Yoga teachers and classes are available almost everywhere in the world now and the practice of yoga is encouraged by health practitioners for their patients as part of a regimen to improve and maintain well being. Different types of yoga classes are available in senior centers, gyms, community centers, and in religious institutions. Yoga is popular in countries with a majority Christian population and is very popular in Israel which has a majority Jewish population. The popularization of yoga has led to adaptations to fit certain populations such as the elderly, children, and the disabled.
But what do we know about the roots of yoga and its spiritual beginnings? Yoga is practiced by those of all faiths and some people see it as part of spiritual, as well as physical, health. At one time, yoga was looked at as solely a practice to be undertaken by those who followed eastern or Asian based religions such as Buddhism or Hinduism, but now is considered as mainstream as aerobics or running.
There are many different types of yoga and practices vary widely, as do the theories on the spiritual applications and whether yoga is a contradiction for those who are believers in faiths such as Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. Since the mainstreaming of what was seen solely as a spiritual practice among Hindus, yoga being offered in many of the above mentioned settings may look quite different from its origins.
References to yoga are included in the Bhagavad Gita, which dates back to the 3rd to 6th century BCE in India, in which Krishna speaks of four types of yoga. Krishna, a Hindu god, is believed to be the 8th incarnation of the god Vishnu. Vishnu is believed to be one of three Hindu deities responsible for the creation of the world. Early Hindu writings on yoga are voluminous and scholars, as well as yogis (yoga teachers at a high level), look to these writings to learn about the roots of yoga and its varied forms of practice, which can be four or five in number depending on the particular text being studied. Asana, one of the practices, is considered the physical practice of yoga, as opposed to the spiritual, and is closest to modern yoga’s interpretations. Following is a description of asana yoga, which might sound familiar to modern yoga students:
“Now comes Asana, posture. Until you can get a firm seat you cannot practise the breathing and other exercises. Firmness of seat means that you do not feel the body at all. In the ordinary way, you will find that as soon as you sit for a few minutes all sorts of disturbances come into the body; but when you have got beyond the idea of a concrete body, you will lose all sense of the body…When you have succeeded in conquering the body and keeping it firm, your practice will remain firm, but while you are disturbed by the body, your nerves become disturbed, and you cannot concentrate the mind.” – Swami Vivekananda
The roots of yoga in Hinduism date back to almost the creation of the faith and the connection to Hinduism spiritual discipline is clear. Although yoga may pre-date the Vedic period in India (1500-500BCE), during this period a bedrock of Sanskrit writings led to the growth of yoga as part of Hinduism. But does that mean that yoga, as practiced today, is a form of Hinduism?
Before we know the answer, we have to look at Buddhism and Jainism also. Vedic yoga traces its origins to Hinduism as described above, although it is not the only yoga tradition. Both Buddhism and Jainism have rich yoga traditions, sometimes referred to as Hatha yoga which is also familiar to western practitioners. It is believed that all three yogic traditions are the basis of Hatha or Tantric yoga which, whether practiced as they were in ancient times or not, are often included in modern practice.
This presents a dilemma for those who are interested in yoga as part of their physical wellbeing, but are concerned that its root in Eastern faiths, especially Hinduism, is in conflict with their religious beliefs. In some Christian groups, there is an active movement to educate Christians about yoga’s Hindu roots in an effort to discourage Christians from practicing yoga in any form. Although this is not widespread, it is evidence that the concern is one that faces those looking for a way to improve their physical or mental health.
This same issue is raised among those who practice meditation, especially Zen which is based in Buddhism, or Transcendental which was founded by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Meditation, however, has also become mainstreamed and is often, as with yoga, suggested by health professionals to their patients to improve their wellbeing. There are Christian and Jewish meditation modalities that include the prayer traditions of each of those faiths, which makes meditation less controversial than yoga for people of faiths other than eastern based religions. And, the issue of faith among adherents has risen regarding Tai Chi, which is based in Taoism, which is less a religion than a philosophy of spiritual and physical balance. That the question of yoga and Hinduism is more often a point of discussion is most likely due to its more popular acceptance in the west than either meditation or Tai Chi. As the world grew smaller due to the growth of the Internet, we have more cross cultural connections that create questions such as the one we are addressing here.
Therefore, the answer to the question posed is that yoga as practiced today in the west may not be specifically a form of Hinduism, but might include aspects of the Hindu belief system and is surely based on ancient Hindu texts. As with the adoption of any personal growth program based on spiritual teachings, each individual has to explore their own faith and reconcile their concerns in a way that does not compromise their basic belief system.