As a yoga teacher, I’ve had many intense discussions about yoga and whether it is a religious, spiritual, mental or physical practice.
Yoga is such a new concept to the western mind that confusion is to be expected.
Questioning, investigating and wondering are natural parts of the learning curve. Novices will have unlearned perspectives. This is why people who know nothing about yoga claim that it is religious and contrary to their faith. This is why people who discover yoga at a gym think it’s aerobics. And most people I know of squirm when presented with the idea that yoga can be a spiritual practice without being religious. The important thing to remember is that even with these varying perspectives, we are all learners on the path.
Spirituality is a word common in the realms of religion, mysticism, philosophy and beyond. It’s a very nebulous word—but what does it mean? How does it apply to life and to a yoga class?
The definition of spirit that I am best able to conceptualize is how it relates to the mind, emotions, the sense of vitality, feeling, intuition, dreams, language, relationship and soul.
In other words, everything that isn’t tangible to the physical sense of sight, touch, smell, taste or hearing but that is still experienced.
It is easy to point to the physical and take care of the body through exercise. What kind of approaches are given to us for working with our own hearts, mind and soul?
How can we point to an emotion? We can point to a face that changes with emotion, or to a tone of voice filled with emotion or to actions influenced by thought and feeling.
But how does a person recognize the subtleties of emotion, thought, feeling, perspectives and attitudes?
This is the realm of spirit that is referred to when people speak of yoga and spirituality.
Is yoga going to save your soul? No. I’d never make that claim and would question anyone who does.
Can the techniques presented in yoga improve the quality of life? Absolutely.
Identifying core mental patterns, recognizing how to identify and operate with emotional dynamics internally, discovering the truth of who one is—all of those are available, attainable outcomes with yoga.
“Know Thyself” is an ancient axiom encouraging each of us to take action and to know the truth of who one is within.
The tools of yoga are one avenue for that. I consider them tools that support balanced mental, emotional and physical health. From that balance arises the natural relationship to the creator that supports every person in their faith, regardless of religion.
Another way to frame it is that yoga is a method through which one can improve the internal relationship. It gives us ways to be responsible for who we are, to discover aspects of our personality that are hidden, to unveil our own handicaps and to bolster unrecognized talents.
The natural result is that our relationship with the world and other people naturally improves.
This is how yoga is a spiritual practice.
One comes to a state of equanimity and peace, in heart, mind and soul.
Author: Kieth Artisan
Editor: Alli Sarazen
Photo: Dia TM/Flickr