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Is Ashtanga Yoga a Religion?

12 February 2014

For those who have never practiced Ashtanga Yoga, you may be wondering about this practice since it was the basis of a recent (July 2013) trial about a school yoga program in Encinitas, CA. California Judge Joe Meyer ruled that a public school district can teach yoga, siding with administrators who argued the practice is a secular way to promote strength, flexibility and balance and rejecting pleas of parents who said the classes are inherently religious and violate the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state.

Is Ashtanga Yoga religious? Should it be adapted to a public school curriculum? How is Ashtanga different from any other kind of yoga? For the answers to these questions we need to take a comprehensive look at the history, theory, and physical practice of Ashtanga’s Primary Yoga Series.

Some misconceptions about Ashtanga Yoga that need to be cleared up…

Many people are intimated by Ashtanga Yoga’s reputation as a rigorous, traditional practice, but the fact is that the basics of the practice can be broken down and tailored making it accessible to most anyone despite their age. Most people assume that you have to be athletic, or at least really strong and flexible in order to practice Ashtanga Yoga, but if you have a good certified teacher who can adjust for each individual’s fitness level, they will benefit by starting with as little as five practice minutes a day.

Even though Ashtanga Yoga is traditional, coming from a spiritual lineage that traces its roots throughout all of India’s historic path, it is not considered dogmatic. Instead this lineage lives in the hearts of students and their teachers and can be adjusted as needed so that the use of yoga as an effective tool is accessible for nearly everyone.

What can be learned from the practice of Ashtanga Yoga?

The practical essence of the spiritual practice of Ashtanga Yoga is that through the use of postures (asana), breathing (pranayama), and prescribed focus points one can gain a direct experience of the inner Self. The asanas are simply tools that help students tap into the limitless nature of their inner being. Ashtanga Yoga practice has the power to open the mind, heal the body, and transform one’s view of the whole world. With a qualified instructor, beginners will find an introduction into the very basics of the world of yoga which will include moral and ethical guidelines, postures, breath-work, sense withdrawal, concentration, and meditation. Well established students will discover additional tools and techniques to help them go deeper into their practice.

Can Ashtanga Yoga be considered religious?

Ashtanga Yoga is inherently spiritual, but not religious, nor can it be considered a religion. As a philosophy yoga is theistic by its very nature; it adheres to the belief that some type of universal (or Divine) force that is larger than the individual “ego-self” is the the underlying truth of all existence. But yoga never claims that this force has to be represented by any particular deity or religion. In fact, the reason yoga is so transformational is because we are led through a series of scientific methods to directly experience the limitless nature of our innermost selves. Once realized, this higher “Self” can never be limited by (or to) any religion, because its very essence is spiritual. Ashtanga Yoga practice illuminates the human spirit in a way that embodies our inherent greatness and limitlessness in a way that cannot be defined by (or confined to) any dogma.

Of related interest, click on: Yoga as Science

*Rae Indigo is ERYT500.

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