When I began studying yoga back in 1976, it was considered a rather bizarre and esoteric interest which was not shared by many. Nowadays, yoga has become very popular, and it seems "yoga" classes are offered at every gym. But, what exactly is "yoga"? Most often people in the west think of yoga as the postures or "asanas" which are done in a typical gym class, a series of stretching and balancing exercises. This, however, is just one aspect of "hatha" yoga and pertains specifically to the asanas, the physical exercises. There are many different forms and variations of these exercises including Vinyasa, Ashtanga, Kripalu, Iyengar, and others which you will find advertised in yoga magazines. But all of these together are still only one aspect of "yoga," that which is approached primarily in terms of pretty poses and/or gymnastic contortions.
Recently there has been some dispute as to whether or not yoga instructors should be licensed by the government, specifically, whether it is appropriate for the government to intervene in "religious" matters. Is yoga a religion? No. However, yoga is a spiritual practice! But, how can exercise be "spiritual"?!
The fact that we may ask this question demonstrates the insidious gnostic dualism that pervades the spiritual traditions of both east and west, the idea that spirit and matter are at odds. We divide our experience into categories of "sacred" and "profane," so that the spirit is sacred and church is sacred, and pretty much everything else is profane: our body, our work, our studies, our everyday activities. We don't think of exercise as "spiritual" because we do not treat our body as if it is sacred. But yoga takes a completely different approach.
The traditional meaning of "yoga" is "union," as in union of body, mind and soul, and ultimately, union with the Divine. Our body is the physical manifestation of our soul on this earth, or as we say in Christianity, "your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit." The asanas we do in hatha yoga are a spiritual practice because taking care of our body and our health is therefore a spiritual duty. The standard explanation is that asanas help prepare us physically for seated meditation and the more advanced or esoteric yoga practices such as kundalini or kriya yoga, which involve working with the subtle energies that move through our nervous system and spine. However, the breath, "ruach" is spirit! So when we do asana along with pranayama, or the correct breathing technique, this intimacy of body and breath is itself direct participation with Spirit.
Yoga, however, is not limited to these esoteric meditative practices, but rather encompasses all aspects of life! The Bhagavad Gita, an ancient Indian text, describes several different yogic paths whereby enlightenment may be realized including bhakti yoga (devotion), jnana yoga (knowledge/realization), and karma yoga (action), among others. In yoga everything we do is offered up to the Divine: our heart, our mind, our body and our activities. Therefore not only prayer or religious ceremonies are sacred, but also physical exercise, intellectual studies, and our work, everything that we do, is sacred when it is done with the right attitude and intention. Digging a ditch, pulling up weeds in the garden, cooking, cleaning, all can be a form of yoga.
While the yogic approach to life is most definitely "spiritual," it is not a "religion" per se because it does not belong to any one particular denomination. It is a spiritual practice that is used by Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, and people of all different faiths. Now the question might arise, with regard to the Divine, does one have to believe in God to practice yoga? Not necessarily. If you are agnostic, or not a particularly religious person, you can think of the "Divine" in whatever meaning it has for you, for example, your "Higher Power" as they say in AA. If you are an atheist and do not believe in any form of divinity whatsoever, then you can practice yoga in terms of living your life to be the best person that you can be. If you seriously practice the asanas and meditations with an open mind and take this practice to an advanced level, however, it is likely that you may indeed experience something Divine.
So, if you take the "yoga" class at the gym, will you achieve enlightenment and oneness with the universe? Perhaps, if you approach it with the right intent. And what if you are totally uninterested in the spiritual aspects of yoga, will the physical exercise of the asanas still be beneficial? Yes, in the sense that any exercise is beneficial. However, you will not get nearly as much out of it.
As for the question of whether or not yoga should be licensed and controlled by the government, in my opinion absolutely nothing good can come of this, and it is both impossible and inappropriate. But that is a subject for a different blog.