While visiting my in-laws for Christmas I was taking a yoga class in Dallas, TX. Nice place, good teachers and close by. My first class there was great. It was a Vinyasa flow with lots excellent transitions, a tough work out and a little quirkiness thrown in for good measure. At the end after savasana, the teacher simply said ‘a thanks for coming by I’ll be outside if you have any questions,’ hopped up and left.
I’m not a huge chanter, but after an invigorating workout and a good savasana, I like an OM thrown in. It helps me wrap up the integration phase of the class. But not that day. I stretched a little more, took my time and wandered out to the front desk. I started chatting with the teacher and during the conversation I asked why no OM at the end of the class. She looked like a chanter (for those that have been going to classes for some time, you’ll know what I mean).
She explained that in that section of Dallas, the studios wrote into the teacher contracts that there would be no chanting. The studios were afraid of backlash from the very influential churches labeling the yoga studios as a place of false worship and urging the parishioners to no longer go to classes there. It’s Dallas, and that is a very plausible scenario. The churches hold an incredible amount of sway and I’ve seen firsthand how the bishop/minister/preacher can speak for or against something in the community and how the impact of that can make or break an organization.
So I did some exploring. The good news is that not all studios have that restriction, and there are even some that are very chant/yoga/Namaste everything over the top to balance things out. The unfortunate side is that many of the schools close to where I was were strictly non-chanting.
This raises (yet again for many I’m sure) the question of is yoga a religion. Some believe it is and that it will lead you down the path of ruin. Yoga has roots in many religions and references deities, spirits, God and all sorts of other religious based topics. I don’t view yoga as a religion. I view it as a spiritual practice. For clarity, I will define the two as I use them.
Spiritual Practice – any physical or mental activity or action that align my mind, body and spirit in an attempt to bring me closer to harmony with the universe and all beings/things in it. This could be my morning cup of tea, it could be a yoga practice, it could be a Tae Kwon Do class, helping at a soup kitchen or meditation, among other things.
Religion – following a prescribed set of practices, physical and/or mental, with the intent of following a specific set of guidelines as proscribed by a particular deity or deities. This could also be done to bring the practitioner closer to said deity or deities. This would be Mass, Communion, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, Baptism, Naming Ceremonies and more.
I believe yoga is spiritual and can be used to support any religion. In my brief research, there doesn’t appear to be a specific deity or religion that “owns” yoga or claims to be its sole root uncontested. Ganesha, Buddha, Shiva, Brahma and the like are referenced in various styles yoga, but none of them are the total focus.
When I was going through my yoga teacher training, one of the guest teachers led sadhana (morning practice before the class work started) and spent the entire time referencing Jesus and God. Instead of using the name of Brahma when referencing creation, he referenced God. This theme was so prevalent that the end of class was closed with Amen instead of OM. Linda Johnsen wrote an interesting piece comparing the similarities of yoga and Christianity.
I’m not a religious person. Too many rules and too much reliance on how others interpret what someone else may or may not have said (think the Telephone game but after thousands of years). My opinion, try the yoga class. There is no requirement to chant; you can just sit there quietly as I have done many times.
If it just doesn’t feel right, don’t go back. But if it does feel right, if it does feel like a step closer to your religious beliefs, why not keep going. For the guest teacher, yoga is a part of his religious practice. He uses the physical postures in it to bring himself closer to the teachings of God and Jesus. They have Catholic Calisthenics after all.
Whether the class uses Buddhist references and mantras, Catholic ones, Jewish, Hindu, Islamic or some other, I believe yoga is a spiritual practice that can be used to support any religion. If a spiritual practice is available and it brings you closer to your religious beliefs, is that a bad thing? More importantly, if it can be used by one religion for support, does that mean it can’t be used by other religions?