Is Yoga a religion or exercise?

Is Yoga a religion or exercise?

Most of the times, we tend to associate the term “Yoga” with religion or exercise. Pictures of sadhus performing weird postures or standing on their head, immediately pops up into our minds when we think of Yoga.

yoga

But what exactly is Yoga? The question has gained prominence especially in the last few years after Malaysia announced a ban on Yoga due to religious reasons:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/malaysia/3509070/Malaysia-bans-Muslims-from-practicing-yoga.html

Is it justified to associate it with Hinduism because it originated in India? Or is it just a set of exercise routines because many do it to lose weight and stay fit? Let’s find out everything about Yoga here.

Yoga, by itself means “Union”. It is derived from the Sanskrit root word “Yuj” which means “Unite”.
http://spokensanskrit.de/index.php?tinput=yuj

patanjali

But what does it actually unite with? For that, we have to go a bit into the details of “Yoga Sutras” written by Patanjali who is acknowledged as the leading authority in Yoga. According to Patanjali, there are 8 limbs of Yoga:

  1. Yama (Discipline & Self control),
  2. Niyama (Purification & Knowledge),
  3. Asana (Postures & Exercises),
  4. Pranayama (Breathing exercises),
  5. Prathyahara (Withdrawal/Detachment),
  6. Dharana (Focus),
  7. Dhyana (Meditation),
  8. Samadhi (Nirvana/Unification).

The following concise info-graphic beautifully depicts relevant details of all the 8 limbs of Yoga in one snapshot:

patanjali_yoga
Image source.

Each limb or stage is like a stepping stone which helps one prepare himself for the next stage (limb). For example, the most basic is “Yama” which deals with Discliple & Self control which helps one prepare for the Asana which makes the body healthy. Only if the body is healthy, it can prepare itself for Dharana (Focus) and so on. This way, as we go to higher levels, we find that Samadhi is the ultimate aim and all the previous 7 stage are actually to prepare one to finally attain the 8th stage. Samadhi is also referred to as Nirvana which is the state of being one with the Supreme. This Supreme need not be any particular God from any religion. It does not say anything about chanting any particular mantra, nor does it insist on worshiping a particular diety. ┬áNone of the Yoga texts talk about any particular God like Shiva, Vishnu, Jesus or Allah. The Supreme in this context is the super-natural which can be one’s own soul as well. It is about uniting with that Supreme.

So, in short: It is about “To merge”, or “Union”. That is how the term “Yoga” was used┬áto refer to this “Union” and the path leading to it.

One need not reach the highest level (Samadhi) to reap the benefits of Yoga. Someone who just follows Yama, Niyama & does basic Asana also can reap the relevant benefits (like fitness & good health) but those who want spiritual benefits will usually explore the subsequent stages (like Prathyarhara, Dharana).

yoga_beach

Since most of us are concerned only about the health aspects and not spiritual benefits, over the last few decades, Yoga has become synonymous with postures (the 3rd limb). Having said that, it is not at all wrong to practice Yoga only for physical benefits. In fact, every limb of Yoga has its own benefits which can be related to physical, mental or spiritual health. For example, someone who just follows Yama, Niyama & does basic Asana also can reap the relevant benefits like fitness & good health. However, if he goes a bit further and practices Dhyana (Meditation), it improves mental & spiritual health as well.

Hence, we can conclude that Yoga is neither religion nor just exercise but is more of a way of life, or a methodology to achieve better physical, mental & spiritual health and eventually achieve Nirvana.

In the next part, we shall look into the concept of “Asanas” and find out how even simple stretches and postures can have significant positive impact on the body & mind. Also, we shall find out if there is any science behind it.

UPDATE:
Next part available here:
http://guruprasad.net/posts/science-yoga/

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