Many people ask this question: “Is Yoga a religion?” My answer would be, “No and yes.” How could it be both no and yes? Yoga is not a religion, so in that sense, the answer is no; but it is a synthesis of all the religions, so in that sense, it is yes. That is why we present Yoga as a scientific system. This scientific method is found in every religion. It is the fundamental basis of all religions. Or in other words, every religion has Yoga as its backbone. Yoga is mainly a way of life, and it is the basis of all the different philosophies, different religions, different faiths. My answer probably raises a further question: Is there another side to religion? Yes.

Each religion has two sides. The superficial, or as Master Sivananda puts it, “the nonessential part” or the decorative part, and the fundamental part. The essential part is the one without which no religion can exist. All the houses have different foundations, walls and roofs. Without the foundation, walls and roof, a house is not a full house. Then what is the nonessential? The interior and exterior decorations, the gardens outside, the plants, the light fixtures, the draperies. These things always vary. You decorate to suit your taste, isn’t it? Your house need not be the same as another house. In fact, you might want it to be a little different from another person’s house. If all the houses were the same, we’d lose the charm that comes with visiting someone else’s home.

Religion is also like that, and the fundamental part is what we call Yoga. We don’t worry about the superficial part. That we leave to you. Choose any design you want or create your own design. That’s what makes the difference in religions. When you say: Buddhism, Catholicism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Shinto, Judaism—all the “isms” are different decorations. But they all have a basic principle. What is that? The fitness of the individual to realize the Cosmic One. An individual is essentially a part of the Cosmic One. Though we talk of the cosmos as separate, we belong to that. We are within that cosmos. Similarly, without every drop of water there is no sea, there is no ocean. The ocean consists of the drops of water put together. We are all drops. Separately, we call ourselves individuals, separate from other persons. But, to do so means that we have lost sight of the Cosmic Truth—the fundamental oneness, the spiritual oneness.

The purpose of religion, or Yoga, is to realize that oneness. The goal is to realize the basic truth of the spiritual oneness. How? By refining the individual. Individuals get somehow bottled up with their individuality. And that makes them forget what they share in common. This ignorance that makes us feel totally different from others is to be removed. When we open up, we realize that everybody is equal and that we are, ultimately, all one. This doesn’t mean that we lose the individuality. All we lose is the ignorance that limits us as separate individuals. We still live as individuals, but we live with the knowledge of oneness. When this knowledge is obtained, then you are one with the Cosmos, or one with the Cosmic Knowledge, Cosmic Consciousness or Cosmic Essence—whatever way you call it.

When we allow things to bind us we get defined and say, “I am black,” “I am white,” “I am brown.” If we allow our country to bind us we become,  “American,” “European,” “Indian,” but, in truth, you belong to the entire universe. You can stay in America and have that be your address. But don’t get bound to America. If we realize that, where is the need to have wars between countries? Only when we learn to love each other equally can we avoid these problems. What we have to do is to remove those things that cause us to define and limit ourselves, and that process is what you call refinement. So in simple language you were fine, then you got de-fined, so now you have to re-fine yourself. That means you have to return to that fineness. What is that refinement? To be equal to everybody. Once you get that refinement and you see everybody as a part of you, that is what is called “Yoga.”

Yoga means that you are united. You are one with everybody. You have come together. You are not separated. Religion exists for that purpose. But, unfortunately, reading a holy scripture daily doesn’t seem to be the answer. You keep it in your pocket but then take a gun out and kill your own brother. In between, if you have the time, you just open the book and read it. What do you read? “Love your neighbor as your own self.” No wonder people lose faith in religion. Why? Because it’s not practiced. Go deep into your own faith—whatever faith you belong to—go to the very root, the very core of your religion. Don’t just be fascinated by the superficial structure alone. Go to the very foundation. You will see Yoga there.

All the principles we talk about in terms of Yoga, you will see in your own religion. What are the common principles behind all these religions and what we call Yoga? The basic requirement is to have a clean mind, a calm mind, a tranquil mind. That is not possible if you don’t have a healthy, calm and peaceful body. The entire purpose of Yoga and religion is to keep the mind and body in proper shape. Of course, in the field of Yoga, we see an extra interest in the body. That doesn’t mean that other religions don’t talk about the body. They have their own indirect exercises for the body. For example, some Hindus go every morning to the top of the hill. They climb at least a thousand steps to reach the temple, early morning, before sunrise, do their worship, come down, walk around the hill. Muslims, when they do their prayers, they go in and out of a prayer pose, almost like Surya Namaskar. Buddhists sit and meditate in vajrasana. So, a posture is also necessary to steady the mind.

By the Yoga postures and breathing you, more or less, bring health to the body, you relax the body, you take out all the tension. And practices like chanting, meditation, repeating a mantra, are very helpful in eliminating the toxins in the mind. As there are toxins in the body, we have toxins in the mind, too. That means anything that disturbs your mind is a toxin. Remember that. I am not talking in terms of, “Did you tell a lie? Oh, that’s a sin. Steal? That’s a sin.” But in the yogic language, “Did you do anything to disturb your mind?” If so, then, that’s a sin, or a toxin. So your thinking should be like that. The main cause for the disturbance of the mind is the selfishness of the individual: I want everything, I want to achieve, I want to do that. The “I” and “mine.” This feeling is the main reason for the disturbance.

Therefore, you should dedicate your life. Sacrifice. Dedicate. Renounce your selfish interest. Each religion expresses this in its own language: Christian monks would say, “Embrace poverty.” I don’t see any difference between renunciation and embracing poverty. What is the real meaning of embracing poverty? Renouncing your personal attachment. Without that renunciation, without that spirit of dedication, you can’t keep the mind calm and clean. A calm and clean mind is called a pure mind. Without that purity God cannot be seen.

Sometimes people ask me: “All right, this all seems to be good. But it all seems to be just concerned with the individual. You seem to be interested in your peace. You just work, do Yoga postures, breathing. But what about the world outside? There are so many calamities, wars, fights, quarrels, pollution. Can Yoga help?” I say it is helping; indeed it’s only Yoga that can help. Why? Because where should the peace begin? It should begin with you. Who is the cause for all these wars, world hunger and pollution? Human minds. So, unless the human mind is freed from greed, jealousy and hatred, there will always be wars. If you free your mind of all these troubles, at least that part of the world is free from worry and botheration. So if we want a peaceful world outside, we have to begin with ourselves.

By Sri Swami Satchidananda