The Rumor: Yoga is a religious practice.
Before doing their first Downward Dog, many people wonder whether yoga is spiritual -- or even a religion. Some are wondering all the way to the courthouse: One Christian couple in California is suing their school district to keep yoga out of the classrooms. Meanwhile, yoga teachers in New York City schools scrap the "oms" and "namastes" for a purely hatha (i.e., physical) experience. So what's the deal? Are yogis on a mission to convert the masses?
The Verdict: Yoga is a practice that's inclusive of any belief system.
"Yoga isn't a religion, it's a practice," says Devarshi Steven Hartman, an instructor for Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health's yoga-teacher-certification courses and dean of the Pranotthan School of Yoga. "In a religion, you have to believe this, or else. You're in or out, depending on your beliefs. With yoga, it doesn't matter what you believe. People come to it from every belief system."
And yet, for many, getting in touch with breath and body does end up being a spiritual experience -- one that can even challenge previous beliefs. According to Hartman, that's because doing any regular practice is going to create internal change -- especially if that practice includes meditation, prayer, chanting or breathing. "Practice brings us out of our everyday life, and when we get out of our habitual ways of being, what gets brought up is what's unconscious, nondeliberate and involuntary," Hartman says. "We have this opportunity to make it more conscious, deliberate and voluntary. The result is freedom of choice. Rather than [having] the thing that was unconscious running us, we can choose it."
It's understandable that the idea of adopting a practice of reflection might feel threatening to people who adhere to strong doctrines they don't want to change. Change is uncomfortable -- even if it means one's spiritual and religious beliefs could, in the end, become stronger and more sincere than ever. As Hartman points out, there's no scripture or figurehead to rail against if yoga inspires transformation. "Practice creates an authentic experience, and the authentic experience is the teacher," he says. "Not some belief or philosophy or doctrine."
While there's no "bible" of yoga beliefs, Patanjali's Yoga Sutras are the closest thing to it. It's the earliest and most comprehensive outline for all eight limbs of yoga, and it covers everything from breathing and movement practices to moral recommendations ("Don't be violent"; "Tell the truth"; "Live moderately").
"One of the most beautiful things about Patanjali's Yoga Sutras is that it cuts through cultures, denominations and beliefs," Hartman says. "It starts with, 'Now, the inquiry of union. This is how to get free from your own mind and your own suffering.' That's so universal. If you want to get free from your suffering, here's the technology: Sit down and follow these eight limbs. Build your character -- that's the yamas and niyamas. Take care of your body, get your breath in your body -- do pranayama. And these practices will help you be in charge of your mind and your attention so you can sit still and experience life as it is without distortions. Period."
Ultimately, the goal is happiness -- to not have your mind running your life. "That's why yoga to me is so refreshing," says Hartman. "[It] couldn't be simpler, couldn't be more devoid of projection and beliefs. It's timeless. Yoga is a series of practices. It's not a series of beliefs or philosophies. The practice is what it's all about. Believe whatever you want, and practice. You can be an atheist and do the practices; you can be a Catholic and do the practices; you can be a Muslim or a Jew and do the practices. And they'll work."