Many people think of yoga wrongly because it resembles certain aspects of something else about which they know. Some people think yoga is an exercise because it gives a person a good workout and makes the body strong, flexible and balanced. Some people think it is a religion because yoga talks about connecting with the divinity within one’s self.
While the physical and spiritual development aspects of yoga are true, yoga is neither an exercise nor a religion.
Yoga is a healing, joyful science and philosophy that leads a person to a holistic lifestyle of joy and peace.
Exercise deals mainly with the development of a person’s physiology so that one can increase the heart rate for a period of time, or develop stronger muscles, or run farther, or do incredible physical feats. All those are often consequences of doing yoga on a daily basis but those are not yoga’s main purpose.
Nor is yoga a religion. Yoga does lead to spiritual union with God, but as Swami Rama says, “Religions generally tell us what to do, but do not tell us how to do it. Religions tell us what not to do, but do not tell us how to avoid doing what we do not want to do.” Yoga is a spiritual and scientific philosophy and practice that is truly a lifestyle. Yoga is not a religion because it tells us how to reach the Source of our life, how to reach God. In that way, religions are not very helpful in explaining the specific actions that one should take in order to attain union with God, says Swami Rama.
The spiritual practices connected with religions, like the Catholic rosary, Lenten fasting, novenas, the different devotions, or Centering Prayer, are much more helpful than just believing in Christ because they give members of that religion some “salvation tools.” As Swami Rama says: “…yogic principles are an integral part of most religions.” However, most religions often don’t explain how those tools work and therefore can become superstitious practices, much like when a baseball player who thinks wearing a beard or eating a certain food before a game will sustain the winning streak.
Most religions also teach us what not to do, but, if for some reason you are not able to do it, according to yoga, it is not a sin. You simply need to try again. That is how humans learn—trial and error. Yoga has lots of tools to help us live a happy and healthy life. The most successful people, like yogis, are those who do not feel guilty about making a mistake, but change the way they are doing things so that a mistake does not occur again.
This yogic lifestyle of asana practice, meditation and praying certain prayers not only provides the tools needed to become one with God but also explains why those tools are effective. “Yoga teaches not only what to do, but also how to do it,” says Swami Rama.
The wonderful thing about yoga is that we don’t have to do everything that yoga suggests. However, the more we practice the restraints (yamas) and the observances (niyamas) and the postures (asanas), the more we train our life energy through breathing techniques (pranayama), the more we withdraw our attention from the external distractions of the culture (pratyahara), and the more we learn to concentrate (dharana) and meditate (dhyana) on our core being, the more we will develop a holistic lifestyle of health, joy, and union with the Source of our Life.
These yoga lifestyle choices far surpass the blessings of exercise and religion alone.
These practices also help us understand that yoga truly is a lifestyle.
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