Is Yoga Spiritual?

This is a question that everyone who begins a yoga practice (for whatever reason) must eventually face. The simple answer is yes, but not necessarily in the way you might think.

There is no question that yoga began as a very specific kind of spiritual practice. The history of yoga makes that very clear.

The thing is, though, that up until incredibly recently yoga was a practice that rested on the fringe of society, practiced by weirdos or, worse, the boogeyman (yep, in many parts of India the yogi is a scary, monstrous, not-quite-human type creature who is at best a trickster and at worst totally evil). This means that over time the spiritual practice of yoga has changed dramatically. The goal was always enlightenment (unless you were the boogeyman), but the specifics of what that meant and how to achieve it shifted with the times, either to complement or differentiate from the religious practices of the day.

The most recent transmutations of yoga’s spiritual philosophies are much broader than they used to be, perhaps because it has come into contact with a wider variety of cultures and religions. Instead of prescribing a single method for obtaining a specific kind of enlightenment, it prescribes a few methods for obtaining whatever kind of enlightenment you fancy. An easy image is that of a ladder that can be set up alongside your religious or spiritual practice of choice. It helps you get in touch with your true self and connect to your Source as conventionally religious, atheistic, or new agey spiritual as it may be.

So while we often think of some specific religions when we think of yoga’s spirituality, the truth of the matter is that it’s more than that. Or maybe less. It’s a tool that you can use for your own spirituality, however you define it.

The story doesn’t end there, however, because since a physical practice was added to yoga’s repertoire, it can be even simpler: a practice of physical fitness, allowing yogis to stamp almost all of the spirituality out of yoga. Unfortunately, you won’t get off that easy – to get the full physical benefit of yoga it requires a level of self-awareness that doesn’t exist in other forms of exercise, and if you ask me, getting in touch with yourself means getting in touch with something deeper, no matter how you want to name it.

So at the end of the day, yes, yoga is a spiritual practice. But now you get to define what that means for you, and I think that’s pretty cool.

A Brief History of Yoga

Estimates of how long yoga has existed go back as long as 7,000 years or more, depending on how you interpret the data*. The theory and practice of yoga has evolved many times over throughout that long history, influenced by the religions and philosophies of its time, being refined and changed by its practitioners to fit their needs and bring them further along their journeys.

At this point you can more or less divide the practice of yoga into two categories: Classical Yoga and Tantric Yoga. The majority of us spend our time practicing Tantric Yoga these days, and no, it doesn’t involve any of the scandalous things you are thinking about. Well, okay, it kind of does, but that’s a longer story.

Classical Yoga was all about getting your spirit out of your body as quickly as possible. The story goes that Consciousness got trapped in this reality by mistake, and it’s a big problem. Therefore, everything about this life is problematic, including our bodies, thoughts, sense of self, and the multiplicity that surrounds us. Classical Yoga uses meditation techniques (among other practices) described in the Yoga Sutras to get in touch with the true Consciousness and liberate oneself from this reality. There were no asanas (yoga poses) except one: find a firm, steady seat for your meditation. Enlightenment is the goal, and enlightenment can only be found by leaving this reality and life.

Tantric Yoga arose in reaction to Classical Yoga. It said that this world is not a problem, and that if our consciousness exists in this world, then it must be a function of the same Source and we should celebrate it. Tantric Yoga affirms life and this reality, and seeks to honour the Source in everything.

Eventually asanas developed as a part of Tantric Yoga, in order to prepare the body and mind for meditation, to create a strong physical container for our energies, and to honour our bodies, as they were no longer crippling vehicles to be ditched as quickly as possible, but a part of our connection to the Source. Enlightenment is still the goal, but now enlightenment can be reached while in this reality.

This is hatha yoga (the name for any physical practice of yoga as well as a particular style of physical yoga). Interestingly, this practice that has become so popular it almost completely overshadows all other forms of yoga, is actually the youngest. Depending on how you qualify it, hatha yoga has only existed for a few hundred years!

Before, after, and in between the creation of Classical and Tantric Yoga, there have been many incarnations of yoga, and they keep changing. Recent innovations in hatha yoga include variations like yin, or entire schools of yoga like Anusara, and they keep growing.

This means that no matter what your reason for practicing yoga, and no matter what the particularities of how you prefer to practice, it’s all good! Yoga has been molded by each guru, teacher, and practitioner, and it will continue to change and evolve over time, so follow your heart and where it leads you in your yoga practice.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you can just fly in all willy-nilly and do whatever you want, calling it yoga. Just as a true artist, one who revolutionizes the practice, innovates, and touches the hearts of the world, masters the teachings of those who came before them, so a yogi will explore and examine the paths of those who came before them before forging their own path.

*Fun fact about historical research: a lot of it is guesswork based on things like pictures painted on urns or plates. I first started exploring this in theatre history when I learned that what we know about early Greek theatre is pieced together from things like pictures of masks painted on broken urns. When it comes to yoga, there’s an old picture of a man who may be Shiva sitting in what could be lotus position. Could be he was doing yoga, could be he was employing one of the few ways to sit on the floor. Take your pick!