Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra tells us that a belief in “God,” loosely speaking, is one of three requirements for success in the practice: “tapah svadhyaya isvara pranidhanani kriya yogah”(Chapter 2, Verse 1). This sutra states that Kriya Yoga consists of discipline, self-study, and devotion to God. Many people are driven to yoga by back pain and stress, not a deep longing for Self-realization, and that’s fine. Sometimes the stress relief opens new doors, and other times, it serves just that purpose. But as a yoga teacher, it’s important to know the history of this ancient tradition in order to help guide those students who are seeking more than stretching.
Whether you realize it or not, you do have faith in something, probably in several things. Money, celebrity, and material accumulation top the list of our current culture’s must-haves. So the question is not "whether" but "what" or "who" you trust to deliver you the rewarding and happy life you deserve.
I consider myself a Recovered Catholic. Like thousands of others, I unknowingly committed the Original Sin of being born. And from the age of 10 onwards, with the initiation of Catholic Confession, I cultivated a sense of free-floating guilt that only devout Catholics and other religious dogmatics can truly understand.
Thus, my understanding of the word “God" has not always been positive. Yet, today I consider spirituality and a connection with a power greater than myself to be the most important relationship in my life––and yoga as the primary means and method by which I strengthen it. Am I saying that religion is pre-requisite (or even intrinsic) to authentic yoga? Certainly not! Does dedicating one’s life to the study and practice of yoga make them Hindu? Buddhist? A bad Christian? None of the above! Religion and Spirituality are two different things. Yoga has no institutionalized set of rules or guidelines, no mandatory practice days, no list of sins that drive you straight into the depths of a fiery hell—though it might, some practitioners will attest, provide a little piece of heaven.
Today I find myself drawn to charismatic ministers touting messages of love and hope. I study A Course in Miracles before meditating on the breath, followed by ten rounds of Surya Namaskarasana (sun salutations). I listen to audio talks of Ram Dass, an American Jew who loves Jesus Christ but practices Buddhism. No wait, I think he’s Hindu, with a now-deceased but previously reincarnated yoga guru. I digress.
If you consider yourself religious and you want to do yoga, welcome! It will strengthen your convictions and nurture the beliefs you have by putting you in touch with your inner wisdom. If you’re a devout atheist, highly allergic to and deeply skeptical of the word God, welcome! There are plenty of om-free zones available, and everyone benefits from the increased length, strength, and tone of muscle—atheists, agnostics, and die-hard dogmatics alike.
Introspection, open-mindedness, and willingness are the keys that unlock the door to your own unique experience and expression of infinite bliss. Amen!