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Yoga vs. Religion

October 5, 2012

Do you have to believe in God or a higher being in order to practice yoga?

Newcomers (and maybe not so new ones) delving deeper into yoga often come up against that question. The books that I have been reading assume that a yogi believes in a higher being (at the very least). But we all come from different religious backgrounds. Some of us don’t have a solid definition of God while others are flat-out atheists. So isn’t it a little presumptuous to assume a belief in God? And if I did believe in God, what if my God isn’t the same as your God?

I was raised Roman Catholic (with all the baggage that comes with that). I attended Catholic school for most of my life and even went to a Jesuit college. During college, I was a Eucharistic Minister and I attended and led religious retreats. I was not a religious zealot by any means – I more enjoyed being part of the Catholic community. After college, I removed myself from that community and I only go to midnight mass now because I can’t say no to my mother.

Through yoga I have become exposed to a different spiritual experience. Yoga is rooted in eastern traditions but not necessarily tied to a religious system. Statements like “the universe is conspiring to make your wishes come true,” “humans are intrinsically good beings” and other similar themes are common when talking about the full expression of yoga. But I have to admit that as a yoga practitioner I don’t buy into all of that. I can appreciate the spirit in which it is shared but I have my own beliefs that I am working to refine based on what works for me, my experiences and what I perceive as the truth. And that in no way hinders my practice. I am not less of a yogi.

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.” And that made a lot of sense to me within the context of my practice.

So can you continue with your yoga practice while having a completely different 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, I encourage you to learn a little bit more about the history of yoga and its traditions. But don’t be afraid to explore, push boundaries and ask questions. You can ask them here or share your experience with religion and yoga.

Candle Flame

Photo via Flickr (Creative Commons) by Peter Zoon.

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