Is this headline a contradiction, a misunderstanding, a philosophically incorrect statement? Perhaps not. As I have written many times before, yoga is not an either/or lifestyle. Yoga is a yes/and lifestyle.
In the West, yoga is often synonymous with posture practice, with various forms of hatha yoga. In its homeland India, a yogi can be anyone from a meditating swami to a ganja smoking sadhu to an ochre clad Tantric to a Bhakti-singing ecstatic to someone practicing yoga in an upper class studio in New Delhi.
In its essential purity, yoga is rooted in its body-practices, in its transcending mental outlook and inclusive spirituality. Yoga is body-centered, mind-expanding, and spiritually uplifting. Yoga is yes/and.
For Patanjali, the great philosophical sage, yoga was a deep methodology of personal transformation, which, in its purest essence transcends both religion and dogma.
Thus you will find hashish smoking sadhus in India, deeply steeped in religious tradition, reciting Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras along the burning ghats of Varanasi; you will find bespectacled pundits leafing through his works in Sanskrit in small, dusty rooms. You will not find, however, people dancing and chanting in entranced inwardness to the wisdom of Patanjali’s sacred texts. His work was much too philosophical for that.
For ecstatic examples of yoga you need Kabir or Mirabai, the medieval poet iconoclasts. The fearless Kabir stepped on religious dogma as if dusty dirt under his naked feet. Beyond convention, he embraced both Islam and Hindusim. And today, in India, you will find both Muslim and Hindu villagers singing his songs with equal amounts of devotion. And, as Kabir himself, fiercely on the guru-path, they are also yogis—yogis of the heart.
Mirabai broke the chains of a loveless marriage and embraced her fierce love as a whirling Bhakti Yogi in her songs of longing for her Beloved Krishna. All over India, yogis of the soul sing her songs until the heart wishes their sweet weeping will never end. And for some, the singing finally ends in an inner trance of Kevala Bhakti—when lover and Beloved are embracing as One. To a yogi in the state of Kevala Bhakti, everything is Brahman, everything is experienced as Spirit.
For the great orator, Advaita Vedantin, and majestic meditator, Swami Vivekananda, yoga was Sanatan Dharma, the great religion of the human spirit, colorfully expressed in the form of an intellectually sophisticated and modern Hinduism. He urged us to change, both ourselves and the world.
For another Vedantin, the quiet sage of South India, Ramana Maharshi, yoga was the ocean of silence within. His spiritual realization was both a detached witness to the world and a sharp sword of discrimination that flashed forth the light of life’s ultimate wisdom. He hardly practiced asanas beyond his meditation poses; he did not urge anyone to change the world, except the world within. He was the ultimate yogi of the I AM.
In America, in sweaty yoga studios, posture yogis, who may never have seen a live sadhu or been to India, practice with the fervor of Olympic athletes. They speak of their body-mind-spirit practice, yet they may never meditate, except, perhaps, on their breath when they move. And move they do, beautifully, artfully, sometimes even nakedly.
Their body is their song, their body is their prayer. And, at other times, the body is the biggest part of their ego. Nevertheless, they are yogis. They are as much yogis as that chillum smoking sadhu by that everflowing river of the Indian imagination.
So how can yoga be all that—and even more? Because, yoga is a multiple path and practice. Yoga is practice for the body, yoga is practice for the heart, yoga is practice for the spirit. And for the human imagination.
Yoga is deep, spiritual intention, deep, spiritual being in the moment while you are in the flow of doing what you love.
In that spirit, yoga can be music, yoga can be walking, yoga can be plain sitting. Plain doing nothing. That is, if you invoke the spirit of yoga into those prosaic moments of life. Otherwise it is plain doing nothing.
In order to invoke the spirit of yoga, the sages developed various practices. So what distinguishes yoga from other daily activities is its deep methodology—a science, practice or lifestyle of the body, the mind, and the spirit. Yoga tones the body, focuses your intention and expands your awareness.
Intention and attention gives yoga practice the ability to both deepen and transcend our everyday awareness. If you practice posture yoga and your attention is both breath and body, you tone the body and align your awareness with deeper recesses of your mind. Your awareness expands. The moment expands.
If you add spiritual ideation and a mantra to that practice, the quality of your awareness may deepen or expand even more, as the mantra is your mental asana, and it has cosmic power all of its own. And if you practice sitting meditation after your mantra-and-breath-focused posture practice, your awareness becomes more subtle and still, more inward and blissful. A sacred symbiosis has been created.
In yoga, we employ a conducive methodology and practice to achieve certain physical, mental and spiritual results or experiences. If you want your yoga poses to effect your mood and your glands and your endocrine system more than your alignment, you practice a certain way, you breathe a certain way.
Likewise, when you meditate, different methodologies and techniques produce certain results. Some calm, some energize, some focus the mind. Others do all of the above. Yet others produce a spontaneous inner magic that transcends all differences, even mind itself. We experience unity beyond technique, in spiritual oneness and deep peace.
The spiritual consummation of yoga, say the Tantric yogis, is union in the realm of spirit. And spirit, by its all-pervading nature resides in both heaven and earth, transcends and includes body and mind.
Yoga is transformation. At its best, yoga refines both body and mind, so that their functions may emulate and reflect the world of nature, of spirit. Yoga is to bring a part of heaven into the world of body and mind. Or to experience that body (Shakti) and mind (Shiva) are both heavenly. Hence, the Tantric concept of the body as Divine Temple.
In some yoga paths, such as in Vedanta, body and mind are seen as illusions, as diversions of spirit. The Vedantin yogi may shun the body and the world and anything else diverting his or her attention from dwelling in the heavenly Spirit realm. That is also yoga. Quite a different path from Bikram’s, whose aging yet handsome body projects a confident physicality that is far from illusory.
Some insist that deep, meditative experiences can be as easily induced while doing asanas or bike riding. They insist scratching your ass is no different than having a Samadhi experience. I suggest, it depends who does the scratching., you or the Buddha. Saying all experiences are the same is as silly as saying you can perform your asana postures in your mind while meditating and reap the same physical benefits.
There are levels of interior transcendence, just as there are levels of proficiency in doing asanas. There are levels of depth, levels of intensity in our inner experiences. There are levels of being, or koshas in yoga, which will determine the level of depth of your perception, feeling, or experience. Hence there are many types of Samadhi experiences, many types of psychological ecstasies, or trances.
As you practice your yoga asanas according to your teacher and your style, you will get certain results. That is achieved by following the science, the methodology of yoga. Similarly, the methodology of meditation is practiced on its own terms, in its own realm, with its own goals. And this practice of inner yoga is also, like posture yoga, part art and part science.
The point is, there are many forms of yoga, and they will all give you different results and experiences. If your aim is spiritual realization, then make meditation and study and chanting your primary focus—daily and intensely—with asanas and a vegetarian diet thrown in for good balance. If your goal is deep fitness and a wholesome lifestyle, then keep doing your asanas regularly (and eat your veggies, too!)
The good news is, we are all yogis! And, in the ultimate spiritual sense, yoga is both many and one. Just like the colorful garden of humanity itself! One humanity, many people. One yoga, many paths.