tl;dr: No, it’s not.
Most of us know by now that yoga is more than the postures (also called asanas), but what is it, really? We bring our hands in prayers and salute each other with “namaste”, we perform Surya Namaskar, which is a salutation to the Sun God, we use words in Sanskrit, the language of the sacred texts… It makes sense to wonder if there is a connection to Hinduism. And if we have a different faith ourselves, if it is somehow wrong to practice yoga.
Well, it is a vast question that I’m clearly underqualified to answer thoroughly. I’m going to give you my current understanding though, and you are welcome to give me yours!
Yoga isn’t a religion, it’s a philosophy.
But just like other philosophies, it wasn’t born in a vacuum. Classical yoga was created over 2000 years ago in India and stems from the Hindu tradition. In the same way that western philosophers have integrated elements of Christianity into their works, the yogic philosophy integrates the view of the world that was predominant in India at the time.
With that said, there are many different forms of yoga and some forms have a lot more religious accents than others. Bhakti yoga, for example, is all about devotion to a god through prayers, chanting and meditating. In the west, we mostly practice Hatha yoga, which focuses on the physical practice. Some yogis choose to include more spiritual elements in their practice, others prefer to stay away from any mention of cosmic energy and the divine.
In the US, a Christian woman invented a kind of “Christian yoga”. She renamed all the postures, and recites a verse from the Bible when she performs them. Of course, she trademarked it. In Iran, a country under the sharia law, yoga has managed to flourish because it is practiced without any element of spirituality. I think it’s even officially classed as a sport, and they have removed any kind of ambiguity about it.
In my opinion, this tells more about the insecurity they are feeling in their faith, than it does about yoga. Can a pose be religious without the intent? If I kneel in Child’s pose, am I just kneeling and enjoying a relaxing stretch or am I praying? It depends on my intention.
I personally don’t include a lot of spirituality in my practice and teaching, but I find the philosophical aspects of the practice very interesting and I respect where it comes from.
In the next posts, I’ll try to explain some aspects of the yoga philosophy. I hope you’ll enjoy it :)