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Is yoga religious?

Many outsiders to contemporary popularized yoga profoundly trivialize it by reducing it to a mere commodity of global market capitalism, and to impotent borrowings from or “rebrandings” of traditional, authentic religious products. In other words, according to this account, popularized yoga can be reduced to mere commodities meant to fulfill utilitarian needs or meet hedonistic desires.

On the other hand, many yoga insiders frequently avoid categorizing yoga as religion, preferring to categorize it as spiritual or to invoke other non-explicitly religious terms to describe it. For example, Houston yoga practitioner, teacher, studio owner, and advocate Jennifer Buergermeister responded to attempts by the State of Texas to regulate yoga as a career school by suggesting, “Regulating Yoga as a career school detracted from its rightful place as a spiritual and philosophical tradition.” J. Brown, a New York yoga advocate has suggested yoga is “sacred,” is an “all-encompassing whole Truth,” and functions to explore the “self, health, and life.” Yoga studio owner and instructor Bruce Roger definitively stated, “Yoga is a spiritual practice. It’s not a purchase.”

Many yoga advocates avoid the category religion because it connotes an authoritative institution or doctrine in the popular imagination. Well-known yoga advocate T. K. V. Desikachar suggests yoga is not religious because it does not have a doctrine concerning the existence of God. Yoga Journal journalist Phil Catalfo, along with many other yoga insiders, suggests that yoga is spirituality, not religion, yet advocates define yoga in religious terms even if they avoid explicitly labeling it a “religion.”

If one closely evaluates examples from modern postural yoga, however, it becomes apparent that yoga, even in its popularized forms, can have robust religious qualities. Popularized yoga can serve as a body of religious practice in the sense of a set of behaviors that are treated as sacred, as set apart from the ordinary or mundane dimensions of everyday life; that are grounded in a shared ontology or world­view (although that ontology may or may not provide a metanarrative or all-encompassing worldview); that are grounded in a shared axiology or set of values or goals concerned with resolving weakness, suffering, or death; and that are reinforced through myth and ritual.

In the postural yoga context, for example, when Iyengar’s students repeat their teacher’s famous mantra—“The body is my temple, [postures] are my prayers”—or read in one of his monographs—“Health is religious. Ill-health is irreligious” (Iyengar 1988: 10)—they testify to experiencing the mundane flesh, bones, and physical movements and even yoga accessories as sacred. Yet a sacred body nevertheless remains a body of flesh and bone, and a sacred yoga mat nevertheless remains a commodity in the form of a rubber mat. The material and even commodified dimensions of yoga, therefore, are not incompatible with the religious dimensions of yoga.

Founder and Director of the Prison Yoga Project James Fox leads students through the uttihita chaturanga danda asana (plank posture) in 2012 at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California. Photographed by Robert Sturman. (Courtesy of Robert Sturman.)
Founder and Director of the Prison Yoga Project James Fox leads students through the uttihita chaturanga danda asana (plank posture) in 2012 at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California. Photographed by Robert Sturman. (Courtesy of Robert Sturman.)

In the Prison Yoga Project, salvation is conceptualized as a form of bodily healing. In 2002, James Fox, postural yoga teacher and founder and director of the Prison Yoga Project, began teaching yoga to prisoners at the San Quentin State Prison, a California prison for men. According to the Prison Yoga Project, most pris­oners suffer from “original pain,” pain caused by chronic trauma experienced early in life. The consequent suffering leads to violence and thus more suffering in a vicious cycle that can last a lifetime. Yoga, according to the Prison Yoga Project, provides prisoners dealing with original pain with a path toward healing and recovery.

Finally, consider the mythological dimensions of modern postural yoga. Yoga giants B. K. S. Iyengar (1918-2014) and K. Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009) serve as examples of how yoga branding and mythologizing go hand-in-hand. Both mythologize their systems of postural yoga in ways that tie those systems to ancient yoga traditions while simultaneously reflecting dominant cultural ideas and values by claiming biomedical authority. Their myths ground postural yoga in a linear trajectory of transmission from ancient yoga traditions. Claims to that transmission are frequently made and assumed to be historically accurate.

While Iyengar has historically claimed ties between Iyengar Yoga and the ancient yoga transmission going at least as far back as the Yoga Sutras (circa 350-450 CE), he recently introduced a ritual invocation to Patanjali, believed to be the author of the Yoga Sutras, at the beginning of each Iyengar Yoga class. Iyengar also presents yoga as biomedically legitimized as is evidenced by the biomedical discourse that permeates his work on yoga, referring, for example, to the postures’ benefits for “every muscle, nerve and gland in the body.”

In like manner, Jois suggested that verses from the earliest Vedas delineate the nine postures of the suryanamaskar sequences of postures in his Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga system. Simultaneoulsy, he reevaluates the purification function of yoga as resulting, not in the purification from karma, but in the purification from disease.

In the postural yoga world, branding and mythologizing simultaneously involve validating yoga based on its ties to both ancient origins and modern science.

Featured image credit: Yoga 4 Love Community Outdoor Yoga class for Freedom and Gratitude on Independence Day 2010 in Dallas, Texas. Photographed by Lisa Ware and Richard Ware. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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