Taking The ‘Religion’ Out Of Yoga

I recently came across an article that headlined the National Kids Yoga Conference in which I learned about a nation-wide movement to bring yoga to public schools. Some parents have expressed concern over teaching yoga in schools because of its “religious associations.” These concerns have taken the form of a nationally publicized lawsuit.

As a yogi on and off my mat, I couldn’t believe that anyone would deny their child the incredible preventative, restorative, and life-altering health benefits from the physical practice of yoga because of its assumed association with religion. After reading the article, I felt compelled to distinguish between yogic philosophy and that oh-so-scary buzzword “religion.”

As a newly certified yoga instructor, I’ve had the privilege of learning the philosophy behind yoga, which many people associate with religion. I’d like to start off by saying that I am not a religious person. I was raised by parents of different religions and was lucky to see two sides of the same coin. I was raised to keep an open mind about other people, traditions, and customs. Perhaps that is why yoga found its way into my life so effortlessly. Perhaps the fact that I am not “very religious,” whatever that may mean, is why yoga is now a part of my daily life.

If you had told me three years ago that yoga could transform my life and perspective of the world around me, I would have laughed in your face and walked away. Three years ago I walked right out of a yoga class after twenty minutes. Two years ago – thanks to heartbreak and the power of an open mind – I gave it another try. Today, I teach yoga to others. As cliché as it may sound, yoga has made me a better person, inside and out. It has taught me to take care of myself and others. It has taught me focus. To dedicate myself. To accept. To forgive. Who wouldn’t want to have such psychological luxuries? Physically, I experience less fatigue, have fewer headaches, and have more energy than when I wasn’t practicing yoga (I take zero medication).

In a nutshell, yoga detoxifies our organs and rids the body of harmful toxins caused by ingestion of foods, chemicals, pollutants, and stress. It sends fresh, oxygenated blood to the brain and heart. It builds muscle strength and tones the body. The science is there. This is indisputable. Unfortunately, yoga doesn’t come in a pill bottle approved by the FDA. It seriously concerns me that we are so quick to resort to brain-altering chemicals in the form of a pill to face physical and mental challenges (scoliosis, headaches, anxiety, depression) that can be prevented (and dare I say it – “cured”) with a daily or even weekly dose of yoga. If yoga could be sold in a bottle, Big Pharma would have their dirty little hands all over it in seconds.

To make this super easy, think of the word “yoga” as an umbrella term that literally means, “to join; unite”. What is being united, exactly? Yoga unites the body and mind. The struggle and conquer of the endless asanas (poses) reflect the struggle and conquer of daily life challenges, stress, and emotions. The way we handle ourselves on the yoga mat directly translates to the way we handle ourselves off of the mat.

Yes, yoga has roots in both Hinduism and Buddhism, but it also shares a general similarity with various other religions. I like to think of it as a universal religion (just imagine what the world would like). Yoga emphasizes the act of looking inward, into our conscious and unconscious minds, whereas organized religion tends to look outward for guidance and hope; to a higher power usually in the form of a human being or animal that provides safety and peace.

Yogic philosophy embodies the Eight Limbed Path, a set of values suggested that one follows to reach inner peace and wellbeing. This idea is similar to the Ten Commandments in Judaism, or any other set of values outlined by practically every religion out there. For the sake of this article’s purpose, I will focus on the first and second limbs of the Eight Limbed path, the Yamas and Niyamas. The Yamas and Niyamas are what I like to consider the basics of yogic philosophy and guidelines to a yoga lifestyle. I have simplified their original meanings and purposes to ease my way into a healthier, well-balanced yoga-lifestyle.

Yamas: The Yamas are five concepts that reflect outward behavior. It encourages the following external behaviors to help live a more peaceful existence.

  1. Truthfulness: Be true to your word. Say what you mean and mean what you say.
  2. Moderation: Everything in moderation. Exercise, but not too much. Watch television, but not too much. Don’t eat junk food, but it’s ok to treat yourself once in awhile. Don’t drink a whole bottle of wine, but a glass with a dinner won’t kill you.
  3. Non-violence: Don’t physically hurt others. Don’t verbally hurt others. Don’t physically hurt yourself. Don’t verbally hurt yourself.
  4. Non-stealing: Don’t steal material objects. Don’t steal time – including your own.
  5. Non-hoarding: Declutter. Simplify your physical surroundings and simplify your mind. Discard of any material objects that no longer serve you. The memory will last. Do not be possessed by your possessions.

Niyamas: The Niyamas are five concepts that drive internal discovery, growth, and well-being.

  1. Cleanliness: Be clean not only physically but also mentally. Be mindful of the media you consume (images, sounds, literature). Are you reading about a potential hobby that you’ve always wanted to try? Or are you reading the newest details about so-and-so’s relationship on Facebook? Be mindful of what you eat. Are you eating chips or an apple? Are you reaching for coffee or the healthier option, decaf organic herbal tea?
  2. Contentment: Accept your current circumstances and be content with the present moment. Indulge in the smells, sights, and sounds of right now. Are you walking in a garden or on the beach? Look at the green or feel the sand in between your toes. Maybe you’re walking to work, taking the same old streets, but never noticed that fountain on that corner over there?
  3. Self-discipline: If you set a goal, set objectives as well. The objectives are the steps one must take to achieve a goal. And then actually go do those objectives.
  4. Self-study: Reflect on your experiences. Observe how you acted in a particular situation, maybe one that left you feeling uneasy or unsure of yourself, and tell yourself what you could have done differently. Accept that was happened has happened and cannot be changed, but work to change what can be done in the future.
  5. Surrender: Let go of what does not serve you. Sometimes, letting go means acknowledgement. It means acknowledging a negative emotion, situation, or thought, and just letting it be. Do not judge it or analyze it. Have faith in a higher power, whatever form that may mean for you. If it is a person, mantra, universe, star, or image, believe in it and have faith.

At its most basic level, yogic philosophy asks that we be good to ourselves and to others and to focus on the present moment for clarity and peace of mind. This is not a “religion” to fear or avoid. It is simply a moral code that I like to believe all humans would want to subscribe to regardless of their religion.

So, are you willing to deny your children the ability to be good to themselves and others? Are you willing to deny your children mental clarity and peace of mind? What, from the above list of suggested guidelines, is threatening to your child or the world that surrounds them? What problems could there possibly be in raising a human being to be well rounded, tolerant, curious, dedicated, and accepting? TC mark

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Allison received a Master's of Social Work from Loyola University Chicago and is a mental health therapist ... Read more articles from Allison on Thought Catalog.
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