fitness · yoga

On doing yoga and not doing religion (or doing it– you pick)

Is yoga a religious practice? A form of exercise? A form of therapy? A tradition that’s been co-opted and distorted beyond all recognition (think chocolate or wine-infused yoga)? An excuse to buy more tie-dye yoga pants (oops, that may be just me…)?

In case you’re curious, I just bought these recently, and they’re cutey-cute.

Cute blue and purple tie-dye yoga pants.
Cute blue and purple tie-dye yoga pants.

Do we have to care about the question of what is yoga? 

Maybe not, but lots of others are forcing our hand/calling us out/dressing us down for doing yoga.  In particular, the pastor of an Assemblies of God megachurch in Missouri warned his congregation that the positions in yoga were “created with demonic intent to open you up to demonic power because Hinduism is demonic.”

Let me be clear.  By “demonic”, he did not mean that yoga was demonically difficult, as this pose might mislead him to believe:

A woman in an advanced balance pose, wearing super-cute red, blue and black geometric print leggings.
A woman in an advanced balance pose, wearing super-cute red, blue and black geometric print leggings.

My first thought here is– where did she get those super-cute leggings?  I want some. My second thought is– yes, there are some very advanced balance poses out there (which I enjoy sharing with you, dear readers). But finding balance– physical and emotional– in yoga is its best thing for me. So yoga is not demonically difficult.  It’s just itself.

Okay, back to the yoga-is-demonic charge: According to a Springfield News-Leader article,

Lindell explained that yoga’s intent is to “raise and expand consciousness for the purpose of experiencing peace, energy and divine presence.”

Then, he talked about meditation.
During meditation, he said, people clear their minds. Sometimes they chant a mantra, which can incorporate the names of Hindu gods, Lindell said.

He said it’s “spiritually dangerous” for people to empty their minds.

Okay– probably most/close-to-all of you who read this blog will think, “Really?  This is ludicrous and ignorant.”  I happen to agree.  And I could launch into a quick-and-dirty response, citing the most erudite Wikipedia pages I can find on Christian meditationits history, Christian yoga practitioners, and other cute yoga pants I want (oops sorry– that just slipped out). But I won’t, mainly because when you ask around— and I asked my friend Matthew, who is an Indian philosophy specialist in my department–  the situation is complicated. 

So what have I learned this week about yoga and religion?

  • Some Christian groups oppose yoga, claiming it is a way to entice children and adults into becoming Eastern religion (presumably Hinduism) practitioners. 
  • Other Christian groups endorse yoga as both wellness and meditative practice.
  • Politicians in Alabama have banned yoga in schools.
  • A lawsuit brought by parents in Encinitas county in California to try to ban yoga from schools failed. However, it raised issues that school yoga proponents are taking seriously.  School yoga programs are being stripped of all Sanskrit, Omming, hands in prayer position in heart center, etc.
  • In India, there is conflict between some Muslim and some Hindu groups over yoga, and its use in service of Hindu nationalism. All the information I have on this comes from this podcast, so I don’t really know what’s up with this.  But, it was worth a listen.
  • What roles yoga plays in Hinduism is a matter of serious discussion among scholars.
  • What are the actual roots of yoga is a matter of serious discussion among scholars.
  • This very interesting article from the Conversation says that yoga means a lot of different things in different contexts, and what it is now is pretty hodge-podgey (my words, not the article’s) and not coherently religious.

Last thoughts here: I do a lot of different physical activities for a lot of reasons. Both cycling and yoga help clear my head; they are thoroughly engrossing whole-body activities that take me out of my regular life and info the present moment. Hill-climbing, as much as I sort of dread it, is a case in point. I focus on the road about 8–10 feet in front of me, pedal and breathe. When I am in a one-footed balance pose in yoga class, I am aware of my back, my hips, my ankles, etc., and I focus and breathe.

The meanings I take from these activities are individual and change over my life course. I happen to love saying “Om” because the vibrations in my body feel great, and I like singing or vocalizing it loudly and long. That’s me. I love pedaling along country roads and hearing the sound of the tires and my breath. That’s me. 

Are these experiences a form of religion?  Are these experiences a form of some particular form of religion? Does engaging in these practices make one an adherent of some religion? For me, it doesn’t matter that I separate, label and assess what I’m doing in these ways. In the mean and terrible world we live in, all I can say is I want more of this:

A person doing a yoga pose while holding onto the handlebars of a bike.
A person doing a yoga pose while holding onto the handlebars of a bike.

8 thoughts on “On doing yoga and not doing religion (or doing it– you pick)

  1. I put in a long comment which disappeared when I logged in. I’ll consider responding but I’ll wait until it appears.

  2. I’ll try this again for a comment (though I feel like wasting time after some lost comments on this blog):

    It is not necessary to mix any exercise with religion. That includes yoga. Yea, I know that means stripping some essence. But if it means teaching the simple benefits of yoga exercise, best to start with that.

    Are the yoga adherrents who are receiving opposition from parents who are overly oppositional/fearful, changing the whole aspect how yoga can be “sold” to others that are culturally different.

    I never saw putting hands together in yoga as prayer. Just simply graceful thankfulness. How different is that cultural gestures of thankfulness in other Asian countries without the religion? It’s that simple MAKE it so simple to the folks so fearful of anything that culturally is so different from their own.

    thx for this blog post…the angle of cultural differences and exercise/sport. Culture informs still heavily on the lives of women and men and children heavily. We need to hear the voices on this blog from women from those communities/countries. You would be amazed what trends still exist. In Tokyo and Kyoto I neve saw Japanese local women jogging …in fact, they dress shorts (that was me), no very short skirts, no tank tops. It amazed me. Still protecting their skin on arms and with umbrellas. I was there just last June. This is a developed country with latest technology. Sheesh. But you know they were cycling, walking/hiking lots…part of daily fabric.

    I suppose parents would be concerned if their children practiced tai chi in school. Foreign exercise names.. But hey doing exercises with animal names is so fun for kids…crouching tiger, monkey, bird picking, etc.

    1. HI Jean– the yoga school program folks have taken out all the sanskrit, prayer hands, oms, etc. that the parents objected to. I also like prayer hands, but they didn’t. Go figure. I agree that foreign names tend to bring up xenophobic feelings in some people, which is a shame. I wish and hope there would be ways to address that better, rather than just sanitizing unfamiliar activities and names.

  3. Beauty post. Yoga is different for everyone. I have been practicing yoga for 5 years and it has not replaced my religious beliefs. And yes they are cutey cute tie dyed yoga pant ☺♥

    1. Hi Emma– not to be hawking wares on this blog, but I got them from splashdyestudio on etsy. Of course there are a zillion makers of these things, which is very cool– make tie dye yoga pants, not war! 🙂

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