Buddha statues, Sanskrit chanting, ancient spiritual texts - is yoga in any way 'religious?'

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Parishioners in Blaenporth, mid-Wales have made a stand for yoga this week, boycotting their local church after it said 'no-maste' (thank you, The Sun headline writers) to holding yoga classes in its new community centre.

Why the yoga ban? According to a  Church in Wales spokesman, the PCC [Parochial Church Council] is "keen to broaden the use of St David's Church", but it will continue to be a place of Christian worship. "Therefore, it is felt that activities that might be seen to be in conflict with Christian values and belief would not be appropriate." Pilates welcome, yoga no-go.

The fact that members of the local community have been so vocal in favour of yoga shows just how popular this 4000-year-old practice has become (it took its time!). People love it because it helps them become strong, flexible and balanced in body and mind. With anxiety and mental illness now affecting one in four of the UK population, it seems we need yoga more than ever. It has helped me deal with major life events such as birth, bereavement, burnout as well as keeping me strong and relatively sane and better able to deal with whatever the day throws at me. I’ve always marvelled at its ability to do this - after all, it’s just moving and breathing. But it’s the breath which has the power to transform how we feel by calming or energising our nervous system. In my view it's something that everyone can benefit from - the perfect antidote to modern life.

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I’ve taught yoga and written about it over the years and the question of whether yoga is compatible with religion has often come up; I've debated it on occasian with friends who happen to be Christian. Some tell me they don’t do yoga because it sometimes alludes to deities such as Ganesh and Vishnu, which also to crop up in Hinduism (but that they love Pilates and mindfulness). Some do not see it as an issue. There's also the view that yoga is essentially an inward-looking philosophy rather than focusing on God.

I do see their point to an extent;  there are often statues of deities seemingly arranged in an altar-like fashion with candles and flowers in yoga centres. And if you are asked to chant in Sanskrit, for example, do you know what are you invoking exactly? In the book Everyone Try Yoga,   which I wrote in conjunction with London's Triyoga centre,  we aimed to answer some of the most common questions about yoga and religion, which I've summarised here.

Is yoga a religion?

Yoga is not a religion but a spiritual practice, a form of self-inquiry which grew out of many overlapping Indian philosophical traditions. It does not ask you to believe in anything outside of yourself and is compatible with all religions and none. There’s no umbrella body defining what yoga is these days, but the most well-thumbed text studied by yoga teachers and oft referenced in yoga class is the Yoga Sutras written by the Indian sage Patanjali around 200BC. He defines yoga simply as “the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind” - and which of us couldn’t do with help dialling down our thoughts a little?

What if I have my own religion?

You will find elements of yoga philosophy in Hinduism, but the practice itself is non-religious. Yoga is a way of creating time to connect with what you truly believe in beyond the patterns and conditioning of your upbringing or your social sphere. Yoga guru BKS Iyengar (one of the fathers of modern yoga who died in 2014) was quoted as saying: “Yoga is not a religion, but the practice of yoga can help one to better appreciate [one’s] own faith.”

What do all those statues mean?

You might see a dancing Shiva statue or a meditating Buddha surrounded by candles and flowers at the front of the class or your teacher might lead a chant to a specific deity such as Ganesh. None of this seeks to impose a set of beliefs, it’s a way of invoking the attributes that the energy and attributes that deity represents. Shiva, for example, is said to be the god of yoga in yoga lore and is often represented in his cosmic dance crushing ignorance surrounded by a ring of fire. Ganesh, the elephant diety is said to be the remover of obstacles. Lakshmi is the goddess of happiness and abundance and Buddha the enlightened sage and great meditator resonates calm and loving kindness.

Why all the chanting?

Chanting is usually done in Sanskrit, the ancient language of yoga and not all yoga styles incorporate it. Sound is an ancient yogic path called ‘nada yoga’ (as opposed to the yogic path we’re more familiar with which is 'hatha yoga', meaning all physical yoga). Sound can have a profound effect on the cells of body (witness the growing popularity of the gong bath!). As they resonate, they are bathed in a healing sound wave. There’s a yogic breathing practice called brahmari, or humming bee breath, which which makes a wonderful sound bath for the brain leaving it felling lighter and clearer (to try a humming exercise see here ).

Sound is a way of bypassing the conscious mind, of moving from thinking mode to feeling mode and creating a connection with the body. Repeating a phrase (mantra) or sound helps focus your mind on one point - and the fact that you are not chanting in English means that you are less likely to ‘go places’ in your mind with the words. However, if you are not comfortable with chanting, there’s nothing to say you have to do it, you could let the sound wash over you.

'Om' is not a word as such but a sound that is said to represent the whole universe which was created out of this sound. Om is often used in class to bring everyone together at the beginning in order to focus the mind and bring your attention inwards to your own practice. It's said that the most powerful part of this mantra is the stillness that follows afterwards.

'Namaste' is often used by teachers at the end of class and means 'I bow to you'. It is a way of saying thank you and is often accompanied by hands in prayer (anjali mudra) and a bow. Teachers may thank their students and vice versa for sharing their practice as well as ther own teachers and gurus.

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As yoga has become so hybridized over the years – we now have Yogabox and even Heavy Metal Yoga and Beer Yoga - it is moving further away from its spiritual origins, which some might lament, but others might say is democratising it. For those who are uncomfortable with religious forms of spirituality, yoga philosphy provides an alternative space for exploring life's big questions such as who am I and why I am I here?

In fact, one of the newest forms of yoga specifically doesn’t call itself yoga at all and is deliberately secular. Perhaps the PCC at St David’s might like to consider offering Inner Axis  at its new community centre. There's no Sanskrit, no chanting, no references to Indian culture or deities and silent meditation. It consists of poses which are a mixture of simple yoga forms (warrior 2, plank, down dog, lunges and a modified sun salutation) plus mindfulness and breath techniques, specifically aimed at a combatting the stresses of modern life. And with church attendances falling, it might just be a win-win situation.

Most people come to yoga because it makes them feel better. With a little self-care we might just be kinder to and more mindful of others and our environment. And who doesn't share those values?

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