Yoga has become so well packaged as an exercise that people even believe this was the original intent of yoga, often calling yoga “stretching exercises.” People in the U.S. and other Western countries often do not realize that the yoga they call an exercise, actually hatha yoga (“ha” means “sun” and “tha” means “moon”), is just one of many forms of yoga designed for specific spiritual purposes.
Hatha yoga, as explained in CANA article, “Yoga: Yokes Snakes, and Gods,” uses the body as a ground for spiritual techniques to prepare the practitioner to unite with the Absolute. The body is merely a tool in this process. Although one may become more fit and flexible from doing yoga, that is not the goal of yoga, which is part of a complex spiritual system. Pranayama (breathing techniques) and the asanas (specific positions) are designed to enhance and induce meditative states in which one can transcend mental fluctuations and bypass rational thinking. Hatha yoga teaches how to control the body and the senses so that the yogin (yoga student) can control the mind (Raja Yoga). Gradually, the body and mind are filled by the Atman (Pure or Supreme Universal Self) and “through the death of the body, as it were, is the resurrection of the Higher Self accomplished,” (J. F. C. Fuller, Yoga for All [Bombay, India: D. B. Taraporevala Sons & Co. Private Ltd., 1993], 51).
Famed yoga teacher B. K. S. Iyengar, who was instrumental in bringing yoga to the West, says that yoga “is a science which liberates one’s mind from the bondage to the body and leads it towards the soul. When the mind reaches and merges with the soul, the soul is freed and remains thereafter in peace and beatitude,” (B. K. S. Iyengar, The Tree of Yoga, [Boston: Shambhala, 1988], 5).
Patanjali, the Indian sage considered to be the founder of yoga, though no one knows much about his life, authored the famous Yoga Sutras, the teachings of yogic philosophy. One site speaks of Patanjali’s yoga: “It deals with the training of the mind to achieve oneness with the Universe. Incidental to this objective are the acquisition of siddhis or powers. The aim of Patanjali Yoga is to set man free from the cage of matter. Mind is the highest form of matter and man freed from this dragnet of Chitta or Ahankara (mind or ego) becomes a pure being,” (http://world-of-wise.blogspot.com/2015/06/yoga-sutras-of-maharishi-patanajali.html and https://www.artofliving.org/ph-en/wisdom-series-commentaries-sri-sri-ravi-shankar).
On another site about Patanjali, it states that “Yoga means Union and the purpose is to teach the practitioner of Yoga, called the Yogi, how to achieve Union or Spiritual Absorption into the Supreme Absolute or God. Yoga teaches us that our true self is the soul and that our self identity is an illusion to be overcome,” ( http://reluctant-messenger.com/yoga-sutras.htm ). Hatha yoga and other forms of yoga are considered to be the stepping-stones for spiritual union with the Absolute.
In the 1970’s and even 1980’s, yoga was associated with Eastern spirituality. However, in the last several years those who market yoga have successfully airbrushed out the spiritual roots of yoga and marketed yoga as an exercise. With celebrities doing yoga, yoga on TV, glossy magazine ads of beautiful people doing yoga, yoga videos, yoga CDs, yoga mats, and yoga wear, yoga has become glamorized and trendy, an appeal that rarely fails to draw in the masses. Shorn of its association with hippies, with those who made pilgrimages to India seeking out gurus, and with what was once seen as the far-out New Age movement, yoga is now vigorously embraced, linked to health and hipness.
How have the edges of the spiritual component of yoga been so well-rounded off? One method has been to change the language so that blatant Eastern terms are replaced with words that seem to refer to health or the physical body. YogaFit Training Systems, a company that trains teachers to bring “demystified” yoga “to the masses,” states that it is “fitness oriented,” although it does draw on the Hindu-based Ashtanga, Iyengar, and Kundalini yoga practices.
YogaFit admits that the “ancient practice of meditation is as integral to yoga as the poses” and that “Meditation is a wonderful way to tap into your internal “knowingness” and get into touch with your eternal essence” (https://www.yogafit.com/news/blog/meditation-and-yoga-hand-in-hand). The idea of one’s “eternal essence” is in keeping with the Hindu concept of the divine self, the Atman. This is more spiritually blatant than their website first admitted a few years ago.
Prana, Chakras, and Death
The YogaFit teacher training has four levels. The second level teaches “Advanced breathing techniques (pranayama) and how to incorporate them into your classes.” What is pranayama anyway?
Prana means “breath,” but it is more than the physical breath. The breathing techniques are not primarily for physical purposes. As yoga scholar George Feuerstein puts it, “prana is like a knife which he [the student of yoga] carefully employs to operate on his own mind, to cut out the malicious thoughts and feelings in order to pierce through to higher levels of consciousness,” (George Feuerstein and Jeanine Miller, The Essence of Yoga, [Rochester, VT: First Inner Traditions, 1998], 111). Prana is “the cosmic breath” and “man has moved away from this original rhythm of the universe,” but pranayama “endeavors to restore the primal rhythm and cosmic harmony as manifested in man, the microcosm,” (Feuerstein, 26).
Iyengar advises that “if you can control the breath, you can control the mind,” but he also cautions that pranayama must be practiced cautiously because “it can make you or mar you. If your heartbeat is uneven, fear sets in and death may be near at hand,” (Iyengar, 128). Inhalation allows contact with the “cosmic breath” while exhalation expels toxins and is “the expulsion of ego,” the goal being to “reach a single mind” so that you are ready for meditation (Iyengar, 130).
The YogaFit site, which has become more overt in using Hindu terms since I first explored it (the site completely changed), now discusses chakras as “the seven energy centers of spiritual power” and ties them in with “health and wellness” as well as offering a colorful chart of the alleged chakras with their Hindu names (https://www.yogafit.com/teacher-training/Working-with-the-Chakras/).
The following is a description of chakras from CANA’s Occult Terms:
The chakras are invisible, and are believed to start at the base of the spine and end in the middle of the forehead. The top of the head is the culmination point for an energy called kundalini, which rises through the chakras to the crown of the head through certain meditation and tantric practices. A different color is often associated with each chakra, usually red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo/purple, and white (sometimes purple) for the crown. The kundalini is believed to be a form of divine energy, coiled at the base of the spine like a serpent which can rise through a channel, called the Sushumna, up the chakras, thus bringing a spiritual awakening. It is taught that arousing the kundalini up through the chakras can be dangerous and should be done under the supervision of a teacher or guru. It is also taught that awakening the kundalini may uncover certain psychic powers called Siddhis.
Another description of chakras from a yoga site states: “For thousands of years, the yogis have identified through their exceptional spiritual practice seven complex, fundamental systems of emission-reception, which connect our microcosm with the outer macrocosm’s seven fundamental levels of vibration. These centers of force are usually known as chakras,” ( http://sivasakti.com/articles/the-seven-chakras-muladhara.html ).
Substituting English words for Hindu terms does not alter the beliefs from which they spring.
Spirituality Sneaks In the Gym Door
The third level for teacher training includes “the health benefits of meditation” and learning “the benefits of journaling and mindful living” among other things. “Mindful” is a commonly used word for spiritual attitudes and techniques associated mostly with Buddhism and New Age practices. Many yoga teachers and practitioners incorporate Buddhist teachings into their practice. After all, Buddhism came from Hinduism.
The fourth level of YogaFit training for teachers is more blatantly Eastern. Training is offered on “Sound Therapy/Chanting” and “Basic Yogic Philosophy and History.” “Required” reading includes The Living Gita: The Complete Bhagavad Gita: A Commentary for Modern Readers and Integral Yoga: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. This is blatant spiritual training, yet YogaFit throughout emphasizes the fitness aspect of yoga. Of course, in Eastern and New Age views, health and spirituality are linked, so practices that affect health can lead to improved spirituality. Also, hatha yoga teaches that disciplining the body prepares one for the rigors of the mental and spiritual disciplines ahead.
The fact that yoga is now offered in health clubs and gyms does not mean yoga is physical exercise. It only means that the demand for yoga is such that offering yoga this way is good business. In an online article in Yoga Journal, one yoga teacher is quoted as saying, “People get turned on to yoga in health clubs, and if they’re looking to deepen their practice, they’ll go to the yoga studio. It’s definitely a way in,” (Nora Isaacs, “Pumping Iron, Practicing Yoga,” accessed Feb. 16, 2004, at http://www.yogajournal.com/views/1008_1.cfm ). Thus, those who find yoga helpful or intriguing may likely go on to more serious study in a yoga studio.
Even the poses, the asanas, critical to yoga, are not simply physical positions:
“Asana is a powerful practice-and, as we’ve seen, it can be a doorway into the most profound teachings of yoga. But asana alone is not enough. Asana practice can reveal some fundamental yogic teachings: for example, the ancient Upanishadic insight that our true nature is not defined by our bodies, our thoughts, or our personalities. But such initial insights are just the beginning. The process of integrating these realizations into the core of our being-of slowly dismantling our attachment to our illusions is often a long one. At a certain point in this process, most serious students are naturally going to want to deepen their practice to include some of the other instruments in the yogic toolkit.” (Anne Cushman, “The New Yoga,” Yoga Journal, Jan/Feb, 2000, accessed Feb. 17, 2004, at http://www.yogajournal.com/views/281_11.cfm ).
Iyengar writes that “Patanjali says that when an asana is correctly performed, the dualities between body and mind, mind and soul, have to vanish…When the asanas are performed in this way, the body cells, which have their own memories and intelligence, are kept healthy,” (Iyengar, 55-56).
While disavowing yoga as a religion, another writer states: “While many Westerners come to yoga primarily for its health benefits, it seems safe to say that most people who open to yoga will, in time, find its meditative qualities and more subtle effects on the mind and emotions equally (if not more) beneficial. They will, in other words, come to see yoga as a spiritual practice” (Phil Catalfo, “Is Yoga a Religion?” Yoga Journal, March/April 2001, accessed 2/17/04 at http://www.yogajournal.com/views/283_2.cfm ). So even a yoga practice that starts off as physical has a subtle influence such that one may eventually be drawn to its spiritual nature.
Religion vs. Spirituality
To say yoga is not a religion is to miss the point. Many people, especially those in the West, think that for something to be religious, there should be prayer, worship, or the study of a “holy” book. These things are not readily apparent in hatha yoga and so it is dismissed as non-religious. However, spiritual practices do not have to exhibit these particular signs, especially if the spirituality is Eastern or New Age. The concept of prayer and worship varies from religion to religion, and from culture to culture. Eastern religions are made up of various practices; hatha yoga is one of many practices found in Hindu beliefs. To deny the spiritual nature and foundations of yoga is inaccurate at best.
Hatha yoga is an integral part of religious practice, its origins, terms, and purposes entwined deeply in ancient spiritual teachings and beliefs. As one can see, trying to change the language or purpose of yoga does not work; the spirituality keeps bouncing back and showing through the cracks. Whether you call yoga a spiritual practice or a fitness regimen, you cannot escape its intrinsic spiritual nature.
Yoga’s Links to Spiritual Roots Acknowledged
Yoga sources, teachers, and experts universally recognize the spiritual nature of yoga:
“It is not so much a physical practice but a spiritual practice based on Shakti, the fundamental vibrating energy of every human being.” http://sivasakti.com/articles/intro-asanas.html
“Yoga is the process of becoming free from limited definitions of the field of consciousness. Then the abiding of the seer (I), in my own true nature”; – Yoga Sutras of Patanjali I. 2,3. https://www.tapinto.net/towns/summit/events/third-eye-chakra-workshop
“There are seven chakras, or energy centers, in the body that become blocked by longheld tension and low self-esteem. But practicing poses that correspond to each chakra can release these blocks and clear the path to higher consciousness.” From https://www.tapinto.net/towns/summit/events/third-eye-chakra-workshop
The Atman, or “real” Self that is eternal, “can only be experienced when all the sensory activity ceases to impact the mind and when the mind itself is freed from the movement of thoughts and sense objects and the torment of desires, which are the prime cause of all human activity and suffering. The experience comes ‘when the mind and the five senses are stilled and when the intellect is stilled…They say that Yoga is complete stillness in which one enters that state of Oneness.'” http://hinduwebsite.com/atman.htm
You can find more evidence for the spirituality of the asanas and of yoga at this link:
Alternative to yoga: For stretching exercises, try The Stretch Deck, a set of 50 heavy-duty cards showing stretches for all the major muscle groups. Each card shows an illustration of a single stretch with step-by-step instructions on the reverse side. The cards also list the benefits of each stretch and offer a helpful tip. These cards are available from Bas Bleu Booksellers at 1-800-433-1155 and cost $14.95 (as of 2004), a lot cheaper than yoga classes!
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