Many people undertake yoga to improve their flexibility, reduce muscular pain, tone their bodies, and generally improve their physical health. However, anyone who has even vaguely researched yoga will have heard about the spiritual elements of this ancient practice. Those who go into yoga purely to enhance their body are only scratching the surface of what yoga is all about. In the Western world, our spiritual traditions do not tend to involve much physicality, so the idea of yoga as a spiritual discipline can be hard to understand. Here, briefly, we explore the concept of spirituality as it relates to yoga.
The word ‘yoga’ roughly translates as ‘to join’ or ‘to unite’. Precisely what is being ‘joined’ and ‘united’ depends greatly on how you yourself approach things. When many talk about the spiritual aspect of yoga, they refer to ‘energy’. This ‘energy’, or ‘spirit’ is what unites all aspects of the world – and it is this with which yoga seeks to ‘unite’ us. However, this ‘energy’ is huge, and all encompassing, meaning that it has huge unity scope. If you wish to feel more unity with yourself, or with the planet, or with those around you, or with anything else, yoga – practised with an eye to spirituality – will help. Ultimately, of course, all of these things are connected, so the spiritual yoga practitioner will end up far more ‘united’ to the universal energy as a whole than they were before. This may sound a bit vague. In purely practical terms, this manifests as a greater connection with yourself, greater self-understanding, and an enhanced sense of connection to (and perspective on) the wider world.
How does this spiritual unity come about? Well, it has a lot to do with awareness. In order to enact a yoga pose, one must be very aware of one’s body, one’s individual muscles, how they work, and how they can be controlled. This intense awareness of the body, if undertaken in a meditative mindset, leads naturally to a greater awareness of self in general. This doesn’t necessarily have the effect people think it will. Some seek ‘spirituality’ in yoga expecting it to fundamentally alter their behaviors. While it can certainly do that, it’s often not in the way that people expect. What yoga does is to give people an insight into their own souls – into their motivations, drives, desires, and darkness. This is no ‘quick fix’ – it’s not even a ‘fix’ at all. What it is is a process of assimilation, and unification, which enables us to understand ourselves, forgive (but not condone) our faults, and accept ourselves for who we are. While your life may well change as a result of undertaking spiritual yoga – it is unlikely to do so in the way that you expect. So don’t go into a yoga class thinking ‘I’m going to meditate myself into a better job/new relationship/new mindset’. These things may come – but not in for the reasons (or in the manner) that you expect them to.
Is It Religious?
While some see yoga as a religious practice, it is not a religion in and of itself. Many religions do use yoga in order to increase connection with their particular higher power, and to enhance spirituality, but most would agree that it is not itself an intrinsically religious practice in the same way that, say, praying is. Indeed, some people who wish to tap into their spiritual side, but do not wish to subscribe to the dogmas (and problematic histories) of major religions frequently take up yoga. Yoga has no gods, no saviors, no afterlife, no liturgy, no dogma, no feast days, no ‘sins’ (unless you count bad posture!), and (in an ideal class) no judgement. Yoga cannot, therefore, be described as a ‘religion’, yet it lends its practitioners many of the same spiritual and emotional benefits provided by religions. Of course, if you did wish to practice yoga in a religious manner, it is certainly possible to do so – the beauty of yoga is that it can be used in many ways, to enhance unity with a great many aspects of your life. And there is no need to feel that you are somehow ‘betraying’ your own religion by turning to yoga – if anything, yoga will bring you closer to your spirituality, whatever that spirituality is based in.