure that doing some yoga won’t cause you to be damned into everlasting hellfire. But if you’re worried about that, no problem: thank God for Pilates!