What does spirituality mean to you? Like yoga itself, spirituality is personal yet universal. Many people practice yoga as a means to a toned body and an hour of peace away from the office. But for others looking for their path through life, yoga goes deeper. For many people, spirituality is the answer to the question “what makes yoga special?”
The Spiritual Stretch
Yoga is physical, for sure. Regularly practicing yoga develops your stamina, your strength, and your rockstar abs. Postures challenge the body. However, yoga is also a mental practice where you work through emotional stress and psychological challenges – you may even meditate.
If you sign up for yoga classes because you want a thin body or the ability to master a handstand then you are skimming the surface of the practice. If you enjoy yoga for the health benefits then you will certainly feel better with regular sessions. But without the spiritual side, yoga is simply a stretch class, a gym session, or a space for relaxation. Go deeper, and you’ll find so much more.
When committing to yoga practice on a regular basis, yogis seek to experience and become aware of the spirit, or the energy, within and without. We’re not talking about ghostly spirits here, or some supernatural being – spirit is higher consciousness; a driving force, a motivation, a reason behind everything we think and everything we do. Being aware of this energy is something spiritual. Therefore, awareness is critical to yoga as a spiritual practice.
Think of the expression “the mat is your mirror.” When you turn up to the mat you bring yourself – only yourself and all of yourself. If you practice yoga with an awareness of yourself you come to learn about the different ways you act, how you react, and what you are like – in creating awareness of yourself you can transform your mind, which in turn affects how you live your life and how you interact with others.
Watch out - awareness doesn’t always lead to the place you want to go. Yoga as a spiritual practice is not about changing your life so you can earn more money, be a “better” person, or score a job you love. Yoga is not about getting rid of the negative by controlling your mind and your environment.
Rather, practicing yoga reminds you there is no “sweet spot” – there will always be a barking dog, a car that runs out of gas, a bad-tempered boss or an inattentive lover. There will always be something you could do without, or improve. Developing a spiritual side with yoga is about holding your pose regardless of the circumstances through an awareness of yourself and your experience.
A Quiet Mind
Most of the time, we are busy analyzing our actions and focusing on our physical performance instead of simply being. How can you develop awareness without taking the time and space to connect deeper within yourself?
Yoga gives you the space to do just that. Many teachers will talk of the importance of the quiet mind – push yourself through the highly physical postures in order to be exhausted enough to let go into your quiet mind or sacred inner space. Just be. Don’t expect positivity, peacefulness or happiness, but if it does come, be aware of it.
Be aware of what you experience, and be grateful. Taking this attitude of gratitude and surrender into your everyday life away from the mat makes yoga a spiritual practice.
Yoga Is Not a Religion
You can be of any faith or have no faith to practice yoga – yoga is not a religious practice, and the spiritual side of yoga is not linked to any organized form of worship. The word yoga means to join or unite, and yogis view this unison in different ways – the unison of body, mind and spirit, uniting all the aspects of yourself, or uniting with a higher power or spiritual force.
You can believe in a God or gods, or nothing at all. Sometimes working through asanas can be like a prayer – moving quietly, reverently, focused on the breath. But equally your prayer could come the next day, when you feel a jolt of recognition and completion, and are taken back to how you felt when you were truly in the moment, on the mat.
Perhaps yoga is a way of cultivating wholeness, remembering wholeness, and recognizing this wholeness everywhere – for many yogis, that is the spiritual side of the practice.