Yoga, Mysticism and why Yoga is not a Religion

Yoga is not a religion; it is though part of what has picked up a negative connotation: the Mysticism. Unfortunately, mysticism, nowadays, comes out almost as a dirty word once thrown in any “respectable conversation”. That happens due to the rationalization of our societies, which means, basically, that traditions, values and emotions are no longer acknowledged as important factors to be weighed before taking an action or making a decision: in other words, our behaviors should be rational, right?

What is Mysticism ?

Well, let’s get to know a little bit more about mysticism before we call it bad names again and again then. Practices from this branch have three constants.

  1.    – They all believe (as well as describe) a reality that goes beyond of what we experience through our five senses.
  2.    – This reality, which is beyond logic and intellect, is possible to be experienced. When it is experienced, we are completely transformed.
  3.    – There is a method through which we can attain that experience and transformation.

So, in here we walk away from the rational guidance in our lives and, also, there is a description of something existing beyond our physical world… It is mainly for those reasons as well as the existence of a type of ethics in both religion and mysticism that it is quite usual to mistake their practicesand Yoga for Religion. But let’s understand how different they actually are.

Religion Vs Mysticism and Yoga

Religion also believes in something existing beyond our senses. But there are three huge differences between those practices. Firstly, in any religion there are sets of rules, which are to be followed regardless of your personal inclination, regardless if you feel like it or not. In Mystic practices that is quite different; though there are methods and methods they are not properly a must. Actually, practices are undertaken as long as they help you in your path, but if somehow you honestly feel they are not helping you to get closer to your experience of the Divine (of something beyond your senses) you are welcome to drop them and try some other method that might. Obviously, the word “try” does not mean to try it for a day, but an honest try. For example, you can meditate with opened eyes, closed eyes, with a mandala, with guidance or non-guidance… You can chant mantras out loud, or just in your mind and so on!
That is why Yoga practices are impossible to properly separate into one category. Yoga has absorbed historically anything that helps their practitioners and has great amount of interpenetrations with Hinduism obviously. A whole branch of yoga –  the Mother of Modern Yoga, Hatha Yoga – has developed in a syncretic way from already cross-fertilized traditions like Tantra, Shivaism (non-orthodox hindu branch), Buddhism (Mahayana),etc.   That type of cross-fertilization is quite common on other mystical practices like cabbalah and Judaism; Sufism and Islamism. Yoga is fed  by whatever is truly nutritious in its eyes, a perspective that Yoga purists usually forget: Oh yoga with props are not Yoga; Dynamic Yoga is not Yoga; etc. We have talked a little better about that in another post that you can check out.

However, Yoga is not religious. The second main difference between religion and mysticism indirectly presents the third difference as well . It is about the experience of this existing reality beyond our senses. In religion that is inexistent. Religion does come from the word religare but the romantic interpretation of that – to reconnect to God – is technically wrong.  Actually, in general, if you say you’ve experienced a direct connection to God, for example, to a catholic priest, specially an orthodox one, that will not be seen as a good experience, and, historically, people have been burned because of such claims in Medieval Times. You and God are different from each other, you might have been created by a God but one does not live within the other one in that tradition. Well, surely through religion there is the idea of an alliance with the Divine; however, there is a huge difference between alliances and experiences of it, being one with it! The actual interpretation of religare is yes a reconnection but not to God really: it is about a reconnection to our ancestors, our historical culture and our people that have also practiced those rituals before. That is why religion and being in society goes hand in hand and that is quite visible once we are watching any news, right?

On the other hand, in a mystic practice such as Yoga, one experiences the Reality, or the Ultimate Reality and that brings a complete transformation which does not require someone else necessarily: it is essentially individual.  The sacred is available directly to the individual, the access to it do not require a third party (or power). That is way different then religious rituals as for example attending a mass: devotees cannot “have a mass their own”, the ritual requires the one that is skilled in its performance.  In other words, religion is essentially social while mystic practices, aren’t.

Yoga in its essence ends up not necessarily helping out what society wants from us. Well, imagine if everyone undertakes a yogic path, a path that in its literature says to only be concern with its practices and nothing else: what about work, right? In other words Yoga practice is revolutionary: it says you need no one to be an intermediate between you and God (or the Ultimate Reality); it also says that your happiness relies not on your roles or what you do in society but in realizing your true self, actually inside yourself… And to do that, the path is all about widening consciousness, widening our perspectives of who we are while unfortunately, identifying ourselves only with roles ends up constricting that possibility.

Ascetic and Non-Ascetic Yoga

With all that been said it is good to remember that there are ascetic lines of Yoga and also non-ascetic lines of Yoga: both still about widening consciousness, of course!  However, non ascetic Yoga means that one does not necessarily need to be apart from society to be a yogi: a wave that got surely intensified with the tantric movement, one that is very misunderstood not only by the West, but specially.  However, that perspective – being a yogi and being in society – is not only present in the tantric movement, but already discussed (or presented) , for example, in Bhagavad Gita. The Indian scripture seems to talk about the Real Freedom that somehow does not requires you not to act (which we may read here as “not be in society”) but mainly consists in acting while not being attached to the fruits of our actions. Interestingly enough, one can maybe sum up that with a Biblical teaching: be in the World but not of the World. It is one way to see it, but, anyways, in practical senses it’s understandable that there is no need for living in caves, mountains and jungles alone: it’s doable wherever you are and whatever roles you play in life. Something that makes a lot of sense once we acknowledge that obviously the main cultural and religious streams somewhat absorbs Yoga and, as we remember, Yoga absorbs whatever is needed and lives on.

General Considerations on Yoga and Spirituality

To wrap up our article there is just one reservation to be pointed out. Things in life and especially in this field are surely not black and white. Religious people do have divine experiences regardless their institutions and traditions hold as truth  – and they (the institutions), in time, might be more lenient as well. We certainly do not defend the idea here that religion is better or worse than mystical practices. What we do defend here is that there are different types of personalities, characters, cultures, education paths and the wide numbers of spiritual practices exists also because some practices are fit for some and some are fit for others. So, with that in mind, we hope you check out with your self if Yoga speaks to your heart.

Studying the scriptures and a little bit of History is crucial to keep us inspired. We do offer 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training Course in Goa, India if you are interested in deepening your Yoga Scripture knowledge and your Yoga practicejoin us.

Suzana Altero
Turiya Yoga