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September 2010 Is Yoga a Religion?

Dear Yoga Friends,

As a Jewish man and a practitioner of yoga, I frequently work with the relationship between the two systems. Since childhood I have been uncomfortable classifying myself as religious or following a belief. I felt confined by expectations on me to act or believe in a particular way. This of course intensified during my adolescence. Somewhat ironically, I became obsessed with Iyengar yoga, a system in which the teacher conveys detailed instructions aimed at every part of the body - skin, muscles, bones, organs - as well as physiological processes like breathing and circulation.

Religion can sometimes give rise to a kind of mob psychology, an us vs. them mindset. Since the crusades and before, this has caused immense suffering and can be seen today in the many conflicts around the world. But the conflicts originate not any particular methodology, ritual, or belief system, but in our fears. We might feel threatened that if someone else has a different approach, that it somehow makes us wrong or lesser-than.

Yoga has resolved this for me by providing an all-encompassing personal path. The practice of astanga yoga, the eight-limbed path of Patanjali, comprises morality, personal discipline, physical health and conditioning, mental health, control of the breath and its vital energy, reigning in the senses, meditation, and connection to something larger than ourselves. A lot to take on, but what more could you ask for? :-)

Though yoga has close ties to Hinduism, with its rich practices, observances, holidays, and folklore, one can obviously practice yoga without being a Hindu. But the exquisite personal path of yoga has not, in my experience, provided a robust community path with context and support for family, lifecycle events, and the rhythm of the seasons. It is in this arena where I look to Judaism, not because of any sense of it being right or wrong, but because I grew up with it and understand it. So for me, the inner personal quest is a walk on the path of yoga, but the yoga path does not fully address my need for community. So there is a need to further integrate. This is just my personal experience so far.

I welcome your perspectives on this and any other yoga topics.



Chad Balch