Is doing yoga against my religion?

tree poseThe room is warm and quiet. Carefully, you unroll your rubbery mat across the wooden floor. You can’t wait to experience ashtanga yoga: an intense series of asanas (poses) followed by a peaceful relaxation. The instructor starts the class by leading you into “prayer” position with your hands pressed together in front of your heart. Then the chanting begins.

Yoga has been practiced for thousands of years and can potentially impact our health in several ways. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (a branch of the US Department of Health and Human Services National Institutes of Health),

Current research suggests that a carefully adapted set of yoga poses may reduce low-back pain and improve function. Other studies also suggest that practicing yoga (as well as other forms of regular exercise) might improve quality of life; reduce stress; lower heart rate and blood pressure; help relieve anxiety, depression, and insomnia; and improve overall physical fitness, strength, and flexibility. 

So, why do some people believe that what seems to be the perfect elixir for our bodies conflict with a particular religion?  The answer is complicated. And you will find people, often times devout practitioners of the same religion, who fall on both sides of the fence.

Why do you do yoga?
Part of the reason yoga continues to be so popular is that it offers the potential to impact each aspect of your well being. Some do it for physical reasons (stretch, tone, strengthen muscles, balance, manage pain and treat certain medical conditions). Others do it to improve their mental state (focused concentration, cognitive function, emotional conditions). Then there are some who do it for spiritual reasons (finding purpose, connecting with God or self, living out religious/ philosophical beliefs that yoga is based on).

What do the critics say?
Among Hindus, there is a belief that “there is no yoga without Hinduism, and no Hinduism without yoga.” However, yoga has been criticized by people from several other religions. A TIME article (2008) included a quote from a council of muftis in Malaysia that claims doing yoga could “destroy the faith of a Muslim.” Some Jewish critics warn that practicing yoga borders on idolatry. Many Christians fear yoga opens the door to a New Age lifestyle. Specifically, Catholics warn against monism (all that exists is one) and gnosticism (the release of the spiritual element of man from the bondage of matter).

Bottom Line
If you are doing yoga (or doing certain yoga poses/stretches) for physical or mental benefits, this should not conflict with your religious beliefs. In fact, many of the stretches and other physical positions are prescribed by doctors, physical therapists, personal trainers and other health/fitness-related professionals. Most likely though, they will not be referenced by their original Sanskrit names.

However, if you are taking a class that incorporates unfamiliar prayers, chanting, yoga sutras or other philosophical/spiritual aspects, you may be quietly replacing your faith with something else.


Fit, Fed and Faithful

Kimberly A. Laux, MA, is a freelance writer for several print and online publications and a group fitness instructor certified through the American Council on Exercise. She currently teaches in the Communication & Visual Arts Department at the University of Michigan in Flint.

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