So you’ve gotten curious about Yoga, and now you want to learn more about its past.
You know it’s from India, and you’ve probably heard someone say that it’s a Hindu tradition. But then there are others who insist it’s a Buddhist tradition, too.
So which is it?
In this article, we’ll explore the answers to the question of whether yoga is Buddhist or Hindu.
A layered history
Yoga is a tradition with a long and fascinating history, and its relationship with the religions of India means that perhaps asking whether it’s Buddhist or Hindu isn’t quite the right question to ask.
But it is a step in the right direction.
The short answer is that yoga is both Buddhist and Hindu. Not only that, it also belongs to the Jains and Sikhs
There are principles that these four religions share in common, but at the same time they all have distinct traditions of yoga, all separate from one another and defined by their understanding of the world and of human nature.
And all four traditions, as you might guess, are quite different from yoga as it is understood in the west.
Regardless of your beliefs, if you’re interested in yoga, it is definitely good to have a deeper understanding of what yoga truly is.
Yoga and the Vedas
Yoga slowly took form in India over two thousand years ago.
Traditions that resembled yoga were mentioned in some of the earliest Vedic texts, and yoga as we know it was described by the late Vedic texts, the Upanishads.
But it’s not like yoga was just enshrined once, in one set of texts. As the ages passed and many subtly different traditions of Hinduism arose, so was yoga penned and described over and over again. It had been described in Hindu texts as old as 3,500 years, and as young as 500.
Hinduism, as a religion, is marked by the belief in the primacy of the Vedas and the Hindu Brahman.
It is tempting, given how yoga has been so prominently described in the most important texts of the Hindu faith, to see yoga as a Hindu tradition.
And yet, reality is not quite that simple. There’s more to the tale.
The Buddhist Connection
Buddhism was born around 2500 years ago. Its birth was contemporary with the earliest forms of yoga, and in fact the earliest Buddhists texts talked of yoga as being important to personal enlightenment and peace.
In Buddhism, yoga encompasses a variety of techniques which aim to help you develop the 37 aids to awakening. Ultimately, it is supposed to help you attain enlightenment and break free of the cycle of rebirth.
That yoga is an important part of Buddhism makes more sense when you stop to think about just how it was formed.
The Buddha was an Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama, and he was raised as a Hindu and was thus raised on Hindu traditions. And on his journey to enlightenment, he had consulted with sages and yogis before ultimately rejecting their philosophies and making his own.
One may liken Buddhism’s relationship to Hinduism to the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. They are separate, yet related, with many shared traditions and principles.
Yoga as an Indian Tradition
Yoga itself is often portrayed in the west as a homogenous tradition sprung from ancient Hindu texts.
And when we think of Buddhism, we often think of the traditions of Japan and China, with yoga being the last thing on our mind.
But that’s far from the case.
Yoga is an integral part of all four Dharmic religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism—in their shared goal of seeking personal harmony and enlightenment.
The word itself comes from Sanskrit “yōga”, which means “yoke” or “union.” And if you think about it, the word does look and sound like the English word “yoke.”
Because yoga is, ultimately, about taking a yoke to your mind. Putting yourself in a state of being where you are in control of your thoughts, rather than the other way around.
And while Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism all have their own yoga traditions, there’s more to yoga than just these four faiths.
Interestingly enough, while yoga is strongly associated with the cultures of the Indian subcontinent, it isn’t like it was strictly confined there.
We don’t often associate Tibet and Persia with yoga, and yet these cultures have been historically acquainted with this tradition. In fact, the very first illustrated manuscript of yoga—the Bahr al-Hyat—was written in Persian, penned on the request of a Persian prince.
Yoga itself has been described in greater detail in Persian than in Sanskrit, with authors likening or relating its practices to Islam.
Tibet itself has its own tradition of Yoga, derived from Tibetan Buddhism—the so-called Five Tibetan Rites—which are an important part of Tibetan spirituality.
Yoga and Religion
One reason why people might ask if yoga is a Hindu or a Buddhist tradition is out of concern. After all, not everyone who is interested in Yoga belongs to either of these religions, and might be worried if they would be unwittingly taking part in the traditions of another religion entirely.
You might be a devout Muslim, concerned about whether you’re committing blasphemy and get persecuted for it. Or you might be a Christian and wonder if you’d be sinning by going to a yoga center.
And the answer differs.
But let me set this straight: Doing yoga won’t make you a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Jain, or a Sikh.
Yes, it is inevitable that you would be participating in another religion’s practices if you try to practice genuine yoga. But unless you go to an Indian household, chances are that you never encountered these forms of yoga.
The form of yoga being popularized in mainstream culture and by yoga centers has been secularized, and boiled down into a simple—if still somewhat mystical—set of physical exercises.
That said, of course, this is not an excuse to practice yoga anyways if the practice—even in its most secular form—is banned by authorities where you live, or if it will get you in trouble with your own spiritual authorities.
So what is Yoga, really?
The form of yoga you probably know is about moving your body and maintaining poses to free up the movement of energy in your body.
This is how yoga had been marketed in the west for ages, after all, so you can’t be faulted for having understood it in this way. Try to read up about yoga and you’ll be taught about how it’s a good exercise routine.
But as you can see, there’s more than just that. It is an entire set of disciplines that covers not just physical, but also mental and spiritual practices meant to help you control and calm your mind.
Cultural Appropriation or Appreciation?
The existence of yoga as a secular exercise routine is not without controversy, with Hindus protesting the secularization of the tradition as cultural appropriation. And they are well within their right to take offense.
They are not entirely wrong, because taking yoga, stripping it bare, and commodifying it in this way is indeed disrespectful.
That’s not to men that you have to belong to any of the three main religious traditions to exercise it. According to the Dattatreya Yoga Shastra, yoga can be practiced by anyone no matter their religion, personal beliefs, or caste.
The problem lies not in the secularization of yoga itself, but how little care and respect is given to yoga itself. It is often treated as just an exercise regimen when it’s far more than that.
Mental Health and Spiritual Fulfillment
The reason why yoga of all traditions has become so popular in the west is because it helps improve your overall well-being.
While not the main point of yoga, it is a desirable consequence of it.
After all, if you must yoke your mind and control it, then you must be healthy and balanced in body and soul.
Trying to master your mind while your body is not at harmony with itself is like trying to fetch water with a rusty bucket.
And being an old tradition, Yoga had over a thousand years to perfect itself. That’s why yoga is so good at what it does, and why even the watered down version circulating in the west is so popular.
And Western yoga?
I have already said several times in this article that the form of yoga being popularized in the West is commodified and disrespected. And it’s a point that needs repeating.
This form of yoga—western yoga—is far detached from its roots.
Yoga was popularized in Western consciousness by an Indian yogi a century ago, but the form of yoga most of us are familiar with today would have made that yogi seethe in anger were he alive to see it.
Indians find western yoga to be offensive and soulless. It has been described as watered down and white-washed to make it easier to sell to the Western market.
And part of that watering down was the removal of as many of the spiritual and metaphysical aspects of the discipline.
This is so that people who aren’t Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, or Jain can practice this ‘exotic’ tradition without feeling like they are betraying their god or committing a sin.
Centuries-old concepts and spiritualism were replaced by an easily understandable summary so that one can just get into the exercises without having to be taught to understand it.
Genuine yoga, as practiced by Indians, is very different.
Is it okay to do yoga?
At this point you might be wondering if it’s truly okay for you to do yoga.
And the answer is that, yes. It’s okay for you to do yoga no matter who you are.
Legality and religious conflicts aside, you might think twice about doing yoga, at a loss if it is a moral thing for you to do or not.
After all, yoga is an ancient tradition that has been commodified and summarily disrespected.
It’s not that strange to think that by doing yoga, you are contributing to the exploitation of something that means so much to millions of people worldwide.
But that doesn’t mean you can just walk into the nearest yoga parlor with a clean conscience.
What’s important is that you talk and listen to people who actually respect yoga as a discipline—to keep an open mind and to understand all the things you are told rather than judge, even if it might seem silly to you.
If possible, try to visit places run by actual Indians, because it is them who are most in touch with the tradition and its roots. Don’t get to it thinking it’s just a “workout routine” and instead educate yourself on its history and significance.
To bring back the analogy brought up earlier regarding martial arts, anyone can learn Taekwondo or Kung-Fu if they want, so long as they respect the art itself.
To ask whether yoga is Hindu or Buddhist is a non-question, because yoga belongs to these two religions and two others more. Or, at least, that is the case when we’re talking about genuine yoga.
But chances are that, unless you had taken a closer look at the culture and religions of the Indian subcontinent, you were thinking about Western yoga in particular.
And the fact is that even though it was introduced to the West by a Hindu monk, Western yoga cannot claim to be Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, or Jain.
It is a Western creation, formed from a limited and sanitized understanding of another culture’s traditions. If anything, Western yoga belongs to Capitalism.
But now that you are informed and know better, you now have the choice to try to look past the clean Saturday morning exercise routine and dive deeper into history.