Religious: relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity
Spiritual: of, relating to, consisting of, or affecting the spirit
( Websters Merriam online Dictionary)
The most recent addition of Yoga Journal magazine had an article with a few different yoga teachers/scholars discussing whether or not yoga IS religious, or spiritual; and if it IS, does it in any way have the power to offend or challenge those that are attached to particular religions. I think it’s just good to start off by noting that one of the women included in the article is a Christian yoga teacher. So those words can (and do) go together…more often than you think! But here’s my take, whatever that means…
So if the word “religious” means to devote yourself to an ultimate reality, or deity, then yoga can be as religious as you want it to be, depending on if you have a definition for yourself of what ultimate reality is, or who an ultimate deity is, IF you make some point in your yoga practicing to contemplate that reality. And yoga certainly does give us space to do that if we want to. The only requirement is perhaps, that there might be instances where there is a gathering of people in a yoga class that perhaps have nuances, or differing interpretations to who or what that ultimate reality is. But how would you know? With your eyes closed, and your hands at your heart, in prayer, or meditation, or peacefulness, or stillness, does it matter? And why?
Here’s the catch- even if you are religious, what are you doing about it? So many of us go through the motions of our ancestral religious upbringing, with a feeling of guilt, or obligation, or a lot of unanswered questions that don’t make sense that we never dare ask, or perhaps just a void, a going through the motions, another “to do.” And what good is that? Don’t get me wrong, many folks I know have a lot of beautiful, inspiring, conviction about and dedication to their religion, and they aren’t all from the same one either! But it seems to me, that the embodiment of that ultimate reality, is really where the human and the divine meet. Not just the idea of it. Not just the philosophy, or the doctrine, or the rules of it. For my Christian brothers and sisters, it’s the “What would Jesus Do” bracelet. It’s living that. Whatever that means, or is, right? Yoga is definitely a playground for that.
When we get into the word “spiritual,” that’s where I get excited: “relating to, consisting of, or affecting the spirit.” YES! Because what DOESN’T relate to, consist of, or affect our spirit? There’s a great quote from C.S. Lewis that goes something like this: “You don’t HAVE a soul. You ARE a soul. You HAVE a body.” So if we can agree that our spirit and our soul are the same thing, then we have come to the truth that the ultimate reality is within ourselves, right? You can call it the divine, or the mystery, or the science of evolution, or whatever. But there it is. The spirit/soul is WHO we are. And so, whether we believe we came from the breath of the divine, or Adam’s rib, or (…enter your creation story here), we might agree that we are the living embodiment of that divine; that our very animations are the signs of our souls, of our spirits. So when we become animated in yoga practice, through movement, through stillness, through self reflection, we are able to get closer to that knowledge of ourselves, and therefore closer to the ultimate reality. And it makes us better people. Kinder. More patient. More loving. More forgiving. Stronger. More disciplined, but in ways that serve us. More energetic. More useful. More generous. And yet always enough.
This is why I’m a yoga teacher. Because I see that in you. I see your soul, your spirit, and for some reason I’ve got this crazy dream that I can’t shake telling me that I might remind you of it. By helping you remember your breath, by helping you remember how to love your body, by helping you remember how to move, how to laugh, how to cry, how to hold on for dear life, and how to let go.
Asking the question if yoga is religious, or spiritual, maybe seems a bit silly to me, because what isn’t spiritual? And though some of our religions wish to be the only religion (we’ll save my opinions on that for another day), along the way, don’t all our religions encourage us to love and accept all people? Are we all “God’s” children or not? Are we all “forgiven” or not? Let’s get over the semantics, and relax our brains and our hearts, and love each other, and breathe together and move together, and create a better world together. That’s what our souls want. That’s why we have them. Om. Amen. Hallelujah. and good night!