Is Yoga A Religion?

People ask me: do you have to believe in a God to do Yoga?
As a committed Christian how does Yoga philosophy affect my practice?
It helps if we are clear about our terminology. What is Religion, Philosophy?

Religion the word comes from Latin: religio meaning being bound, being bound by a vow! Religion classically binds people to a canon of scriptures, a prophet or divine incarnation, certain rites, laws and dogmas.

Thus per definition:

Religion is an Organisation that binds metaphysical insights into form (i.e. teachings, rituals) and people commit to these by vow or other customs.

Philosophy too is an Organisation, this time, of mental activity and thoughts into systems or concepts. Both of these are external organisations of what goes on inside a person, and as a consequence, in a culture and its thought worlds.

By contrast what goes on inside, we call Spirituality.

The first two, Religion and Philosophy, externalise what is happening internally. We understand, by comparing it to memory files in our mind and these “memory files” are put there through interaction with the external world. In short, whatever we meet on the outside world, we note – we take up through our senses (seeing, hearing, tasting, touching or smelling) - process it and store it. These files then act as reference points to understand future input, or what happens within us.

Understanding can happen either by comparing new input with what is stored in these memory files, or by simply accepting something as it is, without conceptualising it.

The latter one we could call a direct or original experience.  We simply observe what happens, without judgement, without overlay of words and concepts! We know, because it happens to us. From this direct experience, change happens within our own selves, within our essence. This inner conviction, this inner knowing, in our own spirit, is what is called Spirituality!

Spirituality has no system, there are no fixed expectations or concepts, it is simply “our experience”, ever fresh, ever new! Spirituality then is subjective, experience based, and – it continuously moves us on. With every experience I change, with every experience there is a new “experiencer” thus there is constant movement without creating calcified structure!  The experience itself moves me constantly closer to my potential, becoming more whole, more kind, more loving, wiser.

However, this needs constant alertness, to prevent getting fixed in a mould, unaware and taking things for granted, i.e. “I had a lovely meditation yesterday, saw such light, felt such happiness and … I want today to have the same meditation!” When that is how I think, then the balance tips and gradually spirituality becomes religion!

So spirituality keeps me in the Now, the mind alive and fresh. How is this cultivated?

Usually when we encounter any situation or object we react in two possible ways: I like it - or dislike it; consequently I either run to the object (or event) or away from it. In this way our whole life is spent running to…or from… If I stop running – I am present and am in my centre, I am “at home” wherever I am, whatever the situation. From this centre, from this point of “neutral” - I can act afresh, appropriate to any situation.

Yoga is a path that teaches us step by step … how to stop (the eight limbs/ashtanga ). We observe our interaction with the world, understand its nature and cultivate harmony between the “world outside me” and the “world inside me” without getting fixed on either!

Now this is done by a Shaman from the Amazon in his unique way, a Buddhist monk from outer Mongolia in his way… It is done by Benedictine Monks in their special way; an Atheist can have yet another way; and a Vedantin or Christian Protestant can do it still differently.

Yet stop, you must!

When you stop and become aware or awake to what is happening inside you - you are living consciously, no matter where and when. Hence the call of most great Masters, whether Buddha, Mahavira, Swami Vivekananda or Jesus Christ is: “Awake, awake!”

When we fix things, they become habits, they become stale, they go wrong - because we expect them to be in a certain way, we take them for granted, and “can do them in our sleep!” Then we cause problems to the world or the world causes problems to us.

Spiritual life is a life of extreme alertness; we become the witness to the mechanics of thoughts, emotions and sensations and then we change our selves according to our own experience!

What about Religion and Philosophy in life?

A religious life is a life where I am told to change according to other people’s awareness, I am guided by what other people say is good for me. I follow! It’s very similar with philosophy; a philosopher makes his thoughts into concepts/systems of thoughts and I am to follow! Given time, both religion and philosophy deal with other people’s concepts. The further removed the concepts are from the original experience, the more complex and calcified they grow. This is a universal phenomenon, which over time gets compounded by man’s tendency for power games (i.e. the original Christian experience was first overlaid by the Greek intellectual philosophy, then by the Roman power-structure).

By contrast, spirituality is based in the present experience and the willingness to grow, to question ones perceptions and constantly be open to allow new inner experiences. Now the interesting thing here is that religions can and do often house spirituality, and similarly philosophy can house spirituality, but spirituality can house neither! When it does – it gets lost!

It’s the inherent drive in man to learn from his own experience, which is what evolution is about; people do not learn because we say so! Without personal experience we get lost in religious structure, in the religious differences, in philosophical thoughts.

And here lies a crucial point: spirituality has to constantly question itself! Only constant self-inquiry (self-awareness) leads to the loss of the egotistical “I”; without this, the practitioner of spiritual disciplines loses purity of perception. And for that he needs a yardstick, something to guide him, hence we should study the various sacred scriptures. But study, not with blindness, not by looking the thoughts of others as though they are objects (facts to store), but by looking into the meaning and checking with vigilance, whether that fits the spiritual aspirant’s own experience. With an awake, inquiring mind, even studying the scriptures becomes experience.

Now that can happen when we study a passage from the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita or Kant’s “Critic of Pure Reason”. It is where our intention and attention is, that makes the difference between Religion, Philosophy – and Spirituality! As the Zen Master said when asked how to reach enlightenment: Attention, attention, attention!

This is why it says in the Old Testament: “Smash all those images that your mind makes!”(Ex.20/4). We have to let go of the patterns our minds project onto the experience, hence the Mystic Meister Eckhardt says: Let go, let go, let go even of your projection of God! Spirituality is lived, is applied Religion, is applied Philosophy (and that not for the sake of others; not because of vow or obligation to others, but with integrity to one self, to the Self!)

Now back to our original issue:

We find that Yoga is neither Religion, nor Philosophy but a practical, spiritual path.

Equally we can say, that where Christianity is practised - neither by adherence to dogma nor by speculation on philosophical thought - it is Spirituality.

We could even say: such lived Christendom is practising Yoga! Both Christianity and Yoga philosophy, when they are in union with their original purpose and alive - are both practising spirituality. The danger of either is to become fixed, and that is due to the mechanism of how our mind works, thus the key to being alive and progressing on either path is: constant awareness to the machinations of our mind, and training the ability to control this mechanism.

The word Yoga is often translated as uniting. Yoga is more than that; it is being aware that we are united!!! What happens inside us follows the same laws as what happens outside in the universe; as above so below. This awareness of unity goes back to the source of Yoga in the ancient Vedas, and it is also present in many other holistic perceptions of the world, right down to the unified field and other modern scientific world views, such as in Quantum theory etc.

From many different sources we are told: ultimately there is one source, one God, one Absolute Reality…but, Yoga says: make this your own experience! Studying Yoga books does not make me into a Yogi; just as books about Medicine don’t make me into a Doctor.

Knowledge has to give up its “otherness” and become my experience. Experienced knowledge has power; just like words on a prescription for a sick person do not cure the illness, so words cannot make me wise – I have to take the medicine.

We have to experience who we are, before we become stuck in thoughts about “who we are”; we have to allow the Divine to unfold, so that we can experience it directly. At this core Yoga and Christianity or - any religion have common ground. At this level they are not separate; there is no need to claim allegiance to one or the other. Ultimate Reality without the limitations of our thoughts and cultural systems, is One. Just as the mountain top is only one, even though many path lead to it.

Yoga terms the original source Kaivalya (All-One-ness); Buddha speaks of Nirvana; Laotzu of the Tao; Vendanta calls it the Absolute, indescribable Formless; Christian Mystics call it Godhead – or God Absolute. Quantum theory speaks of ultimate intelligent energy.

Each experiences it, yet the different human minds tell us what to call it, and moreover, religion speaks about our relationship with it. In the latter lies probably the difference between Yoga Philosophy and mainstream Judeo – Christian teachings. The latter talk about having a “relationship with God”; a relationship means there have to be two “things” that can relate. For that, man has to see himself as separate.

The experience is there and still the same - but how it is dealt with, is where differences arise! In short, it makes some people “relate to God”, others “aware of being God”.

Christendom and Yoga advocate paying the highest respect, the highest worship to this “Divinity” through Silence, but for different reasons.

Silence is the most powerful instrument for avoiding conceptualisation! But the differences come from a different angle:

If you are the Divine… there is nothing to say!

If you are relating as an obedient divine child, there also is nothing to say, as an obedient child keeps reverential silence.

Patanjali, a crucial figure of Yoga philosophy says: “Still the thought activity of the mind” (i.e. be silent) in order to “return to your original nature”. (Tada drasthu svarupe vasthanam.

Awakening to the ultimate Truth is described in St. John as “Return”.

Jesus prays “to bestow on his disciples the glory of the source hence they came.” We are called to experience the purity of our own essence, whatever path or labels we choose for it.

Even the diversity of labels is not a problem, our judgement about them is.

American Indians talk about the Great Mystery as a big blanket. Each religion lifts a corner, none can lift all - our brain can’t contain it! If it could, the divine would not be “beyond human”. This understanding is present in all religions and cultures.

I am not painting over differences (they are no doubt also there) but I am merely showing that on the level of experience, on the level of pre-religion – the actual insight of Yoga and Christianity have great similarities. Differences have to be transcended to discover the mystery of God, which rest in the ‘cave of the heart’ of man. Man has to turn inside to discover universal Truth beyond conceptual logic (Philosophy) or condition rituals and dogma of organised Religion.

The Apostle Paul declares in the letter to the Corinthians. “In him all things come forth from the father and in him all return to the father”. The Upanishads and Samkhya (occupied with the relationship between the individual soul and the cosmic soul) state that they are essentially like rays to the sun, inseparable, like limbs to a body, meaningless one without the other.

God is in Me as Me - I am in Him as Him.

And Thomas of Aquinas, most re-known Christian scholar writes: “God without duality, as he is, is the Ground of all being … is everything and every person exists eternally in God as God”.

It says in the Upanishads: “He is the seer of my eyes, the knower of my knowledge, that which breathes in my breath.” The similarities are amazing to see; the Benedictine monk and Swami,

Bede Griffith says: “This is the truth of Advaita, a truth as Catholic as it is Hindu!”

Whether Old or New Testament, Upanishads or any other scriptures – the inner experience of One-ness is said to happen in a flash - when the mind is quiet. What is experienced in that thoughtless, conscious mind is then described in the language and culture of the experiencer. Looking inside – we see original Truth; if we look outside we see difference in appearance.

So, do we have to believe in God, when we practice Yoga? It depends what you understand by the word G O D. In most of the “West”, the word is influenced by the Christian tradition, and with it, by a humanoid image that is our mental conditioning. It says in the Old Testament: man is shaped in God’s image. Why? Because “God” the word, is shaped according to man’s own conditioned image.  So if people ask whether for Yoga they need to believe in historical humanoid image of God, the answer to this is “No” not like that.

Even so, the Christian and other Mystics went in their descriptions beyond this humanoid image and came to all sorts of other expressions including a mystical Godhead (for which Christianity has no other word ; however the closest is probably “the Cosmic Christ”).

St. John of the Cross teaches: “God is nothing, he is neither inside nor outside the grave; he has risen to a different level; the living God can never be held in a rigid frame or concept. He can only be known by his effect! By his Creation.”

It is exactly the same problem the ancient wise in India (Rishis and Acharyas) had: How to talk about that “God experience”? As “Self” without personal image, as “Purusha” (“Cosmic Being” or “Cosmic Consciousness”) as Absolute, as Ultimate Reality, as Alone-ness, as Ishwara, the divine embodied in all of Creation (which includes You) , as Brahman or ….simply as THAT.

The existence of the Divine Absolute is never the question – but the problem is: no thought, no word, can capture it! We can see how it expresses itself… a cloud, a fire, a human being, a great Yogi, a statue, a mountain or a humble daisy… or …

Some find it easier to see THAT in motherly love, so they relate to That as the Mother;

- others find the heart rejoices at innocence or playfulness – so they find THAT in the child Krishna;

- others are attracted to the ephemeral nature of constant dissolution, they might feel drawn to Shiva.

- others look for authority to guide and protect, they find it in God the Father

-others again look for the organised transformation through the Dhyani Buddhas of Tibet etc. etc.

As in a hologram, each form contains the whole. Krishna reveals this in the Bhagavad Gita when the charioteer shows his cosmic form to Arjuna, or the Christ says: “I and the Father are One”. The Divine Consciousness is not limited to any form! Not even our idea of GOD!

Yoga is the union with the higher all-pervading conscious stratum - whatever we call it!

Thus Yoga is unthinkable without “God”, yet not necessarily the God that binds us to a form, a religion, or a philosophy, but the God of eternal freedom. We realise God – or we realise our true essence – there is no difference! Does Yoga need God? Yes and No!

Yoga is the method for returning to the divine essence that is ourselves, whether we call it God

THAT, the Absolute, Totality, Christ, Father, Krishna, Shiva or Yok as in Africa... or… or..! Yoga is the Union with THAT! Without THAT there is no Yoga. It is like when you practise the method of walking, you move. You cannot walk without moving.

Thus Yoga is the path and the goal of “how to know God.”

Ohm Tat Sat

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