Yoga can bring about a new kind of awareness.

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Yoga, for some, becomes a spiritual experience, leading to confusion about how its practice impacts one's religious beliefs. Fortunately, the vast majority of people who explore yoga actually discover that it strengthens and deepens their own faith.

In her book Back Care Basics, my colleague Dr. Mary Pullig Schatz explains: “Because yoga has its roots in the Hindu culture of India, there is a popular misconception that yoga is a religion. Just as the practice of the Japanese martial arts of karate and aikido does not require becoming a Buddhist, the practice of yoga does not require you adopt Hinduism. Rather yoga is nonsectarian, promoting health and harmonious living.”

Yoga is fabulous for physical health. A regular regimen will strengthen your muscles, increase your flexibility and improve your balance. In Western cultures, many people pursue the practice strictly for these benefits. However, most long-term yoga participants discover that the ultimate goal of yoga is to strengthen your connection with the source of all creation. In many cultures, this source is called God. In other cultures, the source has different names. Regardless of your religious beliefs, the practice of yoga enhances your physical and mental well-being and can strengthen your relationship to the Divine.

What is the difference between spirituality and religion?

Dr. Larry Dossey, a leader in the field of spirituality and healing, describes spirituality as “a sense of connectedness with something greater than oneself.” Dr. Rachel Remen describes it in this way: “Spirituality is inclusive. We all participate in the spiritual at all times, whether we know it or not. There’s no place to go to be separated from the spiritual. The most important thing in defining the spirit is the recognition that spirit is an essential need of human nature.”

Religion is an organized system of faith or worship. According to Dr. Dossey, it is “a ritualized form of spirituality involving a specific set of beliefs, worship and conduct.” As a path for spiritual growth, yoga enhances and deepens many different religious practices. Yoga is not a system of faith or worship, but it does foster a sense of connectedness with something greater than oneself. In other words, yoga fosters spirituality in a way that is compatible with many different religious beliefs.

How does one practice spirituality in yoga?

Many people begin to cultivate a greater sense of connection with each other, with the physical world and with the Divine simply by practicing the physical postures, control of the breath and meditation. People who choose to can also study the moral precepts of yoga. These guidelines for healthy living are known as the yamas and the niyamas.

The yamas are universal guidelines for ways of interacting with others and include nonviolence, truthfulness, no stealing, moderation and no hoarding. The niyamas are personal observances and include purity, contentment, zeal, self-study and devotion to a higher power. Together, the yamas and the niyamas are moral and behavioral observances that serve as a catalyst to self-acceptance, healthy relationships and spiritual growth.