Currently, there is a question as to whether the practice of yoga is inherently religious as the Government of India under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi prepares to celebrate the world’s first International Day of Yoga on June 21.
The confusion concerning the relationship between yoga and religion stems from taking yoga to mean “union” (yujir yoge) as described in many Sanskrit texts, and particularly as union with the Divine. However, none of these texts are the final word on yoga. The ultimate classical text on yoga the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, authored around two thousand years ago says, do not take the term “yoga” to mean union. Instead, derive it from a second Sanskrit root (yuja samadhau), meaning “focus or steady the mind.”
A steady and peaceful mind is not optional
Long ago, a poor man went into the forest alone and sat under a tree. He didn’t know that he was sitting under a tree that fulfilled wishes. The man casually wished for a thousand gold coins. Suddenly, the coins appeared. The man’s surprise and happiness were quickly replaced by fear and worry. He was alone in the forest with a treasure and was therefore easy prey for thieves who would want to steal the treasure. And, sure enough, thieves did come and steal the man’s coins.
The point of this story is: We may wish to dwell only in our pleasant moments, but we cannot, because our mind is not under our control. Pleasant thoughts morph into unpleasant ones all on their own. Conversely, when we have unhappy thoughts, we want to change them to happy thoughts. But again, our mind is not at our command: we are unable to leave the unpleasant thought behind and take our mind elsewhere.
In short, we are unable to take away our mind from what we don’t want, nor are we able to keep it on what we want. After all, it is through our mind that we experience any situation. Logically, our most desirable and foremost goal should be the ability to control our state of mind, our thought process.
Everyone needs steadiness of the mind. Without steadying our mind we cannot accomplish our goals in this world, and let alone, reach our spiritual goals.
Yoga is neither for nor against the Divine
Classical yoga is not dogmatic about the inclusion or exclusion of God or the Divine in the practice. Indeed, most of the practices of yoga make no reference to this topic, one way or the other. The Divine finds a place in Yoga, not as a compulsion, but as an option.
Asanas and pranayama are basically moving and breathing with mindfulness in a way that helps promote the health of the individual. There is nothing intrinsically theistic or atheistic about them; they are just health practices.
The Yogasutras suggest devotion as one option within a yoga practice to keep the mind focused and peaceful. But there is no requirement in yoga that the person believe in a Divine entity, or adopt a theory or doctrine of divinity.
As yoga views it, belief in the Divine is one’s personal choice, but a steady and peaceful mind is essential for a balanced and successful life. The eight limbs of yoga as described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is the means to a steady and peaceful mind.
A. G. Mohan, longtime disciple of the legendary yogi Sri T. Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), is an internationally renowned yoga teacher and author of Yoga for Body, Breath, and Mind (1993, Rudra Press, USA), Yoga Therapy (2004, Shambhala Publications, USA), Krishnamacharya: His Life and Teachings (2010, Shambhala Publications, USA) and Yoga Reminder (2015).