Are yoga studios the new churches of the future?
There’s no doubt that the sense of well-being one gets on a visceral level from either attending church or practicing yoga, could mean that the less rigid or controversial way to connect with one’s deep being might be on the non-denominational altar of asana.
However, I suggest that mixing the two is not the best idea.
In a chapter of his book, God Is Not Great, the late Christopher Hitchens—known for his intellectualism and religious irreverence—answers a hypothetical question: If he were alone in an unfamiliar city at night and a group of strangers began to approach him, would he feel safer or less safe knowing that these men had just come from a prayer meeting?
Hitchens answers, “Just to stay within the letter ‘B’, I have actually had that experience in Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem and Baghdad. In each case, I would feel immediately threatened if I thought that the group of men approaching me in the dusk were coming from a religious observance.”
He gives detailed descriptions of the varied social and political tensions within these cities, which he personally attributes to religion. He has thus “not found it a prudent rule to seek help as the prayer meeting breaks up.”
It’s a sobering point.
It’s also best not to seek out the help of religion when it comes to a yoga practice.
Yoga and religion don’t mix. Except they do.
Some zealots will do their best to link their religious beliefs with their yoga practice—and then yours.
Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.
Yoga is about freeing the body and mind, not institutionalizing them. I fear that religion is just too formal a construct to complement a yoga practice. Yoga is conducive to creating universal acceptance of all who live on this earth, not just a select million or two based on specified (sometimes dictated) beliefs.
I am not taking a stance against religion, let’s be clear. There are many who use their religion of choice as a personal beacon to guide them through life, and when they do so without the need to enlist others—all the while maintaining their individual integrity and honoring the religion that resonates for them—I have no doubt that it can be a useful tool for faith.
Many benefit from their religious choices, but some will argue that yoga takes its roots from religious principles and doctrines.
There are many assertions regarding the origin of yoga, but despite a self-serving attempt in recent years by The American Hindu Foundation to lay its claim on yoga and give it a religious moniker, attaching religion to yoga has been seen as a futile endeavor.
Besides, even if a sensible jury found yoga guilty of mixing carelessly with religion, the decision can be overturned. By you.
It will not behoove you physically, mentally or spiritually to mix religion with yoga. Red bull and vodka is a safer mix. It’s like putting Mozart and Kenny G. in the same room. It’s just not advisable, necessary or productive. Only dissonance will ensue.
Yoga is a spiritual practice, not a religious one.
Believe what you believe, but in order to start or maintain a lucid, beneficial yoga practice, the complexities and inherent controversies surrounding religion could easily handicap the healing potentialities of a yoga practice.
The unfortunate reality is this: On the best of days, religion remains partially synonymous with war, violence, hate and intolerance in the world. It’s not the tainted backdrop we want to look at it when we practice yoga in front of a mirror.
Therefore, as part of our yoga exorcism—and our quest to expel all impurities from the word and infuse it with a raw simplicity—it’s important to ask religion if it will politely leave the room.
If you’re a religious person, there’s no need to feel offended. If you are, let’s hope we don’t run into each other on the street at the end of one of your prayer meetings.
Here is my prayer: That you understand that I am not attacking your religion, but merely suggesting that yoga and religion remain uncompromisingly autonomous; a distinction that will only serve you, your yoga practice and perhaps even your religion.
By Paul McQuillan
(a partial excerpt from “I Hate Yoga—And Why You’ll Hate To Love It Too”
Morgan James Publishing, New York, 2015