Yoga and Skepticism

I’ve said in a previous post that there is some tension present in being an atheist and a yogi. I think it’s more to the point to say there is tension between being a skeptic and a yogi. While in general the teachers whose classes I frequent usually stick with pretty non-controversial claims about the benefits of yoga, every now and then I hear things that make me smirk and squirm a little inside. Stuff like this (not exact quotes):

  • We’re going to have a relaxed class today because it’s near the new moon. Our energy levels are lowest during the new moon.
  • Anything about chakras.
  • Anything about Kundalini.
  • Anything about Ayurveda.
  • Claims that any of the above must be real and good because it’s been practiced for 1000’s of years.

I’ve tolerated this stuff for the most part, and have even gone along with it for the sake of experimentation. I have found that, in general, these things have not been core to the classes. The chakra talk I can deal with as being symbolic for different areas and characteristics of the body. No problem. Same with Kundalini. The alternative medicine stuff does set me a bit on edge though. Especially when I read about things like this: Maybe I’ll ask my teacher about that. Were all these people just doing it wrong?

I’m into the holistic aspect of yoga, and this is why it’s been the only exercise program I’ve stuck with regularly going on two years now. I’m not in it “just for the workout,” it’s also about the mental and emotional benefit as well. I’m all for the non-rational–I don’t have to reason everything out and understand how everything works in order to accept it. What I can’t accept is the irrational.  What if some of these things being practiced as part of yoga can actually be harmful?

14 thoughts on “Yoga and Skepticism

  1. I stopped attending group-zazen sessions for similar reasons.

    Hmm… Could there be a niche avaliable for secular yoga or meditation groups?

    Interesting thought, that.

  2. A yoga studio that only includes the rational bits of yoga philosophy? And also has really good teachers?

    That would be a nice find.

    I have a feeling that most of the people dedicated enough to be really good teachers are very likely to be caught up in some of the woo…I could be wrong though.

  3. I get the feeling you’re right.

    Yet if we think in terms of niche markets, if enough people want a service, then eventually someone will come along to deliver that service.

    I suspect the demand isn’t high enough just yet – but I suspect that particular niche might just be a growing market.

  4. I have not been into yoga, but have been an atheist since a kid. Recently I learned the “Down Dog” pose as a recommendation by a colleague. I have plantar fasciitis and this pose and other techniques have helped spark my interest in yoga.

    I’m hesitant to go to classes, particularly with the mysticism so prevalent in yoga. I do think some sports clubs that offer all sorts of classes (spinning) do not introduce mysticism in yoga. I would be wierded out the first time someone tells me to pray in a class. I’d wallk out!

  5. I’m currently in a yoga teachers certification program at my local community college. I found this post because I’m grappling with the god/lord side to yoga and according to some of my classmate I’m not the only one. So I’d say just give it a little more time and more of us atheist will be out there practicing and teaching.

  6. I’m atheist and yoga practitioner for lots of years. I used to avoid all the mystic side of yoga and do only asanas and connect to my breath. But I decided to become a yoga instructor and in the training I had to learn all the other stuff. I like lots of things of yoga philosophy and think most of it is very secular. I also see it as a very old tradition and respect it a lot when I think most of it was invented so long ago when people had almost none of the actual scientific knowledge, but at the same time I recognize that a part of yoga knowledge is outdated and should be revised why the knowledge we have now.

  7. I’m a scientist and a yogi. I was brought up Catholic, then became agnostic, then atheist after reading Richard Dawkin’s “The God Delusion”, and now back to agnostic. I was never very spiritual, not even while I attended church. Now that I’ve been doing yoga for almost a year, I finally understand the concept of “spirituality”. It’s interesting that Bill mentioned if someone asks them to pray, they’d walk out of the class. I was like that too during my strict atheist phase. But what if you’re not asked to pray to God? What if you just close your eyes and focused on your breath? Your mind would probably start fighting you, make all sort of comments, and do anything to distract you. It’s just the nature of the human brain. It’s really difficult for it to be at peace and be non-judgmental. Many people need to surrender to a higher being to feel at peace, but if you’re an atheist, it’s still helpful to just surrender… to the nature of the unsettling mind perhaps. That’s spirituality I think.

    In terms of causing harm in irrational yoga teachings, I don’t know, there will always be people who are drawn to mysticism, whether it’s taught by yoga teachers or some other community. A good portion of society seems to tend to make up their conclusions based on weak inferences and stories that sound good. It’s human tendency. Education helps with critical thinking a bit but I’ve known people with science degrees who abandon the basic concept of “the scientific method” and fully embrace all, including the outdated, and even the disproved, aspects of alternative medicine. Perhaps more rational atheists/skeptics should take up teacher training and help spread rational messages, like Laura said.

  8. Yoga originates in India, which has the oldest history of skepticism and atheism that has been found. Look up the Charvakas and the Lokayatas.

    Yoga itself is an extension of Samkhya philosophy which is atheistic as there are no God, creator or ‘cosmic consciousness,’ just the impersonal interactions of energy and matter. Patanjali added the concept of ‘Ishvara’ which some people interpret as meaning a personal god, though this can also be translated as an individual’s highest potential.

    So considering all this, I don’t see any contradiction in atheism and Yoga. Even many cultural Hindus consider themselves atheists and yet can participate in the same way as atheists in the west participate in Christmas. In terms of the philosophy of Samkhya, it is not a dogma and we are learning new things all the time through science and observations. We are constantly updating our knowledge, which is one of the benefits of not following a religion.

    By the way, you DO yoga, you do not follow yoga.

  9. I’m taking a yoga class this summer, and I’ve been worried about this. Partly because the course description says there will be lessons in “yoga philosophy.”

  10. I am currently in a 200 hour teacher training in the Bhakti yoga tradition. I didn’t realize *how* Bhakti this was, as the classes I attended at the studio were all brilliantly taught and felt grounding and clearing and all the things that attracted me to yoga. Not gym yoga, but breath and just something more valuable to my life as a whole.

    So now I have a near evangelical… okay, an evangelical Bhagavad Gita teacher who studied under a famous guru and I don’t accept “guru” I don’t believe in a higher power at all, no reincarnation… I used to not mind mantras as they felt good and centering but now I feel uncomfortable and even irritable and I don’t want to do them. I feel silly chanting to Krishna and Rama now that I realize what it is about in this serious tradition (such as it is.) I don’t believe in intelligent design and when I ask for clarification the response I get is always back to the Gita. And it seems judgmental in every explanation. I feel more disturbed each week.

    I love the classes. I love teaching yoga. I don’t mind Buddhist chanting. Pranayama is beneficial, I feel. I was a dancer so I am very attuned to my body and to bodies in general. And I have a Ph.D. and I am a skeptic and I feel like such an outsider. There are 12 of us women in the class and there is only one other woman who doesn’t buy all this stuff.

    The way the information is presented–really by one person in particular, the Gita person–is like: this is the true because Krishna said it. If you love to eat and you become obese and you follow your desire to eat you can be born into the next life as a monkey. I asked what is wrong with being a monkey and the teacher replied that monkeys are not conscious of god or of their own beingness. Well, god forbid I eat too much unless I really love bananas… but you know, swinging from trees seems really fun to me and I do love bananas, but the lice and nit picking and eating parts I really can do without. Lucky for me I am in no danger of being overweight.

    The other woman asked if animals could be born again as humans and the teacher said it was rare. It just–there are stupid contradictions everywhere and no one (teaching) seems to have checked into any of this. They have studied Ayuveda and the yogic traditions intensely, but they haven’t don’t any research on alternative views or interpretations or *context*.or history in which this developed.

    The BG teacher told us The Sutras were useless to us and we shouldn’t even read them because they were written 5000 years ago for celibate monks who devoted their lives to meditating in caves. So since we are women, it has nothing to do with us. (But I enjoy reading the Yoga Sutras… ) The teacher said the only book we should read ever (and continuously until we die so we can be sure to have Krishna’s name on our lips at the moment we die otherwise we will not go to him) is the Gita. Well, no wonder they know nothing else. But wasn’t yoga developed 5000 years ago by and for celibate monks who devoted their lives to meditating in caves… so why is yoga relevant and not the Sutras? And the BG, wasn’t that about 2000 or so years ago and why is that relevant?

    Well, apparently we women who are meant to be controlled by men… there is hope for us even us low lives can be redeemed. And anyway, we are born into these bodies because of our karma, so… and our lives are such because of our karma… (which is changeable, but it says something about us and who we were…?)


    I love the practice of yoga and I thought of myself as a “spiritual” person before I began this training. But if spiritual means related to god, if yoga means unite, re-unite (yoke or re-yoke?) and religion means re-something related to god and they are telling me yoga is a religion… I am just SO FRUSTRATED.

    I could leave the training, but I really want to be certified. I have no job–a family member dug into his retirement account (and he is 70) to pay for this. (He is a Christian who, because of my values, tells me I am Christian, but that is another story… and I am *not* Christian–I simply have values.) And there is no refund at this point…

    I feel really distressed and out of place. I mean, I *don’t* fit in. But there I am. I aqm having to translate everything in my head so I can take it in, like… translating–okay, praying now, I will focus on my breath and just respect their practice. I’ve decided I cannot chant with them in praise of Krishna or Rama or any other chant prayer. I mean, freedom of religion–freedom of non-religion: I hope I will be respected. I feel guilty and as if I am being disrespectful by abstaining. But I simply cannot anymore do this. I would not sing praises to Jesus (a man I do not believe existed — part myth and part many different men, perhaps, depending on which history of Christianity you choose–and I certainly do not believe “the Gospel Truth.”

    Gosh, the “smarter” I get, the harder it is to negotiate this world. :/

    I am wondering what my future as a yoga teacher, if there even is a future as a yoga teacher, looks like. I feel it is such a beautiful practice–but is it? I am confused. And it is pure agony now being there when there are prayers, chanting mantras, the whole chakra presentation, the Ayurveda, required Kirtan… and they are all so happy about it — smiling happy faces — and at the same time they seem kind of vacant, most of them at the studio. Not the other teachers there who are not a part of the training, but the training people. Mystics. And I used to love mysticism. But then I was young.

    I am going to look up what someone said previously about the tradition of yoga and atheism. It would help me a lot if I could know that. Though I also find the more I learn, the more I don’t know what to do during this training. All the other women are so supportive and nobody is all religion-crazy, they are just normal USA religion types, kind of just acknowledging god or a higher being or something, as they say, “greater than myself” — as if I don’t see anything greater than myself in life! Actually, I don’t even believe in a self–see, I am REALLY damned!

    Anyway, thank you for this blog and for this post and thank you to everyone who commented yes please do re-begin an atheist yoga tradition because I want to join in. It is so hard. And I worry that my non-acceptance of the very principles of Bhakti are going to get in my way of getting teaching jobs. I certainly cannot work at their studios. If anyone read this, and I know my grammar sucks (no sleep) and my comment is years after the post–if anyone reads this and is a yoga teacher practicing, please tell me how you got through the teacher training and how you are doing what you are doing. And what you do when you have to attend sessions with evangelical Bhakti Gita fanatics just to get your hours in! If it were a Christian preacher, I would just walk out because that is so pervasive. But since I have not been in this position before and I am not that familiar with the Gita (I haven’t finished reading it) I am not sure what to do in this cirucmstance. They know my position, but it feels as if they don’t accept it or they think, well, yes, she is an atheist but she can believe in Kristna or just god or once I explain the consequences for her reincarnation or, most specifically, once she understands the true meaning of the Gita and the joy and comfort found there she will embrace it.

    They are blind. And I feel estranged. The practice I have loved is somewhat souring. 😦 I am sorry this is so long.

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