“Yoga cannot open people’s hearts to God” says Pope Francis. There seems to be some confusion, which cannot be ignored.
Is yoga a religion? Is it contrary to my Christian faith? Does the word God even feature in yoga classes?
Lets be clear! Yoga is a philosophy, a science of well-being, pre-dating Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism (and definitely Christianity!) and deeply influencing them all. Yoga has existed and flourished for thousands of years (maybe 7000). However, in no text or system does yoga require you to have a belief or faith. Rather, it is a system, a science of well being, very different from religions, since yoga incorporates practical applications on how we exercise, breathe, think, relax and eat.
The definition of religion is one of faith and ritual. Yoga, however, is about experience and practise.
For many Christians, particularly Catholics, mentioning controlling the mind can be a massive trigger. Many parents are scared that the yoga will “control the mind” of their child. We could, instead, talk of calming or stilling the mind, in order for it to be more positive and focussed.
The chanting and closing the eyes, as well as the anjali mudra (hands together in prayer) look a lot like prayer and other spiritual practises, and can be confused with religious ritual.
The numinous experience in the West is often only experienced in the hush of a chapel or church, which is why there is a confusion between religion and spirituality. For many, the beauty of nature, astounding music, an evening with a friend, or a yoga class may bring about the same feeling – which is what we call loosely – spirituality.
SO, yes, yoga can be a spiritual experience, as apart from a religious one, which requires faith and ritual and above all – exclusion of other religions, often labelled as simply “wrong”.
One of the first principles of yogic living is non-harming and the concept of yoga in itself is oneness, or unity in everything. These principles can be found clearly outlined in Christianity, “Me and my father are one” – “love thy neighbour as thyself”
There are more similarities than differences between yoga philosophy and Christianity. For those interested in taking this further, I recommend a wonderful book – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sermon-Mount-According-Vedanta/dp/0874810507, which looks at all of Jesus’ teachings in relation to yoga.
Many historians and Christians have unearthed strong evidence that Jesus in fact, spent some time in India, learning yogic philosophy and practises, which underpins many of his main teachings, to which any of us who have studied the Philosophy of yoga can testify.