Do you have to believe any particular beliefs in order to do yoga? Does yoga depend on faith? Is yoga a supernatural process? Are all yoga practitioners spiritual? Can you practice yoga and be a practicing Jew, Catholic, Muslim or Hindu? Can you practice yoga and be an atheist?
The question of yoga and religion is usually glossed over in beginner yoga classes. As time goes on, some teachers cite spiritual sounding beliefs in their classes and may even talk about a book called The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, or cite the qualities of the Yamas and Niyamas. Along with chanting and hand gestures, called mudras, this can give the distinct impression that something supernatural is being invoked.
Other teachers participate in and cite scientific studies involving the efficacy of yoga on certain ailments or for prevention of injury and disability. You can take yoga in the gym where the instructors are trained using technical sports physiology and anatomy. This can lead to the belief that yoga is part of exercise science and just another fitness regime.
The truth is that you do need a couple of basic beliefs in order to do yoga, but they’re not beliefs in supernatural forces or beings, and no religious values are endorsed. The basic belief you’ll need is that by acting and observing, you can change your experience. The values described in the Yamas and Niyamas are not only common across cultures, but suggested as an experiential underpinning for the physiologic poses to work efficiently.
The Merriam Webster Online Dictionary defines “religion” as the following:
The workings of yoga can all be accounted for on an entirely physical level, and so no supernatural beliefs are necessary for the practice of yoga. The book referenced above, often called simply The Sutras, does describe some supernatural phenomenon and beliefs; however this book mentions yoga asana only to say that your posture should be steady and comfortable. The postures that make up so much of American yoga are themselves a purely physical arrangement of the body. While there are teachers who take The Sutras as the basis of their belief and teaching, and so are practicing religiously, the basic physical principles are easily abstracted without attachment to supernatural belief.
Much like our system of laws abstracted from early religious principles of fairness and justice, yoga now functions separately from conjecture about supernatural phenomenon, to give us a framework for action, observation and experimentation with our physical bodies. Through breath, movement and training, we can observe and refine our reactions and habits as well as our body’s flexibility and strength.
The Cambridge Dictonaries Onine, American English edition, defines “science” as “the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the natural and physical world, or knowledge obtained about the world by watching it carefully and experimenting.”2 As a systemic study of our physical bodies through observation and experimenting, yoga is indeed a science. The system described by the Eight Limbs can be easily abstracted and seen as a descriptive process for creating focus and concentration, described by the last the three limbs. The first two limbs, Yamas and Niyamas, are those common values, such as truth and not stealing, that are the minimum qualification for an untroubled mind. Asana, the third limb, by stretching and strengthening the body removes obstacles to mental clarity. Observing the breath, or pranayama, the fourth limb, is an indirect tool for observing the mind. The fifth limb, withdrawal of the senses, is preparation for focus and concentration.
Whether you are interested only in the physical stretching and strengthening of a sweaty yoga class or are interested in all eight limbs of yoga, you are invited into your own experiment, using the only laboratory you’ll ever need: your own mind and body.
1 Merriam Webster Online Dictionary. 12 November 2011 http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/religion.
2 Cambridge Online Dictionary, American English. 12 November 2011 http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/american-english/science?q=science.