The short answer is no. But yoga is more than an athletic endeavor. While yoga practice is often distilled to a single limb of yoga – the asanas (or poses), the spiritual aspect of yoga is integral to the practice of yoga.
Much richness and reward is lost with an exclusive focus on the physical disciplines. However, even more so than the physical practice, the spiritual practice is very personal. As such, no teacher, yogi, or guru will instruct your beliefs. But hopefully, yoga will encourage you to examine and reflect on your spiritual life.
Donna Farhi describes this process well. She notes that yoga is not
a religion, although the practice of its central precepts inevitably draws each
individual to the direct experience of those truths on which religion
rests. – Donna Farhi, Yoga Mind, Body & Spirit (New York: Henry Holt,
2000), p. 5.
What do the spiritual disciplines of yoga entail? Do they require conversion to Hinduism or Buddhism? No.
Certainly, you will learn more about both of these religious practices as yoga originated and grew along side each of them. Many find that a full yoga practice enhances their spiritual life whatever their upbringing or religious beliefs. In Living Yoga: Creating a Life Practice Christie Turlington reveals how yoga renewed her commitment to her Catholic faith and drove her to learn more.
For myself, I found that my yoga practice very much added much to my own faith. With exposure to these other religious rituals I re-examined in my own faith for comparable practices and tenants. I learned the difference between meditation and prayer. I reacquainted myself with Christian mystics such as St. Francis of Assisi and Julian of Norwich. I compared the Ten Commandments and the Yamas and Niyamas and found they both respect the divinity in our selves and in each other.
This investigation goes on with study and participation in my local high church Episcopalian parish in DC, St. Paul’s, and in my enrollment in the Education for Ministry coursework at St. Albans.
An aside: the Washington National Cathedral is offering “Sacred Circles – A Celebration of Women’s Spirituality” on February 18th -19th and one of the morning session features a workshop of yoga and Christian prayer (specifically the prayer to St. Francis of Assisi) to “invoke the transformative presence of Christ for strength and humility, steadfastness and fluidity, openness and focus.” Check out the entire program here.
The contrasting encounters that accompanied my growing yoga practice very much echoed the loving, tolerant and generous religious education I enjoyed as a child. I learned much more about my faith because I was a Protestant learning in a Catholic school run by the Sisters of the Holy Child. At the age of nine, I was very scared and nervous about my new school. On my very first day, as we recited The Lord’s Prayer, I embarrassed myself as I continued beyond the end of the Catholic version of the prayer with the Protestant ending (the added doxology).
Thereafter, I consistently queried why things were and why beliefs differed. And in this way, my religious values were fortified by the constant distinctions against another faith structure. At the same time, I grew to deeply respect and value many aspects of the Catholic faith.
I’ve learned much about Buddhism with my yoga practice. The spiritual writings of Sharon Salzburg, Pema Chodron provoke and inspire me (Salzburg will be a featured speaker at the Cathedral’s Sacred Circles). Karen Armstrong, a former Holy Child nun, instructs me with her scholarship.
And, as before, I am often struck by the common precepts and practices. But just as when I was a child and young adult, this investigation inspires me to learn more about the spiritual life in my own tradition. With my replenished spiritual practice, my life is more fulfilled, and I consider this benefit amid the most rewarding of my yoga practice.
One final note: I was fascinated to learn the term “religion” enjoys a similar etymology as yoga. Derived from the Latin word, “religare,” religion means “to bind back” or to reunify. (Alistair Shearer, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (New York: Sacred Teachings, 1982), p. 24.)
Yoga is not a religion by itself. It is the science of religions, the
study of which will enable a sadhaka [a seeker, an aspirant] the better to
appreciate his own faith. – B.K.S. Iyengar Light on Yoga (New York: Schocken Books, 1966), p. 39.