This is a question that I have been pondering for quite some time and I have come to the resounding conclusion that the answer is YES.
Yoga (asana) is most defiantly a gateway into deeper spirituality.
It’s been studied, documented and heavily researched …. the main reason that most people start a physical yoga practice, is for, well….the physical benefits. Makes sense right? The majority of people come to yoga because they have a bad back, or tight hamstrings, or a niggly pain in their hips. Another large subset of people come to yoga to reduce stress – this was definitely my path. Stress and anxiety brought me into the yoga studio and I became hooked on the inner calm + blissed – out yoga glow that I sported to Whole Foods after class.
So then what happens, how do people start to discover their true nature while trying to touch their toes? How does a completely un-spiritual person become interested, or open to spirituality after making various shapes with their body on a rectangular piece of rubber?
How does down dog turn into dharma?
I am not going to pretend that I have the answer for this – because I don’t. Maybe you do? But what I can share are my observations from teaching over 4000 yoga classes in the last few years. I also have a few theories, based mostly on hunches and intuition, but if I have come to learn anything from my journey – it’s that our intuition is often more accurate than we give it credit for – so here goes.
1) Yoga asana is now totally socially acceptable, and mainstream – which means many people will show up to practice without knowing or being aware of the deeper path of yoga. They simply want a physical workout or a stretch. However, while they are focused on moving their body they may be less resistant to an Om here or there, or a subtle spiritual message delivered by a skilled teacher. During deep relaxation a student may be able to hear an idea, or concept that they may not have been open to otherwise. Given in bite sized, appropriately timed nuggets, yoga philosophy is more easily digested within a physical practice than it would be otherwise.
2) A physical yoga practice connects you to your body – and the body is the home of the soul. It’s pretty easy to get disconnected from our bodies these days as we sit immobile staring at flashing images on a screen. This happens a lot with academics ( I love ya bro ) where the body can literally become a vehicle to transport our heads from meeting to meeting. When we start to deeply connect with our body, and the energy within our body, it starts to become obvious that we are not just flesh and bone. When we make shapes with our body, when we notice sensation, and create inner body awareness we are literally knocking on the door to our soul, beckoning to be let in. Sooner or later that door opens, maybe just a crack, but after which there can not be an un-knowing of that place.
3) Yoga is mostly practiced in mixed level group classes these days. And despite the challenges that creates for sequencing an appropriate class, I think that’s one of the most beautiful things about modern yoga. Why, you might ask? Well…. if you insist – here is my theory. You rock up at a yoga studio – first. time. ever. You might be a little apprehensive that people will be gyrating in a trance like state, standing effortlessly on their heads, and chanting in strange unfamiliar tongues, in a word – inaccessible.
And while you may literally see all of these things in a yoga class – you are bound to also see long time students in their normal street clothes ( maybe even a suit, gasp! ), chatting with someone about their kids who are sick at home, or their upcoming holiday – and in an instant, they become, – relatable. The image of long time yogi, as a normal, everyday kind of person, imparts on the yoga newbie that you don’t have to turn into a long-haired-bearded-shirtless-monk to become serious about yoga & spirituality. I have a hunch, that spiritual resistance is caused in a large part by the idea that we have to give up the pleasures of life in order to become a spiritual person. Not true. Our spirit came into this world to enjoy it.
4. Yoga ( asana ) makes us feel good – it opens our body, makes us stand a little taller and simultaneously energises and relaxes us. If you are unwell, or stressed, or just out of touch with what it’s like to feel good, really good – you’re stuck in survival mode and your focus shifts to your most basic needs like food, shelter, possessions and sex. There isn’t much mental real estate left for spirituality. When we start a physical yoga practice, and we begin to feel the benefits our focus shifts from basic survival to searching for something more. If we feel good, physically and mentally we have more space for spirituality.
5. Yoga ( asana ) is a mindfulness practice and mindfulness connects you to the present moment. Most of the activities that we do from day to day require a very limited level of mindfulness, or present moment awareness. We can go through our day, make breakfast, drive to work, get some shit done and come home again – and the whole time our mind is somewhere other than where we are. We are thinking about unpaid bills, the passive aggressive interaction we had with a girlfriend on the weekend, or the presentation we have to give next week. In other words, for the most part our mind is lost in the past, or worrying about the future.
Yoga consciously counteracts that. During your practice the sound of your breath constantly summons you back to the present. Challenging postures pull you into the now, and deep relaxation allows the mind to settle naturally into the moment. The spirit, the soul, the universe are only accessed in the now, so by entering into the present, you are traversing in the territory of spirituality weather you know it or not. Sooner of later you are bound to run into your deepest self.
So these are some of the theories I have been rolling around in my mind – trying to make sense of how yoga postures and spirituality go together – but I would LOVE to hear your ideas. I think this is such a fascinating topic, but I will admit I have been hesitant to talk about it with other yogis, because it feels like something that is always assumed – but never talked about. Perhaps I missed this module in my teacher training, but it’s taken me a while to gain clarity around it.
Have you been thinking about this too? Or is it just me? Perhaps there is even some ancient text somewhere laying this all out in crystal clear sanskrit, and I just didn’t get the right translation?
Have an idea of if / how a physical yoga practice connects us to our spiritual side? Share it in the comments below.
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