This post is going to seem somewhat contradictory to my last post, I am Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Atheist, Agnostic, etc. So I Can’t Practice Yoga, but it’s not. In fact, I would say this is that post’s complement or perhaps foil.
I was very clear last time that yoga is not a religion, and I stand by that assertion. I also said, however, that it is a way of life and I did NOT say that it was not spiritual in nature. Now, one does not necessarily need to be a spiritual person to practice yoga, and if you are a practitioner of any faith, I think the teachings of yoga can be applied, but there is a spiritual, non-religious aspect of yoga that I want to touch on.
While when you practice some styles of yoga you may reap immense physical benefits, included, but not limited to: increased upper body strength, increased core strength, improved posture, improved back health, increased mobility and flexibility, improved long health, improved cardio-vascular health, better circulation and overall improved feeling of wellness, many forms of exercise would achieve similar results.
However, yoga is different. Yoga offers more.
Yoga is different from competitive sports because it is not competitive. It is different from the martial arts because it is not about defense or offense or fighting of any kind. It is different from traditional cardio efforts such as running or biking because it is more holistic. It is different from weight lifting because it is about health first and aesthetic later. Some types of rigorous yoga and many of the postures are incredibly athletic, but that does not mean that a young world-class athlete can do any more than a middle-aged mom who practices yoga daily. In fact, he likely won’t be able to. I would never say NOT to run or swim or play basketball or ski or lift weights or box. I did not say yoga is BETTER; I said yoga is DIFFERENT because yoga may offer more than any one of those forms of exercise can alone. All great athletes recognize the importance of cross-training. Yoga can be one very important element of your cross-training. Do the exercise or sports you love, but consider adding yoga because yoga is more than just physical fitness and improving your mental health emotional health, and maybe your spiritual life may improve your golf game, and it will also likely have impacts on your life beyond the mat and beyond anything measurable in your physical life.
Yoga does indeed have a spiritual, while not necessarily religious, aspect to it, which is perhaps the reason WHY those who came from India to share it with the West did so. (In my next post, I discuss the idea of “cultural appropriation.”) They didn’t think Americans were physically unhealthy and needed to exercise more, I don’t think, but rather, they wanted to share the wealth and richness of a part of their culture that they felt was worthy of sharing with the world. This culture has continued. I think they felt the West was more mentally unhealthy, and were offering a tool to heal. I truly believe they brought us yoga out of love for humanity.
I’m not a guru, and I do not consider myself anywhere nearing an expert on yogic philosophy, the Vedas, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali or any of the other ancient texts. I did do a one-month training in India, where I did study those teachings and other aspects of yoga philosophy with experts. I have spent time at more than one yoga ashram and have been under the tutelage of gurus. I have practiced meditation in sacred sites of Hinduism, Buddhism and Sihkism. I have read a fair amount on Zen Buddhist, Dharma and other teachings. All of this I think has enhanced me and makes me a better teacher, but I do not TEACH those studies. I simply try to let them infuse my practice, my teaching and my daily life.
Rishikesh, where the “Beatles ashram” is, has literally hundreds of yoga schools. I did my 300-hour Ashtanga-teacher training there. I learned from teachers who have been living and breathing yoga every day since they were born. They were mostly Hindus, they all read Sanskrit and they taught us yoga philosophy and the writing of Patanjali, which is considered the original text of Ashtanga yoga. I swam in the holy Ganges. I sat in ancient temples with silent monks and meditated. I chanted in temples. I explored my own mind, body and soul. I did not decide to live in India and become a monk, but I believe I took those teachings with me and they form the foundation of my own teaching.
At the heart of yoga is the breathwork.
When we practice, we focus on the breath both marrying it to our movement and letting it help stabilize us when we are still. The asana practice of yoga is a moving meditation, which simply means that while you are practicing the asanas, your mind tends to be free from other distractions. For some people, this may bring them to feel a spiritual connection to their god, the earth, the universe or an energy or light source. For others, not. At the very least, your mind is very focused on your body and where you are in space.
Some people come to yoga only interested in the physical aspects of it. They may not even know about the breathwork and they may be disinterested and even uncomfortable about anything spiritual. I have had MANY students like this. What I have often found, however, is that those very students often report that despite their reservations, they end up enjoying savasana and the short meditation at the end of practice. Many end up starting with the physical and being lead to meditation and other more spiritual aspects of the practice. If not spirituality, they at least take away a sense of peace, tranquility, quiet, stillness.
I personally consider myself agnostic. I do not subscribe to a particular belief system. My family is sort of Catholic, but I was not really raised Catholic. I wasn’t raised praying or talking to god. I was pretty uncomfortable in religious settings and would not have called myself spiritual. Yet I have never been made to feel uncomfortable in a yoga class, even a more traditional class with more chanting, etc. In fact, I discovered that I loved it.
I have shared a lot about how I came to yoga, and, for me, I was, indeed, seeking something spiritual. However, yoga did not change my belief in a god or lack their of, and I wasn’t looking for universal guidance or comfort in something greater than myself. I think I just liked the traditions, the peace I saw in practitioners, the spirit of oneness without the need for a god and the lack of rules, dogma and punishment, etc.
The thing that is beautiful about yoga, especially when taught by a great teacher who embodies that spiritual aspect, is I think that everyone in the room begins to feel a sense of peace, calm, relaxation, tranquility and mindfulness when being guided by that teacher.
We don’t all need to become monks, but I think that allowing that spirituality to seep in regardless of what our religious beliefs are, enhances our practice. If it makes us uncomfortable, there is a value in sitting with that discomfort and asking ourselves why it makes us uncomfortable. Sitting in stillness does not mean you need to be praying, thinking about god or looking to connect with the divine. If nothing else, maybe sitting in stillness just allows you to connect with yourself, and that is a form or spirituality.
Out of that may even come a sense of love. Love of oneself. Love of others. Love of humanity. Sanskrit, the ancient language of yoga, has over 200 words for love. I think that is relevant. The word “yoga” is generally translated to mean “union,” which can certainly be a union of or in love. I am not speaking of sex or the misconstrued and misunderstood tantra or kundalini practices. I mean love in its purest sense. The love of a mother to a child. The love of friends. The love between lovers.
None of this can exist without a love of oneself.
The practice of the asanas can create a sense of confidence, strength and vitality. The practice of meditating can create a sense of calm and peace. All of this, may contribute to a deeper connection, understanding and union with one’s own self and may foster love of oneself. When one can love oneself and treat oneself with caring and compassion, it is much easier to treat others with this same love. If one believes in a higher power, love may fill one’s heart when they pray, meditate or think about god or whatever that higher power is to them. That love of humanity may lead to greater social awareness and social action. All of this may come out of yoga, which is not something than any other form of exercise can boast.
Some practitioners will want to explore all of this and will seek out teachers to guide them in this journey. Some will prefer to just attend yoga class and do savasana once a week. Some will allow yoga to lead them to a personal meditation practice. Yoga is not prescriptive, and it is not one-size fits all, so everyone will put into it and get out of it exactly what is right for them.
The actual goal of performing the asanas is that your body be limber enough to allow you to sit comfortably in meditation, but if you never choose to sit in meditation, you will still reap the physical benefits of yoga, and I believe that you will also reap the benefits of a more quiet mind. Will this lead you to ponder the meaning of life, connect to a higher source, find god? Maybe, but more likely, what I have observed in practitioners of yoga, is that it leads them to be more mindful in their daily life, more kind in their treatment of others, more aware of both their own internal self and the wider world, and more able to give and to receive love to themselves and others.
It is my belief that the more people that practice yoga…even if they only do it for the physical practice….the better everyone will be for it. The more love and positivity that will be generated and released into the world. If it leads you to a deeper spiritual practice that meshes with your existing religious practice or if you develop a spiritual practice for the first time or if you maintain a strict non-spiritual life, you will still gain from the mind, body breath awareness that sets yoga apart from lifting weights, Zumba class, playing a sport or any other form of physical fitness.
Maybe just try it. Worst case scenario, you find it boring, but your triceps get more toned and you can finally do a push-up. Best case scenario, it brings you to a more healthy, balanced life and a feeling of connectivity, which is, after all, what yoga means: union.
Love and light, my friends.