“Spiritual” is a concept or term often bandied around in yoga circles. It can be confusing to anyone – but especially a new student. We go along to a yoga class in our local gym thinking it’d be good to stretch our muscles after our workout. Then suddenly we learn it’s supposed to be “spiritual”. What does that mean? Is this some kind of cult? What’s going to happen to me?
So this is my attempt to explain what I understand by the word “spiritual” and why I think my asana practice is a spiritual practice and why pretty much anything (done in the right way) can be spiritual.
So I guess the first thing I’d like to make clear is that an asana practice can be one of three things:
• A form of physical exercise that also gives a sense of peace and feeling of wellbeing. This in itself is a very beautiful thing, and if that is how anyone sees their practice, then I for one have no criticism of that at all.
• A practice that gives a sense of mental clarity and peace that can then be applied to another spiritual practice – be it Christianity, Islam, Judaism etc
• A spiritual practice in itself.
Towards a Definition of “Spiritual”
The dictionary definitions of “spiritual” talk about a practice that involves aspects beyond the material or mechanical, which may or may not include a supernatural aspect.
With respect to the idea of a supernatural aspect or concept of god, you only have to take a quick look into yoga philosophy to find strands that have no god at all (Samkhya) , strands that have a dualistic theistic god (Classical Yoga) and strands that have a non-dual idea of god as part of everything (Advita Vedanta and Tantra). Basically whether you believe in god or not, and if you do, exactly what kind of god you believe in doesn’t matter. You can still be doing yoga as a spiritual practice.
So just to be totally clear on this point, you do not have to believe in god to see yoga as a spiritual practice and if you do believe in god, you can use your yoga practice to connect with your god.
But, what you do have to believe in is the possibility of a transformation (maybe even an evolution) of consciousness.
Towards a definition of Yoga
Yoga is the process and the end result.
1. As a process, it is a series of practices (including asana), which enable you to transform consciousness. This is done, primarily, by stilling the mind. Through this stillness:
• we gain a certain clarity and peace
• we are able to work towards freeing ourselves from our conditioning and misconceptions and neuroses and see things as they really are.
(other practices that make up yoga are: ethical principals for living, pranayama (breathing exercises), shat karmas (cleansing practices), mudhras, bandhas, meditation, chanting… the list goes on)
2. Yoga is also the end result: bliss – or maybe living our lives with more freedom, contentment and connection.
So, for me, spirituality incorporates some kind of inner transformation, leading to a higher sense of clarity and peace, along with a greater feeling of freedom, contentment and connection.
I am not suggesting or expecting anyone else to take on my definition, but I am hoping to give ideas that will make you think about what your definition is…try writing it down or explaining it to a friend, it’s good to think about these things. If what I’ve written helps you work out what you think yourself (even if it’s the opposite of what I think) – I’m happy.
So on to the next question, how does an asana practice (or anything else) do this?
An asana practice isn’t just about making the body strong, flexible and healthy. It is also about the mind. Through an asana practice we can gain a greater amount of focus and concentration and the way we do this is through awareness. By awareness I mean being fully aware of what we are doing. When we are doing triangle pose – we are fully doing triangle pose – noticing what we feel in our body, noticing how the breath feels, engaging the bandhas, gazing to the dristi – we are fully engaged and aware.
Obviously, if we do an asana practice while thinking about what’s for tea, that isn’t going to make anyone more spiritual (just more hungry probably). But if we do our practice with awareness, this can lead to a quieting of the mind. Which leads to greater clarity and peace.
This is a key concept: awareness and focus, which leads to peace and clarity, which can lead to spiritual development.
Anything can be spiritual
I believe that anything can foster this focus. If someone is doing something with awareness so they are fully absorbed and fully in the present then that can lead to spiritual development. It can be anything, normally something a person is good at, normally something they enjoy, often creative or physical. Something like: playing music, dancing, painting or playing football it could also be knitting or doing the washing up.
But especially asana!
I believe that an asana practice is particularly well suited to creating this feeling.
• The use of breath with movement forms a bridge between the body and the mind, this helps to keep the mind focused in the present.
• The breath is also the bridge between the physical body and the body of energy (more about energy later).
• During an asana practice, breathing, which is normally an unconscious process, becomes conscious. This creates a bridge between the conscious and unconscious aspects of the mind. It also stimulates the functioning of the higher evolved parts of the brain: the neo-cortex.
• The slow deep breath affects the nervous system to calm the body and mind which makes focus more likely to happen
With regard to Ashtanga Vinyasa in particular:
• The fact that it is a sequence means that the mind can switch off and we can become absorbed and flow along without having to think about what we’re doing.
• One of the principles of Ashtanga is that each student does what is right for them. If something is too easy we get distracted, if it’s too hard we get stressed, if we’re matched: that’s the best condition for focus.
Imagine how beautiful it would be if we could live our whole lives fully aware and absorbed in whatever we are doing. We would never be bored or dissatisfied we would always be fully switched on. I’m sure we have all experienced this feeling at some point. When we are so engaged in what we are doing that we forget about anything else – the future, the past, even our own small existence. An asana practice can help us experience this, I know for myself that when I am trying to do an asana that challenges me, for example an arm balance, I am fully in the moment – I am fully concentrating on not falling on my nose – I am not thinking about what I’m going to have for tea, or paying my bills, or what someone said to me last night. I am fully absorbed and fully present.
FREEDOM FROM NEUROSES
To be truly clear and at peace it’s not enough to gain the focus and concentration if underneath the focus we’re a seething mass of neuroses! We also need to sort out our shit…
Every day when we step onto our mat we step into a space where how we act, what we think and feel about others and ourselves is magnified and mirrored at us. The practice itself is neutral but it will show up very clearly what our patterns are. For example if we push ourselves too hard, always give up, get competitive, blame other people, get jealous etc. a yoga practice will show it up. Then, once we are aware of it, we have the option to deal with it. One issue I dealt with was: always wanting the next posture (I learned Ashtanga self practice style where each posture is given one at a time when the teacher thinks you’re ready). After a few years of practicing I realised that as soon as I got what I wanted (the next posture), I just wanted something else (the posture after that) – so where does all that wanting leave me? Always dissatisfied! Let it go! Then I looked at the rest of my life and found the same pattern reflected in many different areas. Let it all go! Gain that mental space for some peace and quiet.
The way it normally works is this:
Awareness: first we become aware of the pattern.
Observation: then we observe it: try to work out where it came from, and how it plays out.
Non-judgement: it is important to observe the pattern without judging – we all have unconscious patterns, it’s not good but it’s not bad either – it just is.
Intention: then we have the intention to change. Nothing is set in stone, all patterns can be changed, just form the intention and see what happens
If nothing happens and the pattern doesn’t change you may need to look into an additional form of therapy – there’s lots of options out there.
Sometimes the process is slightly different. Sometimes we are not consciously aware of any patterns we just feel unexplained emotions. During or after a practice we can feel angry and depressed or paranoid or just very sensitive.
Emotions stored in the body are often connected to old events that had a strong emotional impact on us. These old emotions can still be unconsciously affecting the way we see the world and how we react, even though they might relate to something we can’t even remember that happened to us thirty years ago. An asana practice can help us release these old patterns even if we don’t consciously understand what they are related to and exactly what is happening. (See my article “When yoga makes you angry”)
YOGA AS A SPIRITUAL PRACTICE IN ITSELF
So far I have talked about ways in which an asana practice can give us peace and clarity, which we can either enjoy as it is, or apply to our own spiritual practice, whatever that may be.
As I mentioned at the beginning, asana is also part of a system that is a spiritual practice in itself. This is a huge subject. The Indian philosophical tradition spans thousands of years and many many hugely diverse schools of thought that all cross over and mingle and contradict each other and themselves. It is incredibly rich and incredibly confusing and through nearly all of it – woven like a thread – is yoga. It is impossible to give more than just an idea of how it all works. So here I’m introducing the philosophy of the Yoga Sutras and of the Hatha Yoga Pradripika.
The Yoga Sutras were written around 2,000 years ago but contain ideas and information that were probably formulated many years before. The background idea is that we all have an eternal light, which is perfect and peaceful called Purusha. Life covers up this light in the same way dirt clouds over a mirror. Through our yoga practice we clean and polish the mirror until we uncover our light. Once we have done this we can connect with the world around us in a clear and true way. We attain a state of union and bliss called Samadhi. The Yoga Sutras is a dualistic philosophy, which sees Purusha as the light and Prakriti as everything else – the world around us – including our own body and mind.
The Hatha Yoga Pradripika is a medieval text written in the 14th century. It is part of the non-dual tradition, which flowed from Advita Vedanta through Tantra to Hatha Yoga. Here we don’t connect with the world – we realise that we are one with the world and attain a state of union. The Yoga Sutras is a path of renunciation of the body, Hatha Yoga is a path of using the body to purify our energy.
The idea is this: an asana practice isn’t just affecting our physical body and our mind. It is also affecting our body of energy (pranamaya kosha).
Ida, Pingala, Sushumna and Kundalini
In Tantric yogic theory we have three main lines of energy in the body that flow up the spine: the pingala (dynamic, sun energy), the ida (passive, moon energy) and the sushumna. In the Hatha Yoga Pradripika, the idea of practicing asana and pranayama is to purify the body and energy so that our kundalini (which is symbolised as a serpent sleeping at the base of the spine) wakes up and travels up the sushumna and out the top of the head. The belief is that prana and the mind are linked so when our energy is flowing freely and clearly then our mind will be freer and clearer and we can develop spiritually.
Shakti, Shiva and Lila
Also in Tantric theory we have Shakti, which is pure energy at the base of the spine, and Shiva, which is pure consciousness at the top of the head. The goal of Hatha yoga is the union of these two energies. The dance of the interplay of these two energies is called Lila.
Yoga as a spiritual practice provides a way of looking at the world and understanding our place in it. It also gives a set of practices to enable the attainment of a state of connection and bliss. Within the Indian philosophical tradition there are many different belief systems giving different ways of understanding the world and different practices and paths to this bliss and freedom. The Yoga Sutras and the Hatha Yoga Pradripika are two of the most popular systems in the West today.
So, back to the plot. This clarity and peace leads to – what? How is it spiritual?
The first thing yoga gives us is freedom (moksha). This freedom affects us on many levels: freedom from physical aches and pains, freedom from the mental chatter that drives many of us mad, freedom from unconscious patterns of behaviour that keep us from acting honestly, freedom from a judgemental, biased view of life, freedom from suffering.
Here are a couple of personal examples to explain what I mean.
I used to live my life in a daydream, never really connecting to reality and people around me – living a false life of dreams. I found when I started to do my asana practice the dreams faded away and I started to engage life more fully, and enjoy life more.
I used to be shy and socially nervous and awkward. I found that as my body got stronger and more flexible, my mind and will got stronger and more flexible, I gained confidence and more social ease.
Through an asana practice we learn contentment – not wild excitement and unadulterated ecstasy – but contentment. And this (as it says in the Yoga Sutras) is the best way to achieve happiness. We learn that we have good and bad days: sometimes things go well, sometimes they go badly, but we stay connected to our clarity and inner peace. We learn to stay balanced, so even if we are angry or upset or worried we know that inside, where it counts, we are at peace. That’s the theory anyway. I’m not pretending that it’s always like that – but I can say that I’ve learned to go with the flow and not get so worried and stressed about things. And if I do sometimes lose it then I’m normally at least aware that I’m losing it! This is progress…
Through a yoga practice we learn to connect to our selves more. We understand our own patterns, learn to listen to our inner voice and intuition, we learn to be soft and gentle with our bodies.
Once we have learned to connect to ourselves in this way – we can connect more with other people. It’s a bit of a cliché that we have to learn to love ourselves to love other people, but I think it’s got a lot of truth to it. So as our asana practice teaches us to relate to ourselves in a different way – softer, more fluid, more aware, more loving, more open – we will relate to others in a similar way.
Whatever label you put on it: “spiritual practice” or “just gymnastics” an asana practice is still transformative in many ways. It doesn’t really matter how you see things, and you don’t have to start dressing in white and chanting and reading yogic texts – an asana practice will transform you anyway! It will foster a state of awareness and focus, which will lead to greater peace and clarity. It will confront you with your conscious and unconscious patterns of behaviour and motivate you to sort them out. It will clarify your body of energy and so make the mind clearer. This clarity will give you more freedom, greater contentment and more feelings of connection with other people. And for me… that’s a spiritual thing!