Does practicing Yoga imply a religious commitment? Is it non-Christian? The question comes up often, and most answers are a simple “No.” Here’s my teacher’s take on it.

While I also believe that practicing Yoga does not make you a Hindu, things are a bit more complicated, and I think people should be informed when they make their decisions.

A lot of what I explain here comes from a book I love and recommend, Yoga for Your Type: An Ayurvedic Approach to your Asana Practice.

Yoga is a complete system of spiritual development, and its ultimate purpose is self-realization, defined as union with the Divine. The Divine, however, is up to you to define or choose.

The physical part is one of eight parts of the Yoga system. Yoga includes a system of values, prescriptions for behavior (do not lie, do not steal – sound familiar?), as well as other practices such as breath work and meditation. Learn about about the eight limbs and the associated values here.

The values, techniques and Yoga postures emerged from the Hindu belief system. Even in India, Yoga is separate from Hindu religious practice, but that is where it originates from. This does not mean that practicing Yoga postures or even more advanced breathing and meditation techniques is a religious practice or involves bowing to Hindu gods. It doesn’t. But it is where it was invented, where it originated from. And it is more than physical – it is spiritual practice. That is, I guess, the source of confusion over the religious implications of Yoga.

Another source of confusion is over chanting OM. OM is not worship for any particular god. The reason we chant OM is because the sound vibrations we produce are healing. If you are familiar with music therapy, it is a little bit like that. (Or, like any behavior, it can be what you want it to be. You are the one who assigns meaning to your behavior.)

You can pick and choose how involved you want to be with Yoga. You can use it as physical exercise or spiritual practice. If you pick just the physical practice, that’s OK, and it will be good for you. It will not  make you more of a Hindu than an aerobics class will. But you can dive deeper and come closer to true Yoga, and then you have to understand that, although it is not  a religion, and it still won’t make you a Hindu,  it does come with a system of values – and you need to decide if those are compatible with yours:

  1. Nonviolence
  2. Truthfulness (not lying)
  3. Not stealing
  4. Ethical sexual behavior
  5. Noncovetousness