There is an inherent set of beliefs associated with yoga. Like any science, yogic science assumes certain truths and then has structured practices that support those assumptions. The practices are based on thousands of years of experimentation so in many ways they have passed the most rigorous of clinical trials.
For modern yoga in the Western world, some of these beliefs and practices are more palatable than others. Perhaps that is why asana is so popular, while taking on a spiritual name, a vegetarian diet, fasting, a meditation practice, mantra recitation and devotion to a guru has more limited appeal.
Is it necessary to hold any certain beliefs to practise yoga? What do yoga teachers around the world believe? Do all yoga paths share the same assumed truths or beliefs?
It seems there is a wide diversity of ideas about the belief system inherent in the practice of yoga. Some teachers, like Swami Maheshwarananda, feel that everyone who practises yoga will inevitably be led to the deeper aspect of the psycho-spiritual self and hence spiritual liberation will become the goal even if it does not start out that way. Others feel that yoga is a set of techniques for improving wellness in body and mind, but will maintain that "belief" is entirely personal and not linked to the practices of yoga.
Adherents of religious disciplines sometimes advise their communities to avoid yoga as it has been linked to the belief system of the Hindu religion. It seems there's a lot of contention around the beliefs of various yoga lineages. A common refrain is that many people object to the spiritual component of yoga because they believe it is somehow religious.
The first thing that needs clarification is the difference between religion and spirituality and it can get a little blurry. Essentially, spirituality refers to the human inclination to seek to understand the non-physical aspect of one's self and others. Religion refers to a specific doctrine or organisation that teaches a prescribed path for people to get in touch with spirituality.
History has been littered with religious wars and it is still a topic that can rapidly divide otherwise like minded people. One fear that religious traditions have about the burgeoning popularity of yoga is that it is a "new age" mystical movement, akin to occultism and therefore against their beliefs. This could not be further from the truth - yoga is the opposite of "new age"; in fact, it is older than many currently active religions. The Indus valley in modern day Pakistan contains evidence of yoga practices dated at 5000 years old. Some yoga scholars even claim the ancient science is more than 10,000 years old.
The main argument Western theologians make is that yoga is part of the Hindu religion and therefore not appropriate for non-Hindus. Hinduism is one of a number of religions with aspects of yogic philosophy. Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism also share some common threads with yoga.
Yet yoga is not Hinduism and Hinduism is not yoga. One is a religion which one must be born into to claim as one's own; the other is a system of practices and philosophy open to anyone who chooses to take it up.
But it is understandable that the lines become blurred when Western yoga studios are filled with statues and paintings of Hindu gods and goddesses such as Ganesha, Sarasvati and Krishna. Equally confusing may be the Buddhist iconography which is commonly associated with yoga and spirituality.
As yoga spreads rapidly in the 21st century, it is being blended with many other belief systems to make the many fusion brands available. Joseph Pilates, a dancer who developed the techniques of rehabilitation and training now known as Pilates, was clearly influenced by yoga asana practice and possibly pranayama (control of energy through breathing techniques), but used only English terminology and did not veer into philosophy. As such, Pilates is considered just physical exercise by most, although proponents will emphasise the mental clarity it brings and the focus it requires to be most effective. It is then a "non-spiritual" exercise system suitable for everyone including for those who object to the "beliefs" of yoga.
Which presents another dilemma: Is it possible to practise purely physical yoga? Would it still be yoga or more like gymnastics or callisthenics? Certainly, some styles of yoga place greater emphasis on the physical postures than others. The most common umbrella term for yoga in the Western world is "hatha yoga". Based on the text Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the later teachings of Patanjali, the traditional interpretation of hatha yoga means it would not be possible to focus only on the body and still be practising hatha yoga. In fact, a purely physical focus goes against the primary teachings of yoga.
This is one of those major clashes in belief system that we might just have to agree to disagree on: Christians believe Jesus died and was reborn (resurrection is considered an important theological miracle), but generally do not accept reincarnation for all beings or even just human beings. Of course, there will be some who take it all without discrimination, but those who present themselves as authorities in Christianity tend not to accept reincarnation.
So does hatha yoga include reincarnation? Essentially, yes it does. The practices of yoga are designed to make the body a healthful vehicle for this lifetime, but more importantly to develop the individual soul over many lifetimes. Where does that leave yoga fans who aren't so sure about other lifetimes?
Belief is not essential for yoga practice. Most general classes have only a little chanting, maybe some guided meditation and a small number of teachers will even mention the subtle anatomy or other esoteric aspects of yoga philosophy.
If you believe in the academic process of research then evidence-based practices are likely to be the most acceptable to you. Some of these well researched and proven yogic techniques have secular appeal. The practice of mindfulness meditation is a good example. Lead researcher Jon Kabat-Zinn has published books, articles and runs training courses in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction internationally. The practices include gentle hatha yoga postures practised with full awareness and mindful breathing. Kabat-Zinn acknowledges the essentially yogic and Buddhist origins of his MBSR technique, but has managed to present it to the academic world and lay people as a secular practice, suitable for everyone regardless of beliefs.
Popular US publication Yoga Journal's online community has been engaging in spirited debate on the topic of religious belief and yoga recently. They say, "Ever since Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, spoke out against Christians doing yoga, the blogosphere has gone wild. If you haven't heard about it yet, the story revolves around an article on Mohler's website, where he wrote: 'When Christians practice yoga, they must either deny the reality of what yoga represents or fail to see the contradictions between their Christian commitments and their embrace of yoga.'"
The ensuing discussion posts include some readers who happily embrace the contradictions between their religion and yoga, others who see no contradiction at all and a few who manage to practise yoga as physical exercise alone. By far the most common response, however, (and this may be because they are on the Yoga Journal website) is that yoga postures feel prayerful, uplifting and allow them to feel closer to their own idea of God. The Yoga Journal readers then ask each other, 'What's wrong with that?'
Paramahansa Swami Maheshwarananda is due to visit Australia this April as a keynote speaker at Yoga Australia's National Teachers Conference. He is best known for establishing Yoga in Daily Life organisations around the world including Europe, the US and Australia.
Swamiji believes that yoga practice awakens our spirituality. The essence of Yoga in Daily Life is not about committing to a physical practice, but about living and breathing the values of yoga in every aspect of life. Like many traditional Indian teachers, Swamiji is not teaching asana, he is focused on meditation, the philosophy of yoga, passing on the wisdom of his teachers and encouraging good works in the community from a yogic base.
It seems clear enough that yoga does have inherent beliefs attached to it. Many positive things stem from strong and well developed, time tested belief systems. The danger is when two belief systems clash and people find themselves taking sides. Intolerance, even war, can result. The opposite of Vedanta or non-dualism, an "us versus them" mentality, creates tension for individuals and between groups. This is an attitude yogis need to be mindful of, to avoid the traps of exclusivity and the accusation of cult like behaviour sometimes levelled at them.
If people really take the beliefs of yoga to heart they will find that living with moral and ethical precepts, self observation and kindness are common to almost every manifested belief system including the main religions of the modern era. What may differ is in the details of cosmology, belief around topics such as reincarnation and the concept of God.
So perhaps yoga teachers and devoted students should practise sensitivity in how they present the teachings they wish to share. Ensure that the language used is as universal as possible, know your students or audience and their attitudes, and attempt to share in an unbiased way.
For example, stating that the chakra system is an indisputable fact may be how it feels to someone who perceives the chakras directly, but this is unlikely to be the case for many students of yoga. Instead, a sensitive teacher or practitioner could present information in the form of a theory, something interested listeners may like to look into but not an absolute, inarguable truth. Because the truth can only be found in the practice and that is something all the paths of belief would agree on.
Chandrika Gibson ND is a holistic yoga teacher and naturopath