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Is yoga a religion? In fact, the first time I heard of it when I was a in middle school, I thought that it was.
The ritualistic nature of chanting “om” and the closure with “namaste” as well as some of the symbols associated with yoga leads people to believe that yoga is religious.
It can be very off-putting for many, from the very secular to, especially, those who are devout in their own religion.
The answer to the question is this: While yoga began as a “religious” practice, the history of yoga proves an evolution of diverging paths. Therefore, yoga is a very spiritual practice AND it isn’t.
Hatha yoga is what most in the West practice. So most people in the West do not consider it a religion and practice yoga in conjunction with their own belief system.
I personally know Christian, Jewish, and Islamic yogis. Many of the teachings of yoga are very compatible with all religions, although one does not need to follow them to practice asana (the poses).
The Origins of Yoga
Allow me to explain and give a little historical context. All yoga began with Raja yoga (royal yoga).
Yoga as Religion
The concept of “yoga” was first conceived of as philosophy and meditation set forth by the Vedas (1500 BCE) but without the theocracy and organization of religion we see today.
The the songs or poems of the Vedas tell stories about gods and goddesses of early Vedic “religion” (and now Hinduism) which guide humans in their connection of body and spirit. These stories are mostly considered as mythology as opposed to actual historical accounts.
Later on, yoga was written about in the Upanishads (1500 BCE). They describe the traditional yogic subtle body and explain prana (life force, or energy) as well as examining breath-work. The concept of “asana” or the physical poses was not written about until about 150 BCE by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras.
The 8 Limbs of Yoga
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali outlines the “Eight Limbs of Yoga.” In it, he outlines the philosophies by which a yogi should live, and in their strictest definitions, are highly religious and self-depriving.
The eight limbs are: Yamas, Niyamas, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi.
These 8 limbs are still taught as part of yoga today, however with a much looser interpretation influenced by tantric teachings (which I’ll discuss later).
The original idea of the 8 limbs is to practice them in order, not moving onto the next until the first is mastered with each limb building on the last. This is the traditional practice of “raja yoga.”
The Yamas are a set of guidelines in how to treat others around you. The ideas of non-violence, of not stealing, of celebacy, and of non-greed are outlined in the yamas. The idea that a yogi should retreat from the world and live alone stems from this limb.
The Niyamas guide how you should treat your body and yourself. They talk of letting go of desires, of being content with what you have, of not pursuing self-satisfaction, of self-study and that ultimately, you should surrender yourself to your god.
The only thing that he says about asana is that the practice should be characterized by sthira and sukham (stability and ease).
Pranayama is the practice of controlled breathing, of which there are many types. The purpose to controlling the breath is to further enhance this feeling of sthira and sukham. It is the vehicle for meditation.
Pratayahara is to draw inward, essentially becoming untroubled by outside stimuli. It is to help still the mind, to relieve the mind of its “chitta vritti nirodha,” the tendency for the mind to prattle on and wander. To do this is to allow oneself to simply observe without judgement. The sounds, sights, and smells of the environment simply exist and the mind does not react.
Dharana is a focused concentration achieved through the practice of pranayama and pratayahara. Continued dharana becomes dhyana- the oneness of body-breath-mind. This state of being leads one to the state of Samadhi- pure bliss.
The strictures of these teachings made yoga accessible only to a small sector of people.
So, is yoga a religion? It would seem so…
Influence of Tantra
Later on, around the first century CE, the movement of Tantra emerged. It was markedly different from previous teachings in that it taught the concept of oneness of the whole universe- the idea that all things are connected, are part of the divine spirit.
It introduced the notion that one can find the divine in anything, in any experience; that it’s OK to have desire, to want to experience life and that these experiences and true happiness are not mutually exclusive. 
Yoga has taken on this teaching in the way that most people practice today, as in the concept of mindfulness. It is the idea that one does not need to “transcend” the everyday to connect to the spirit and therefore, it is within anyone’s grasp.
One need not sequester oneself in a cave somewhere to experience bliss.
With Tantra, the 8 limbs of yoga have been re-defined, especially those pertaining to the so-called “impure” experiences of intimate physical relationships and surrendering yourself to a god.
Instead, tantra celebrates experiences of intimacy and expands the surrender of oneself to a god to being one with something greater than oneself- in essence, the universe.
So if the ancient practices of yoga was one of philosophy and spirituality, where does Downward Dog come in?
Hatha yoga is the umbrella term for all physical asana practice including, but not limited to: Ashtanga, Bikram, Vinyasa, Anusara, Iyengar, etc.
The first major work describing specific asanas wasn’t published until the 1300’s in India- the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. Thousands of years after yoga began.
It stated that there are 84 asanas, but only described 15. The next text to examine asana was published some 100-200 years later, and only described 4. Yet another text claims that there are 8,400,000 asanas, although it only described 32. 
The conclusion to be drawn from this is that yoga is a practice, and not a perfect form (hence the phrase I use often, “it’s called a yoga practice not a yoga perfect“). This is also the reason that if you look up a yoga pose by name, you’ll often find several different interpretations of what that pose is.
In these texts, the Tantric concepts of divinity and spirituality were more thoroughly explored, tying the physical practice of yoga to one’s personal spirituality in real life rather than to religious ideals.
In this aim, the practice of asana is to improve the function of the body. It emphasizes the necessity of achieving stability and ease. Not a specific “perfect” pose.
Only once the yogi is able to be at ease in a pose, can he or she concentrate on the breath. When those combine, the full purpose of asana, to purify the body, allowing prana (energy) to move more freely is at hand. 
Therefore, the physical practice of yoga comes before the meditative. Think about it. You can certainly meditate for long periods of time more easily if your body is strong and at ease.
Modernization of Yoga
Diverging from the religious self-denial toward our modern notion of Hatha yoga, yoga has gone through an evolution over the millenia, but none more so than within the last century or so when it moved into the West.
There is a great deal of historical influences that changed Hatha Yoga on its journey from the other side of the world, from British Imperialism to American Transcendentalism. Influential teachers of yoga traveled to America including B. K. S. Iyengar. Yoga took hold in Hollywood and the media ate up the rich and the famous doing yoga.
Yoga is not a Religion
I’m sure that you can see where this is going. Whatever the stars are doing becomes the new “in” thing and everyone wants to add their take on yoga. Creativity in yogic practice began to flourish, leaving behind the structured origins, as yoga became “Americanized.”
As happens with most things that become “Americanized,” yoga began to less and less resemble its origins as people made it their own.
In the 1950’s, a fitness craze took over the nation (think Jack LaLanne) and the ubiquitous television gave yoga an expanded audience. It even became a main component of athletic training with publications such as Yoga and Sport by Baron Baptiste. 
This is how mainstream yoga became only the practice of asana, stripping it from its spiritual roots. It’s the reason why you’ll so often find things like pranayama and meditation lacking in modern yoga classes, especially in the “gymosphere.”
That doesn’t mean that the spirituality of yoga went by the wayside. Those practices continued on in many yoga traditions concurrently with popular yoga.
And as American culture becomes more accepting of alternate views, the spiritual side of yoga has gained more popularity in recent years.
So we come full circle to my original statement. Your own personal practice of yoga is whatever you want it to be. If you want it to, it can lead you on pathways of spiritual realization. Or you just practice asana and reap the physical benefits. Yogi’s choice.
1. Mark Stephens. Teaching Yoga: Essential Foundations and Techniques (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2010), 13.
2. Stephens. Teaching Yoga, 16-19.
3. Stephens. Teaching Yoga, 18.
4. Stephens. Teaching Yoga, 25.