By Jasmine Kaloudis
Is yoga a kind of religion? It seems like yoga is often thought of as a religious practice with the various Hindu deities, chants, new age language about the divine powers of the “universe” and devotional hymns. The practice could be construed as a religion and the studio a temple with the rituals, greetings and protection of the space as sacred. How is yoga not a religion and just a form or spirituality and what is the difference between the two?
In the Bhagavad Gita, which is a book many devout yoga practitioners and teachers read as they go deeper into learning about yoga philosophy, the main character, Arjuna searches for answers to his dilemmas; he is shown to go beyond, the conventional cultural programming and ways of thinking by exploring attachment and considering the duality of pleasure and pain, gain and loss, failure and success.
He also attempts to achieve a balanced state of mind though various yogic lifestyle practices. He is able to bring his spirituality into his daily practices. When used as a practice of uniting the mundane with the highest level of self-actualization, the term “Yoga” is applied to many different spiritual paths. Yoga is a practice of self-awareness, self-actualization and compassion for others.
Religion is often infused with observing holidays that have rituals. There is a history of struggle of good over bad. These stories help to explain why that religion has certain beliefs. In most of the world religions, there is a history of conquest. The focus is often on intolerance in these conquests and non-acceptance. These are contrary to many of the common values that traditional yogic philosophy promote.
Religion does not ask us to question beliefs or practice but to simply obey and accept them since an authoritative figure or collective body has decided that. Yoga promotes a deep study of acceptance and self-realization. Yoga promotes deeper awareness by using tools such as our breath, bodies and awareness so we can come to our own conclusions about the nature of higher or divine reality.
In religion, the nature of higher reality is simply dictated to us. For most, religion is a huge source of personal and collective identity. Often, culture and an attachment to a geographical location such as with the Greek Orthodox Church (Greece), Russian Orthodox Church (Russia), Judaism (Israel), Hindu (various pilgrimage sites for various holidays and gods,) and Islam (Mecca).
Fear is often a tool in the major religions to motivate people to behave a certain way. People behave certain ways because they are afraid of the punishment they will receive in the next or afterlife or do not want to endure public censure for their lack of conformity. They find comfort and security in knowing they are practicing something as their family has done for decades.
Fear of the “other” is often a powerful way to gather a group together since they can develop rapport and camaraderie and a sense of community for being intolerant of others’ differences and practices. Lack of self-esteem is one of the main contributing causes to this.
Ritual also provides a context for family to come together (Christmas, Hannukah, Easter, Passover) Ritual is also a way to tie people together in a certain group or culture. Rituals helps to have children become involved in the practices as well. Often rituals are performed on young children or infants who have no say in the matter, even if the ritual is physically and psychologically painful (male or female circumcision). Barbaric practices such as these initiate the child into a world of violence and subjugation. In yoga, free choice, consciousness, compassion and awareness are the tenets.
In religion, negative emotions such as guilt and fear are powerful motivators to induce certain behaviors or practices and even beliefs. In the Spanish Inquisition, hundreds of years ago, people were killed simply for refusing to change their beliefs and values. In yoga, one is encouraged to find their own path to happiness and peace.
Guilt is often a byproduct of the practices or lack of conformity to the practices. The practice of confession in the church, is done in order to shame the devotee of their lack of ability to follow rules. Judgement and passing judgment on others for their behavior and deeds is a major tents on some of the major religions such as Christianity and Islam. In yoga, non-judgment, compassion and acceptance are continually emphasized.
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Throughout her 15 year yoga practice and teachings, Jasmine Kaloudis has experienced how yoga is a tool which allows us to experience our selves more fully and more richly.
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