For many people across the world yoga is a way of ensuring a healthy life away from sedentary habits, a way of decreasing stress and increasing general wellbeing. However, the religious or spiritual element present in the practice of yoga may scare people who are concerned about religious purity or the integrity of their beliefs. Some might believe that yoga contradicts their religion, others might think of it as devil’s work. But is modern yoga a form of spiritual or religious practice?
Yoga as encountered in the West, is foremost based on Hatha Yoga and as such places emphasis foremost on bodily postures, breathing exercises and meditation. Indeed ‘yoga, as it appears today, is a recent interpretation of an ancient practice’ (Hoyez 2007: 114) which originates from the Indian subcontinent. Because of its origins yoga has often been thought as ‘hindu’, a term that is in itself very broad.
Yoga stems from the Vedas, the holy texts composed around 1900BC, which also form the basis of three major religions: Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. Patanjali’s ‘Yoga Sutras’, dating from approximately 2000 years ago is considered the first text that distinguishes Yoga from other systems of thought and religious practice. In his book Patanjali advocates a complete and complex way of life and not only a set of physical exercises. His ‘eight limbs’ of yoga, which still inform practice today, include abstentions (development of compassion), observances (awareness of ourselves and others), bodily postures (chanelling energy), breathing practices (controlling life force), abstraction (managing the senses), concentration (focusing) and meditation (total absorption) (Alter 2005). Each school of Yoga builds upon these elements, combining and interpreting them in a specific manner.
Often thought as an elaborate form of gymnastics, modern western yoga has lost most of its original philosophical underpinnings and has taken distance from most of its religious roots. Yoga has become a western practice whose popularity has been made possible by the process of individualization and its formation of ‘new-age’ spirituality, but also by the commodification of urban wellbeing. After becoming global, yoga has become increasingly decentralized and the Indian influence has been gradually lost. We live in a time of ‘indigenous yogas’ with a baffling diversity of styles and types, often adapted to specific local circumstances (Hoyez 2007) that highlight foremost wellbeing, health and internal peace. Furthermore, emphasis is placed foremost on its physical aspects while its spiritual or religious parts are contrived, if present at all. The specific combination of these factors makes modern yoga resemble more a therapeutic practice (Hoyez 2007) than a spiritual or religious one.
However, modern yoga is a therapeutic system of bodily exercises that also voices philosophical, cultural or political concerns. Furthermore, it is experienced as an active form of changing one’s life to the better. It emphasizes on self-realization (Alter 2004, De Michelis 2004). As such, modern yoga has constructed an alternative form of being religious or spiritual which creatively picks up and repackages a few elements of the Indian traditions while combining them with specific global and local concerns. For example, in yoga discourse, the consumption of raw- and super-foods is connected as much to the formation of a healthy body, to maintaining a good world energy, contributing to fair trade and to sustaining ecological system. These concerns are both extremely varied and tailored to specific audiences: yoga games targeting children require players to perform postures imitating animals while yoga for older adults yoga will make use of props for attaining some bodily postures (Patel el al. 2011). While children yoga will ‘play’ with the ‘inner child’, older adult yoga allows one to ‘find the right energetic balance’ and ‘age youthfully’. Furthermore, yoga can be practiced as a form of union with the ‘universe’, ‘God’, ‘nature’ or ‘oneself’, depending on the inclinations and beliefs of its practitioners. Some yoga classes use a borrowed religious imaginary: the yoga mat becomes a prayer mat while some postures recall prayer. Some classes include the chanting of Hindu sutras, others refer to a ‘life force’ or ‘energy’. A session may include a greeting of ‘namaste’ or a gesture of prayer. There might be a moment of meditation or time for chanting the ‘Om’ considered as the primordial sound by both Hindus and Buddhists. While these might be considered spiritual activities, they do not come to the fore in every yoga practice. Some classes and schools of yoga may make no overt reference to spirituality at all.
Nevertheless, modern yoga makes both physical and inner, ‘spiritual’ transformation possible, as yoga practitioners explained to me. Modern yoga, they highlighted, works through the effort of the body and ends in a general feeling of ‘feeling good about myself’. Yoga practices create an awareness of the self and a possibility of directly ‘improving’ one’s life. One realizes that ‘there is something bigger out there’. One ‘learns’ what are one’s possibilities, and through repeated exercise, learns also to ‘deal with that terrible pain’ and ‘overcome one’s limits’. Yoga offers its practitioners a permission to be happy ‘as I did the best I could for myself’ but also creates the feeling of ‘being in control’ and being in touch with ‘something bigger’. However, some of the practitioners I have been talking to have not described their experience as necessarily religious or spiritual, rather as an encounter with the ‘real self’ that requires no belief, but ‘just happens’.
This baffling inner diversity of practices points out that yoga is far from being a unitary phenomenon. Although most forms of yoga have their roots in the Indian subcontinent, each different school and group works with a specific interpretation of what yoga is, tailored to the more immediate concerns of western practitioners. The religious or spiritual content of yoga classes does not only depend on each yoga school’s approach, but also on the personal aspirations and capabilities of yoga practitioners. As such, western yoga practices have a different view of spirituality and make different use of religious elements then ‘Indian’ yoga, where the ultimate goal is moksha or liberation. Furthermore, western yoga can mainly be considered as a form of physical exercise that increases general wellbeing. In order to ensure and expand the state of wellbeing and relaxation, spiritual and religious practices may be used or hinted at. However, in the context of western modernity, yoga’s goal of ultimate liberation transforms foremost into the celebration and glorification of the self.
Alter, J. S. 2005. Modern medical yoga: struggling with a history of magic, alchemy and sex. Leiden: Brill.
De Michelis, E. 2005. A history of modern yoga. London: Continuum.
Hoyez, A.-C. 2007. The ‘world of yoga': The production and reproduction of therapeutic landscapes. Social Science & Medicine. 65 (1): 112-124.
Patel, N. K., S. Akkihebbalu, S. E. Espinoza, and L. K. Chiodo. 2011. Perceptions of a Community-Based Yoga Intervention for Older Adults. Activities, Adaptation & Aging. 35 (2): 151-163.
Strauss, S. 2005. Positioning yoga balancing acts across cultures. Oxford: Berg.