Questions and arguments often arise over the spiritual and religious nature of yoga. Is it spiritual? Is it religious? Is it neither, but a physical exercise regime?
What does it mean to be spiritual?
Most spiritual traditions and philosophies address a few important issues: What is the essential nature of the self? What is the essential nature of the universe? Is there God, and if so what is God's nature? Also, what is the relationship between God and us?
Each spiritual philosophy and religion has its own answers to these questions. In essence, a religion is defined by its answers to these questions.
How does yoga fit in to this?
Many people in the West practice yoga for its physical benefits, no different from any exercise regimen. Yoga is great for balance and flexibility, and the calm nature of studios and teachers helps us feel peaceful. For the cardiovascular system yoga is on par with brisk walking, and it has been shown to improve the function of our blood vessels. For many, these physical benefits are more than enough reason to practice yoga.
Others practice yoga for spiritual insight, because there is one specific element of spirituality that is clarified by physical activity: the nature of the self.
When we control the body, we soon realize that the body is not the truest nature of the self. The self is not defined or limited by the hand or the spine or the stretching feeling in the hamstrings. Deeper still, the self is not defined by the wandering mind, our frustration or ambition to successfully perform a posture or exercise.
In this way, physical yoga practices---physical practices of any sort, for that matter---can aid us in understanding the true nature of the self and be spiritual. On the other hand, physical practices including those in yoga have the potential of being devoid of spirituality when the intent is firmly on the physical benefits.
So, is yoga spiritual? Yes and no! It depends on your goals, intention and focus.
On our recent trip to India we visited Kaivalyadhama, the oldest yoga research facility in the world. It was founded by a yogi named Kuvalayananda, who dedicated his life to the three-fold mission of healing people through yoga, teaching the next generation of teachers and researching the scientific impact of the practices.
The Kaivalyadhama campus now covers about 200 acres. It has grown from its humble beginnings as a small room for conducting research. As we walked the grounds, we were struck by a quotation from Kuvalayananda:
"I have brought up this institute out of nothing.
If it goes to nothing, I do not mind,
but Yoga should not be diluted."
It is a bold statement that shows clear values. Success---in terms of reach, money acquired or people reached---is not important. He goes so far as to say that he doesn't mind if the whole thing disappears!
What was vital to Kuvalayananda was the integrity of the teachings: "Yoga must not be diluted." It takes a strong vision and a strong will to carry out this mission, because it is far too easy to compromise our goals when survival or popularity enter the picture.
This shows the intent of a yogi who's thoughts and actions are not swayed by worldly desires. Money comes and goes. Popularity comes and goes. Happiness comes and goes. Even our lives come and go. But knowledge and truth remain. We must not dilute knowledge for the sake of temporary things, even if our institutes go "to nothing".
We often get questions about namaste, a word that has become practically ubiquitous in western yoga classes, where most teachers will end class by saying it.
As you may already know, namaste involves placing the palms together in prayer in front of the chest. Often the head bows and the word namaste is spoken. The literal meaning is "I bow to you". It is a greeting and a display of respect.
Namaste in Western yoga culture has been imbued with high meaning: that there is a divine being in me which recognizes a divine being in you. This belief comes from a spiritual philosophy called Advaita Vedanta, which argues that all the world is one; that any perceived separation between entities, including between you and me, is a misperception.
This may seem like a lot of meaning to squeeze into one little word, and it is. In its most common sense, namaste simply means "hello" or "greetings". When deeper, more spiritual meaning is desired, you might be more specific by naming the entity to whom you bow: "Teacher, I bow to you", "God, I bow to you", "Highest self, I bow to you".
It is easy to overlook the cultural reasons for the hand gesture. In the west, we shake hands or even hug when we greet. In India shaking hands is quite uncommon. It is impolite to touch other people, since the hands are used for other activities like eating and washing the body. The hands are of questionable cleanliness, so we keep them to ourselves when we greet one another. What happens instead is we touch our hands together in greeting, forming a prayer or namaste gesture.
HOW & WHEN DID IT BECOME SO POPULAR
The word namah is common in old Sanskrit texts. Like mentioned above, it is generally accompanied by something more specific, naming the entity to whom we are bowing with respect and devotion.
What we often overlook is that namaste is a common modern Hindi word that has been used in recent decades by Indian yoga teachers and public figures who speak Hindi. There are many examples of Ghandi, Nehru and Osho stepping onstage before a large audience and assuming the namaste hand position. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s this captured the imagination of the Beat and Hippie generations in the West. They were quick to adopt the respectful and peaceful gesture.
Over the ensuing decades, namaste has evolved from a respectful greeting to a full-on spiritual statement, which is perhaps overblowing it.
We don't say namaste at the end of practice, nor do the Indian teachers we know or the Vedantic swamis with whom we have studied. When we're in India, we say it all the time as a greeting to people we meet. When we're in Kolkata, we say nomoshkar, which is the Bengali equivalent.
There is, though, a word which carries significant meaning and history. It is what the swamis say at the beginning and end of every lecture, class, meditation and mantra: om. Om is a word that is present in the Vedas (there's even an entire Upanishad devoted to it) and the Yogasutras, explained as containing the sound and meaning of all creation. In our estimation, om is a more appropriate word to remind us of oneness, humility, respect and devotion.
The world outside calls the mind,
with voices, horns, billboards and email alerts,
until the mind emerges
and comes to reside in the world.
The assault on the senses
is like a day with no night.
We become disoriented from stimulation,
insane but unable to rest.
Still, we think the key to relief is somewhere outside.
Peace, rest and happiness
do not lie in the world outside.
They can not be found
by sight, touch, hearing or taste.
This is the first realization:
that happiness lies within.
Only with this can our journey
toward actual peace begin.
Next time you are offended by someone else's words or actions, see if you can notice the separation you feel from them; that moment when you feel: "I am not you. We are so different." The sense of a separate self is strong in these moments. There is nothing that promotes and strengthens our sense of "I"-ness quite like other people, especially when we disagree with them.
Notice your own sense of rightness---even superiority---in these moments. We all experience it. This sense of "I" is called asmita, and according to the yogis it is one of the most powerful afflictions of the mind (Yogasutras 2.3). Normally, as we walk through everyday life, we aren't aware of this "sense of self." We just treat it as our deepest identity, and it informs our interactions with the world, people and ideas.
Once we witness the separateness we feel, what are we supposed to do?
As with many things in yogic practice, awareness is half of the battle. Once we become mindful of this "sense of self" that defines our identity, we begin to see it everywhere. It is there in both agreement and disagreement, and even in our quietest moments of self-reflection. This "I"-ness is our mind's creation of who we are, who we are not, and who we want to be.
The goal is not to avoid offense. The goal is to realize this tendency in ourselves, and then to explore and deconstruct the conditioning that has created our "sense of self." This is why getting offended is so illuminating. When we feel offense, it is because we have a strong sense of "I"-ness that is conflicting with the other point of view.
The "I"-ness is what we want to pursue, not the offense or the point of view that brought it on.
When we explore our own sense of self and our beliefs about right and wrong, we often find that they are constructions that were taught to us by parents, teachers or society at large. The beliefs we take for granted most are the ones that call for the deepest consideration.
So next time you get offended, use it as a mirror to understand your "self" better.
Perhaps it is obvious to say that we should speak (and write) the truth.
Honesty is one of the fundamental principles of yoga, generally referred to using the word satya or truth. It is also fundamental to moral and spiritual traditions around the world and throughout history. Pick any tradition with a moral stance, and honesty or truth is probably in the top 10 rules. So it is hard to overstate the importance of avoiding lies, at almost all costs.
DISSONANCE WITH REALITY
The most significant reason to speak and think honestly is that it keeps us in harmony with reality. When we knowingly say false things, it pits us against the actual truth, which is a battle that we will not win, and it plays out in our psyche.
For the most part, lying is an attempt at power. If I tell you an untrue version of events, you have little choice but to believe me. So, for a short while at least, I have exerted power over your perception of reality. The more elaborate I can make my lies, the more people I can convince and the more I feel that I am actually controlling what is real. This makes me feel powerful.
The problem with this, aside from misleading others (which is usually remedied over time and through learning, as people gain new perspectives and information; the truth usually comes out), is that I have pitted myself against actual reality. I have fashioned myself as a creator of truth, which is not a natural role for a human, since we are far too small to control it.
With every lie I tell, I separate myself from the way things actually are. I disconnect myself from reality. We have little choice in the matter: lies unhinge us, because they separate us from the truth.
But the opposite is also true, which is why moral traditions take truth so seriously. The more I speak the truth and align myself with reality, the more I come into harmony with the way things are. So the world becomes clearer, people's thoughts, intentions and actions become clearer, and my own purpose becomes clearer. When I have made myself consonant with reality, much confusion and obscurity dissipates.
WHAT IF I'M WRONG?
None of us know everything, so it is inevitable that we will learn new information that proves our beliefs and statements wrong. There is no inherent dishonesty in being wrong. What is important is staying aligned with reality. So when our knowledge changes and we become aware of something new, often our beliefs must change to keep us truthful.
It is far too easy and common for us to establish what we think of as "the truth," and then defend it against new information. This is called "confirmation bias," where we accept information that supports our currently-held worldview while rejecting anything that conflicts. This is admittedly part of our human psychology, but it amounts to telling ourselves little lies to maintain power over our construction of reality. In doing so, it separates us from actual reality.
Last week we asked you, our readers, for questions that you'd like addressed. We received many great inquiries, and today we will address one:
"Can you talk about the importance of stillness in yoga practice?"
As we consider the importance or lack thereof of stillness, it is vital to consider the root question of any undertaking: what is the purpose? Before reading on, it is worth taking a moment to consider the purpose of your yoga practice. The form of your practice should serve its function, meaning that it should accomplish whatever it is that you are trying to achieve. This can be complicated when talking about yoga, because it has changed a lot over hundreds of years.
Stillness can be confusing and even controversial in today's Western yoga world. The majority of what is practiced as yoga today includes abundant movement, often referred to as "flow." Various bodily positions are fluidly linked together and transitioned between, with lots of Sun Salutes, a calisthenic exercise that incorporates regular breathing with stretching, a push-up-like movement and some spinal bending. The Sun Salute (Surya Namaskara) became popular in India in the 1920s.
A contrasting style focuses on positions held in stillness, anywhere from 10 seconds to several minutes. In the past decade or so, it has become fashionable to refer to any stillness-based method as hatha yoga, presumably to separate it from the movement-based vinyasa methods described above.
For the past hundred years or so, calisthenics, gymnastics, acrobatics and contortion have taken the name of yoga. This is why so much "yoga" in the West includes movement, strength, jumping, deep stretching, rhythmic breathing, getting the heart rate up, sweating, etc. Calisthenics and exercise have been known to improve physical and mental health, and it is no surprise that yoga practices have veered in this direction as our culture puts more and more value on fitness. But these tendencies--movement, health and fitness--are new to the yoga world.
The earliest extant texts on yoga, including the Upanishads, the Mahabharata and the Yoga Sutras, describe a practice of mental concentration, turning the senses, mind and intellect toward the inner self. This practice doesn't include moving the body in any particular position, other than holding it “steady like a pillar and motionless like a mountain. Then it can be said that they are practicing yoga.” (Mahabharata 12.294.15) According to these texts, stillness of the body is a prerequisite for yoga practice.
If the body is moving, the senses are stimulated, including the sense of touch and sight to enable coordination and balance. The senses draw the mind outward, preventing it from turning inward in anything that could be called yoga practice. According to the earliest texts, yoga is not a physical practice but a mental one. So focusing on what we are doing with the body can be misleading, lest we think that holding the body in stillness equals practicing yoga. But the body must be held "as motionless as a rock” (Mahabharata 12.294.14) for the true practices of yoga--the mental elements--to be done.
WHAT ARE YOU PRACTICING?
Over the past 100 years or so, increasingly physical activities have been labeled "yoga," bringing us to the present day, when yoga has the connotation of gentle exercise, stretching and perhaps some spiritual elements. The physical focus has become more central, and the mental/spiritual focus has diminished greatly.
If you want to improve your flexibility and reduce your stress, the low-impact exercises that are now known as yoga will be helpful. If you want to increase your cardiovascular endurance, you should do longer, more repetitive exercise like running or swimming. Even the most vigorous yoga practices only give a fraction of the cardiovascular benefit of running. If you want to lose weight, check what and when you are eating, your stress and sleep. If you want to understand the nature of your mind, being and who you are, the meditative practices of yoga are for you.
In the end, it doesn't much matter what you call the practices, it just matters what the practices accomplish. So whether you call it yoga or something else, try to choose the right practices for your goals.
The ultimate goal of yoga practice is understanding the true nature of who we are. This can seem abstract--how could we possibly be anything other that who we are?--but it has to do with the ego and the mind's creation of an identity. To realize our true self we strip away the mental constructions and are left only with our deepest "self."
The first step in this process is the body, since we identity our "self" with the body and its actions. So we teach ourselves that our body and its actions are malleable and impermanent. Since they are being controlled by a deeper power, they cannot possibly be the truest form of the self.
We do this by controlling the body with yoga postures and alternating with stillness. This alternation between effort and rest, action and non-action, the posture and not the posture, gradually teaches us that even when we are not doing anything we are still ourselves.
Again, this may seem obvious or abstract, but you may be surprised how hard it is to do nothing. Our minds and bodies are constantly drawn toward action, as if their very existence relied upon it. When we force the body to be completely still we can face something of an existential crisis, fearing that we will cease to exist of we cease to act. This is why alternating action and inaction--the posture and not the posture--is so profound.
Two of the most important ideas in yoga philosophy are "ignorance" (avidya) and "discernment" (viveka). They are opposite sides of the same coin. When we develop discernment our ignorance is eradicated.
Ignorance (avidya) is sometimes called "primordial ignorance" since it is the state into which we are all born. It is like original sin in that way. It is the way we associate our thoughts and emotions with our deepest self. We notice thoughts and think, "This is me." "I am nervous." "I am angry." "I am confused." We develop a sense self, often called I-ness, ego or asmita. But these thoughts are not the essence of our being, and when we think that they are, it is ignorance.
Discernment (viveka) is also called "discrimination" and "knowledge." It is one of the highest goals of yoga, as we realize the true nature of ourself. As we observe our thoughts and emotions, we come to realize that they are not the deepest part of us. There is something deeper since it is observing the thoughts and emotions. So we search for the nature of this "observer," also called "the seer" or simply "consciousness."
The transition from ignorance to discernment is subtle, complex and takes many years. But it begins very simply. We notice our thoughts and emotions. That is the first step!
When we recognize violence and suffering in the world, often our first response is, "How can I help?" What can I do to reduce the violence, to reduce the suffering?
It is easy to say that the world needs to change, or to try to affect change in the world. The problem with this attitude, from a yogic perspective, is that it externalizes. It has us imposing our will upon the world, usually at the expense of a clear view of ourselves. It is generally our most ingrained and obvious views that we seek to export to others.
In the Yogasutras it is explained that, "When non-violence (ahimsa) is firmly established, hostility vanishes in the yogi's presence." (2.35) Only when we are peaceful ourselves can we affect peaceful change in the world.
As one of our teachers said, "It is impossible to give what you don't have." If we are not peaceful, how can we give peace? It is as futile an effort as if we had no food but tried to give food to others. First we must have something before we can offer it.
So, from the yogic view, the best way to reduce someone else's suffering is to eliminate our own. The best way to bring peace is to become firmly established in peace ourselves.
Scott & Ida are Yoga Acharyas (Masters of Yoga). They are the head teachers of Ghosh Yoga. This blog is about their experience with yoga practice, study and teaching.
- Understanding Chair Posture
- 5 Reasons To Backbend
- Lock the Knee History
- Why Teaching Is Not a Personal Practice
- Make the Hamstrings Strong, Not Long
- The 113 Postures of Ghosh Yoga
- When You Take a Class, Take the Class
- Should We Be Teaching Advanced Postures in a Beginning Class?
- The Yogi Becomes Invisible
- Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
- The Oxygenation Myth
- Yoga Should Not Be Diluted
- The Art and Skill of Teaching