The thought of yoga will evoke a different image from person to person. Some will imagine yoga being done in a gym alongside other fitness classes, whereas some people will envision yogis on rugs in India chanting as they aspire to enlightenment. So, who is right? Is yoga a sport or religion?
Neither, yoga is not a sport or a religion, it is a spiritual practice. Whilst its origins are aligned with Hinduism, it’s not considered to be part of any religion. It isn’t a sport because there is no competitive element and it’s much broader than the physical poses you are familiar with.
Keep reading to find out why yoga is not considered a sport despite having some physical activity and more about the differences between yoga and religion.
Is Yoga a Sport?
No, yoga is not a sport because it is a much broader practice than the physical element that we might typically think of.
The definition of a sport varies depending upon who you ask, for example:
“a game, competition, or activity needing physical effort and skill that is played or done according to rules, for enjoyment and/or as a job.”Cambridge Dictionary
“Sports are games such as football and basketball and other competitive leisure activities which need physical effort and skill.”Collins Dictionary
“Sport pertains to any form of competitive physical activity or game that aims to use, maintain or improve physical ability and skills while providing enjoyment to participants and, in some cases, entertainment to spectators“Wikipedia
A few things are consistent, that a sport is either a game or competitive activity that requires physical effort.
Whilst the yoga poses that you may do with a teacher in a class or at home can certainly involve physical activity, it is not competitive.
The physical element that involves yoga poses (Asana) is part of Hatha yoga, one of six different branches of yoga which is a much broader spiritual practice involving breathing practices, meditation, positive thinking, and general principles of life.
Is Yoga a Religion?
No, yoga itself is not a religion, although its origins are closely tied with Hinduism, and also related to Buddhism and Jainism.
The definition of a religion, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, is “the belief in and worship of a god or gods, or any such system of belief and worship”.
This is at odds with modern-day yoga which does not require yogis to believe in a particular god or to follow any specific rituals. Instead, yoga is a spiritual practice aimed at helping you connect with yourself.
If you compare yoga to religions such as Christianity, Islam, or even Hinduism, you’ll see that they are not alike because there are no formal rules to follow, no god, and no creed.
However, on your path to enlightenment via the eight limbs (more on this below), the first limb outlines moral living which includes not stealing, not being sexually promiscuous, and not harming others.
This is somewhat similar to rules outlined in certain religions (i.e. 10 commandments), but could just as easily be considered as being a good human.
Some types of yoga are more closely tied with Hinduism than others, for example, Jnana yoga is about giving up your possessions to connect with the world and the Hindu god Brahman by studying Hindu texts. (source)
Even in hatha yoga, the one you will be most familiar with that includes yoga poses, many parts stem from its Hindu origin.
For example, you might greet each other by saying namaste, a greeting from Hindi scripture, and some classes might feature chanting from Hinduism. Even certain poses, such as the popular Sun Salutation, were created to worship the Hindu sun god, Surya.
Westernization of Yoga
In many cultures, the religious origin has been lost altogether. Often, poses are renamed to remove any connection to religion, and the spiritual setting has been replaced with a fitness studio, pitting yoga alongside dancercise and pilates.
In fact, yoga has become so westernized that the Hindu American Foundation famously launched a ‘Take Yoga Back’ campaign in 2010 which accused the media of not respecting the Hindu roots of yoga.
But it is not just the west. For example, in the Islamist country Iran, Yogi’s refer to it as the ‘sport of yoga’ and are governed by the Yoga Federation, much like other sports in the country (source). This allows Muslims to practice yoga without the fear of it being connected with Hinduism.
What Does the Church Say About Yoga?
Neither the Christian nor Catholic church has an official position on whether its followers can practice yoga.
Pope Francis is quoted as saying that yoga “will never be able to give you freedom”, although he stopped short of banning the practice or parts of it. (source)
However, some individual churches and prominent people in these religions have voiced a stronger opinion..
For example, the Syro-Malabar Church in India suggested that “the experience of yoga is that the practitioner, nature, and God becomes one but according to Christianity, nature, and God cannot become one.” (source)
However, they did go on to say that yoga can be practiced for preserving health as long as the meditation techniques are no observed.
So What is Yoga?
So, if yoga isn’t a religion, nor a sport, what exactly is it?
In its original form as outlined in the Yoga Sutra, yoga is a spiritual practice that helps you connect with your true self. Yoga is said to be one of the oldest systems of personal development in the world that includes your mind, body, and spirit. (source)
Achieving enlightenment is possible via an eight-fold path known as the eight limbs of yoga. The yoga poses that spring to mind are just one small part of this journey.
The eight limbs of yoga are:
- Yama – Ethical/moral living
- Niyama – Positive duties
- Asana – Posture (the yoga poses we commonly know)
- Pranayama – Breathing practices
- Pratyahara – Sense withdrawal
- Dharana – Focused Concentration
- Dhyana – Meditative Absorption
- Samadhi –Enlightenment
Is Yoga Science?
No, yoga itself is not based on science because it comes from spiritual origins. However, over the years, many scientific studies have supported the use of yoga for your health. For example, studies have found that yoga can relieve anxiety and reduce stress.
Some studies have gone as far as to declare that yoga can improve your life by measuring the sense of well-being, energy, and fatigue of participants.
The YogaMad is founded by Mila, an avid yogini who is passionate about inspiring others to live their best lives while finding mind-body-soul balance. She has a background in business consulting but has left the corporate world in her quest to live out her dreams as a yoga nomad.