I was rolling up my mat after class—I had just taught yoga at the small, Methodist–affiliated women’s college where I also taught journalism—when one of the students hesitantly approached me.
She was a Christian, she explained; her mother was a minister. She was concerned about how yoga aligned with her faith. “Will this make Jesus mad?” she asked.
“Oh my goodness, no!” I said. I explained to her what I had been taught myself: that yoga was a series of exercises developed by Hindu teachers to prepare their young students to sit in meditation. It was brought to the West by Indian teachers who willingly shared it with Western practitioners. It had South Asian roots, but it was a secular practice. I told her that the class would mostly be stretching and breathing, and when we covered the Eight Limbs, she could think of the yamas and niyamas as a yogic Ten Commandments. She could dedicate her practice to Christ; she could meditate on whatever or whomever she wanted. She left relieved.
I didn’t think of the encounter again for five years. Then this past spring, the Alabama legislature made headlines with a bill to lift a 28-year ban on yoga being taught in public schools. I reported on the contentious debate: Proponents of the bill touted yoga’s mental and physical benefits and said it was harmless stretching and breathing. But conservative groups, including the Foundation for Moral Law and the Alabama chapter of the Eagle Forum, argued that yoga is a Hindu practice that had no place in schools. “Many Christian parents are uncomfortable with another adult leading their children through meditation and guided imagery exercises that can affect their psyche, especially when the parents are not present,” the Eagle Forum of Alabama said in an email supporting the state’s ban.
Some Hindu practitioners, such as Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, agree that yoga is rooted in Hindu culture, but point out that people have been doing this beneficial practice for decades without being converted to Hinduism.
I thought back to the conversation I’d had with my student. I wondered: Had I been telling her—and other students—a colonized version of yoga history or teaching a whitewashed version of the practice? Almost all of my students were Black women, at risk for the mental and physical health concerns that science and tradition promised yoga could address. But many of them were also Christian. Was I disrespecting their religious beliefs in order to make yoga more palatable? I was raised in the Baptist church; I have practiced yoga for decades. But who am I to say what Jesus would think about yoga?
I needed better answers if I were to make sense of—and peace with—yoga’s complex place in the Western world and in my own life. I turned to leaders, scholars, and people of faith to answer my questions. Here’s what I asked them—and what I discovered.Photo: Srdjan Pav/Getty Images
It’s complicated. Susanna Barkataki, author of Embrace Yoga’s Roots , describes yoga as “a practical, structured, scientific framework and embodiment practice that aims at curing our personal and social ills.” It’s part of a religion for some, but it isn’t inherently religious.
A statement by the Indian government’s Ministry of External Affairs explains it this way: “Yoga is essentially a spiritual discipline based on an extremely subtle science, which focuses on bringing harmony between mind and body…. [T]he practice of Yoga leads to the union of individual consciousness with that of the Universal Consciousness, indicating a perfect harmony between the mind and body.”
The statement also explains yoga’s connection—or lack thereof—to religion: “Yoga does not adhere to any particular religion, belief system, or community.” Anyone who practices can reap its benefits, “irrespective of one’s faith, ethnicity, or culture.”
While many people equate the term “yoga” with stretching exercises, the full practice—all Eight Limbs of Yoga—includes instructions on personal behavior and ethics, focus, concentration, meditation, and samadhi, or connection with a higher power.
Barkataki also cites Patanjali’s definition of yoga as “the calming of the fluctuations of the mind in order to find unity within.” Yoga is the practice, but also the result of the practice: a union of mind, body, and heart.
See also: A conversation on the intersection of yoga, religion, spirituality, and mysticism
Finding and following our purpose directs how we conduct ourselves.
Most definitions of yoga root it in ancient Hindu culture. Though there are some who say yoga also has roots in Egypt and in Europe, the yoga most often practiced in the West evolved from practices brought from India by Hindu teachers.
South Asian yoga teachers I talked to say yoga is a Hindu practice that anyone is welcome to engage in, regardless of their religion. (A 2008 letter to Yoga Journal from the Hindu American Foundation calls yoga “one of the greatest gifts of Hinduism to mankind.”)
Some conservative Hindu groups, such as the Dharma Yoga Ashram, see yoga as a practice that can’t be ethically taught by anyone other than a practicing Hindu. In India, Hindu Nationalist political leaders, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have been accused of using this “yoga is Hindu” narrative as a political tool. Anusha Lakshmi, writing in Race and Yoga , says yoga in India “has been mobilized more and more as a technique of division by the Hindu right in service of constructing a Hindu nation.”
Then there’s yoga educator and social justice activist Anjali Rao. She says that before we decide whether or not yoga is Hindu, we must define what we mean by Hinduism.Photo: Vivek Mishra / Pexels
It is a spiritual practice, Rao says. But people shouldn’t think of Hinduism the way they think of Christianity, Islam, or Judaism—religions that involve conversion, evangelism, belief in a single holy text, and devotion to a divine prophet.
Early Persian/Iranian and British colonization is responsible for the terms “Hindu” and “Hinduism,” says Anusha Wijeyakumar, an author, wellness consultant, and yoga teacher. Seventh-century Persian mogul invaders used the word “Hindu” to refer to the people of the Indus Valley. Later, when British colonizers observed these communities performing their pujas—worship rituals and spiritual celebrations—they lumped all of those unfamiliar sacred philosophies, customs, and cultural practices under one umbrella and called it Hinduism. The term stuck.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, people in the region used the term Sanatana Dharma to identify this family of spiritual practice. Wijeyakumar says using the Sanskrit term was a form of resistance to Christian proselytization and the colonial use of “Hinduism.”
“[Sanatana Dharma] means Eternal Way,” she says, and it is based on the belief that everyone has a purpose and is endowed with a role or duty. “Finding and following our purpose directs how we conduct ourselves,” she says.
Unlike Abrahamic religions, Sanatana Dharma has no single holy scripture; followers study the Vedas and other books of spiritual wisdom. There is no known founder or central prophet, but (most) Hindus do believe in a single creator, Brahman. Practitioners of Sanatana Dharma seek to find and follow their life path and connect with this higher power. Yoga is part of that path to personal development and spiritual connection.
See also: 3 Things You May Not Know About the Bhagavad Gita
We believe in a diversity of thought and not necessarily that our path is the only way. We have a respect for other religions and faiths, as we do not see ours as the only path to enlightenment.
Brahman may manifest in different forms, or avatars, according to the Hindu American Foundation. These are the other deities we associate with Hinduism—the elephant-headed Ganesha, or Kali with her many arms. The deities are an important part of Hindu culture, literature, mythology, and daily life.
“Bhakti is an important aspect of Sanatana Dharma,” says Wijeyakumar, referring to personal devotion to a particular deity. Performing pujas is a way of Hindu life as well, she says. If you go to India, you may see small personal altars, as well as public temples.
Over time, the names of some of those Hindu gods—Hanuman, Nataraja, Virabhadra—have had poses named after them, but practicing Hanumanasana (Monkey God Pose) is not worshipping the deity, Rao says. A Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation) is not bowing down to literally worship the sun…unless that’s your intention.
“For some people, certainly, yoga is part of their religious practice,” Barkataki says. It all depends on the intention you set for your practice.Photo: Elina Fairytaie / Pexels
Generally speaking, “you’re not praying when you’re doing yoga,” Rao says. “You’re just going internally and you’re understanding your mind.” Some people who practice Sanatana Dharma do yoga to help them see and follow their life path more clearly.
That doesn’t mean you can’t pray or worship. “We are doing a physical practice that allows whoever you believe in to show up,” says Marsha Banks-Harold, the founder of PIES Fitness in Alexandria, Virginia. “You can pray to whoever you would like to pray to when you’re doing these poses. I know there’s a lot of kickback from the yoga community about this, but…even if you just call it stretching, the yoga will still do what it does. People’s lives are going to be changed.”
“The belief that yoga is available to anyone is built into the philosophy of yoga and Hinduism,” Wijeyakumar says. “It’s evident in many of our scriptures, including the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita.”
“We believe in a diversity of thought and not necessarily that our path is the only way. We have a respect for other religions and faiths, as we do not see ours as the only path to enlightenment,” she says.
This “many paths” concept is one of the things that sets Hinduism apart from Christianity. Evangelical Christians believe that there is only one path to salvation—through Jesus. You have to claim Him as your savior, believe and follow the Bible, and bring others to Christ, says Candy Gunther Brown, PhD, a professor of religious studies at Indiana University in Bloomington. You can’t blend in other belief systems.
This is why some Christians don’t practice yoga: They believe that you can’t separate the practice of yoga from the religion it is rooted in. Reverend Clete Hux is one of these people.
“There is no getting around the fact that yoga is religious by nature and a form of Hindu worship,” writes the Rev. Hux, on the website for the Apologetics Resource Center, an organization that supports Christian evangelism. Hux, a theology professor and director of ARC, says that yoga represents a worldview that is diametrically opposed to Christianity.
Some Christians even see yoga as an invitation for evil. Jaclyn Peterson, a Christ-centered yoga teacher known as Bible Yogini, says she has heard people refer to yoga as “witchcraft” and “demonic.” They say practicing it will “open doors to the enemy.”
“I do believe that, depending on the style of yoga and the intent of the teacher and practitioner, in some cases, one could open doors to the enemy,” she says. But she does not agree with people who think practicing any kind of yoga is automatically engaging in some form of witchcraft: “They believe that it is heretical to claim to honor, worship, and draw near to God through a yoga practice, and I disagree with that notion wholeheartedly.”
The continual colonization of these practices causes harm because cultural erasure and cultural appropriation are a form of racism rooted in white supremacy.
“I found that I can honor my Christianity as well as the practice of yoga because they’re actually parallel to each other,” Banks-Harold says. This mindset allows her to comfortably teach yoga in churches and schools, as well as in her studio.
Like Peterson, Banks-Harold is a devoted Christian church member, but she has studied traditional yoga and yoga therapy, as well as Kemetic Yoga, the form said to have originated in ancient Egypt.
“Yoga teaches us to be kind and compassionate; so do the scriptures. So I don’t really think that there is a major dispute,” she says. “I explained to my father [a minister] that yoga really expanded my ability to love God.”
In fact, some yoga leaders have adapted yoga specifically for Christian practitioners. In Holy Yoga and Christoga, two alternatives to traditional yoga, teachers use Christian language and philosophy. Some add Bible verses, says Brown, or change Sun Salutation from s-u-n to s-o-n so that their practice is worshipping Jesus.
Michelle Thielen, the founder of YogaFaith, a Christian yoga training program, points to references to meditation and chanting in the Bible. She says YogaFaith–trained teachers may open class with a prayer, weave scripture into instruction, and end class with namaste. “They are acknowledging the light of Christ in them honors the light of Christ in you. It’s based on their faith,” she says. “It’s very similar to a typical yoga class; we’re simply inviting the Holy Spirit.”
“Throughout history, cultures borrow from other cultures,” Thielen says. She says she is grateful to Egypt and India for their contributions to yoga. “We look at all these different faiths and cultures, and it’s beautiful that we can adapt, honor, and appreciate them.” As far as she is concerned, all of it comes from God.
But that “borrowing” worries people like Wijeyakumar, who believes that yoga has been colonized and whitewashed enough by Western imperialism. “It is incredibly harmful if the origins of yoga are erased,” she says.
Taking only the parts of a spiritual or cultural tradition that align with your beliefs may, at best, “dilute” the practice, she says. At worst, “the continual colonization of these practices causes harm because cultural erasure and cultural appropriation are a form of racism rooted in white supremacy.”
Yoga advocates want to find a balance that allows yoga to be accessible to more people, but that doesn’t dilute it until it’s little more than calisthenics. Part of the value of yoga lies in practicing all of the Eight Limbs.
Barkataki’s admonition to “honor yoga’s roots” means being aware of the philosophy and including that in your practice. Otherwise, you’re not really doing yoga.
See also: 6 Ways to Teach Yoga With Less Cultural Appropriation
South Asian yoga activists encourage people to learn about yoga’s history and roots. They see that as educating people about their culture, not converting them to a Hindu spiritual path.
“To me, there is absolutely no harm and we should be educating people about where the historical roots of the practice of yoga originate—which is the Indian subcontinent,” Wijeyakumar says. Beyond that, she would keep the practice secular and ensure people that they don’t have to be Hindu to practice.
That wouldn’t likely be enough for people who can’t see yoga as a secular practice. Eric Johnston, a lawyer who represented the Christian groups that spoke out against the Alabama school bill, suggested that yoga would lure children away from their Christian faith. “If they are taught yoga, all they have to do is Google it, and they will immediately find information on the spiritual aspects of it and look at it,” he told a Washington Post reporter. “And if they look at it, it might lead them to believe that’s something they should be involved in.”
One of the concessions that was made in the Alabama school case was that parents had to sign a permission slip explaining that yoga is rooted in Hinduism. But the complex story of the intersection of yoga and Hinduism won’t fit onto a permission slip. People will have to go with their interpretations.Photo: Getty Images
After speaking to these teachers, reading the history, and dissecting the various viewpoints, I’ve personally come to this conclusion: The question of whether to practice yoga or not is a deeply personal one. But if we are to respect yoga’s history and culture, we should learn as much as we can about it.
Today when I teach, I acknowledge that yoga is “a vast and ancient tree with many roots and branches,” as religious scholar Mark Singleton has described it. In North America, most of us experience it as a secular practice influenced by South Asia, with its lyrical Sanskrit terms and its common-sense Eight Limbs philosophy.
I tend to follow Barkataki’s suggestion and approach yoga as a philosophy or mythology. “It’s a worldview, it’s an ethical philosophy, it’s a technology of personal development,” she says. “But in the context that we’re doing it, it’s not a religion. Being respectful that, for some people, certainly, yoga is part of their religious practice, but that’s not what yoga was in its entirety. It never was just that.”
And while I’m not a Sanatana Dharma expert, I encourage students to use the yamas and niyamas to guide their daily interactions. I urge them to explore pratyahara, dharana, and dhyana to help find focus and stay centered, because science and experience tell me these practices are helpful.
To borrow the beautiful explanation in Indu Arora’s Yoga—Ancient Heritage, Tomorrow’s Vision , “Yoga has as many meanings as there are people who ask this question. The answer to ‘What is yoga?’ is not limited to one person’s definition or to a single text or interpretation…. Each person needs to experience the truth himself/herself and only then all the doubts will vanish.”
Read more: Yoga and Religion: My Long Walk Toward Worship
Tamara Y. Jeffries, a senior editor at Yoga Journal, still teaches a yoga class at Bennett College.