Not to make light of this question, it is a valid question and one that deserves a thoughtful and complete response as we have given below, but just food for thought: Missouri passed a law requiring all yoga studios and anyone that taught a yoga class to add MO sales tax to the fee charged as the state determined that Yoga was NOT a religious institution or organization but a taxable entertainment and/or service similar to a personal trainer or gym membership and thus not exempt from paying state taxes. De facto, the state of Missouri has argued our stance successfully even though all of us must now chip in sales tax for that correct argument! But for the more serious and philosophical reasonings, read on.
Yoga is not a Religion
At the closing ceremony of the "Yoga into the 21st Century" conference in New York City in September of 2000, T.K.V. Desikachar offered some thought-provoking comments on the subject of the relationship between hatha yoga and religion. "Yoga was rejected by Hinduism," he noted, "because yoga would not insist that God exists. It didn't say there was no God but just wouldn't insist there was." And, he added, there was an important lesson for yogis inherent in this schism: "Yoga is not a religion and should not [affiliate] with any religion." Yoga is not a religion. True. It is very fashionable nowadays to emphasize this point, or to say, as a reporter put it, -- "Yoga has shed its ancient mysticism." This may also be true in many places where yoga is taught, especially in health clubs.
But the reality of yoga remains. It is a rich, complex science or system or art. For in-depth studies we refer you to the works of Georg Feuerstein who has devoted his life in researching yoga. Here we just want to point out a few things for our students.
First of all, in what is considered "the bible of hatha yoga," Light on Yoga, its author B.K.S. Iyengar, uses a fascinating simile where he likens yoga to philology. He writes: "Philology is not a language but the science of languages, the study of which will enable the student to learn his own language better. Similarly, Yoga is not a religion by itself. It is the science of religions, the study of which will enable a sadhaka (seeker) the better to appreciate his own faith." (p. 39)
Originating in the Himalayas more than 5,000 years ago as a method of spiritual inquiry, it came to the West 103 years ago. Patanjali, who codified the oral tradition in 200 BC defined yoga as "the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind." The root word "yoga," -- "yuj" in Sanskrit, means to yoke together, to unite.
Hatha Yoga Offers Countless Health Benefits
The health benefits that flow from the practice of hatha yoga are immediately appealing. Those who come to yoga seeking relief from a variety of ailments usually find it. The recognized list of those ailments that respond positively to yoga therapy grows each year. One reason why yoga’s benefits are so many is that it affects all the systems in the body: musculo-skeletal, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and nervous systems.
Here are a Few Specific Examples
Yoga postures can relieve back pain. 492 back pain sufferers were asked in a Klein Sobel survey (Men’s Health Oct ‘91) who was most likely to provide them relief. For moderate to dramatic long term relief, yoga teachers were listed first, followed by physiatrists and physical therapists.
Secondly, yoga postures improve circulation. Think of the body as a balloon filled with water. To get the water to move around in the balloon you could shake it (with jogging) or you could turn the balloon upside down (with yoga inversions. There are easy upside down postures accessible to beginners without their needing to do more advanced inversions like headstands.) You could also squeeze the balloon (with yoga postures like twists or forward bends or backbends). Inversions also directly benefit the heart by increasing the volume of blood coursing through it. Yoga "jumpings" from one posture to another, as in aerobic or ashtanga yoga, is yet another way.
Hatha Yoga is Best Known in the West
The richness of yoga is evident in its various expressions: karma (action), bhakti (devotion), jnana (knowledge), raja (meditation), tantric and kundalini yoga (focussed on energy center, "chakras"), and the form most popular in the West, -- hatha yoga which is sometimes misleadingly called physical yoga, since the postures look like exercises. There are scores of yoga postures with colorful names like mountain, dog or tree pose. They include standing poses, forward bends, backbends, twists, inversions and balance poses. But they are not exercises, they are postures, because breathing and awareness are not essential in exercising whereas they are in practicing postures.
Hatha Yoga Compares Favorably to Other Exercise
All in all, hatha yoga is actually the precursor of all other exercises, and of stress management as well. It is the oldest and most thoroughly tested physical and mental form of exercise known. It has a lot to offer because it is not a joint-jarring exercise whose repetitive muscle contractions can lead to chronic stiffness or lack of flexibility. Secondly, it is possible to destabilize the body with improper stretching, or, at the other extreme, to create unbalanced muscle bulk (which is actually scar tissue), by working specific muscles in isolation. In contrast, when practicing one hatha yoga posture, different muscles are simultaneously stretched and strengthened in an organic way.
Even Hatha Yoga is Deeper than We Think
By using the body as a tool for concentration, hatha yoga unites body and mind. A definition of posture from Judith Lasater, a master yoga teacher from San Francisco who has written several books on yoga states: "Yoga is a mental act that expresses the thought of the body." Patanjali’s ancient definition is: "Posture is staying with ease, -- (or), abiding in stillness." Students are taught how to go into poses only as deeply as ease and stillness allow. B.K.S. Iyengar notes what happens: "When you are fully in the body, you meet the soul."