Muslims in (at least) three countries now, including Indonesia, are officially banned from doing yoga. (The “fatwa”, or religious decree, applies only to the overtly Hindu aspects of yoga, such as chanting, so people pursuing yoga for health or sport are free to continue to do so.) These recent bans raise some interesting questions for me, both as a yoga teacher and as a yoga student. Is yoga a religion? Does my teaching/doing yoga constitute a tacit acceptance or endorsement of Hinduism? Can people of other faiths do yoga, and, if so, under what circumstances?
My basic take on this is that yoga is a religion only if you approach it that way. Personally, I don’t chant or lead my students in mantras during class, although I have no problem with other teachers who do. At the same time, though, I try to approach yoga as something more meaningful to my life than (mere) sport or exercise. I think there is a powerful mental aspect to yoga that, if cultivated properly, can help one to focus better, be less susceptible to emotional ups and downs, live more confidently, etc. And I believe one can pursue all of this without praying to Lord Krishna. There’s a lot of gray area, of course, but I personally try to err on the side of caution and leave out, for instance, chanting “Om” in class or anything else that might be construed in the wrong way. My aim as a teacher is to make my classes as welcoming as possible, which means welcoming people of all different faiths or no faith at all.
There is a legitimate concern, though, that yoga cannot be separated from its religious underpinnings. Many of the poses are named after sages and warriors from the Mahabharata. The practice is, undoubtedly, part of a larger and long-standing religious system. It’s a complicated problem to reconcile the religious history/tradition of yoga with the fact that many people want to practice it in a secular way. I don’t propose to have a perfect solution to this, but I do think a good guiding principle is to always be mindful, both as a teacher and as a student, about what aspects of yoga you adopt and which aspects you do not.