There has been a lot of talk lately about the spiritual practice of yoga. From the controversy in Georgia over saying the word Namaste in schools, to people debating whether or not yoga is a gateway to esoteric Eastern religions, to some sternly arguing that yoga is just a physical practice; there are questions all around about what to do with this concept of spirituality in yoga. In my view, yoga is a tool for any spiritual practice. It can in fact be used to deepen any spiritual practice or belief system, regardless of which practice or the belief system.
For a lot of people exposed to the yoga studio life of today, yoga appears to be more and more a concept of Hindu faith. Many teachers, myself included, have become enamored with the spiritual practices of ‘where yoga comes from’. (Although yoga was not born out of the Hindu faith, it is one of the more associated with yoga because of its introduction to the West.) Thus teachers will often incorporate practices such as mantras, kirtian style music, and Sanskrit into their classes furthering this idea. Leaving anyone with a spiritual practice different from that unsure of how to incorporate their own faith into their yoga and deepening their devotion.
For some the small integration of a different spiritual practice does not bother them, it may even open them up more to new ideas or ways of seeing things. For others, however, this practice has turned them off, leaving them feeling a sense of disloyalty to their own spiritual practice. They either opt out of those practices in class, or forgo class all together.
Yoga at its roots is a spiritual practice. Every original text written on the subject brings one back to an idea of God, some being more single minded in their ideas than others. Still The Yoga Sutras is the text that most yogis point to as the practice manual. Further it is the most accessible text for people of all faiths to understand and practice yoga from. In The Yoga Sutras, Patanjali goes to great lengths to not put a name to God. In fact he just keeps referring to devotion to a Personal God (meaning however the practitioner sees the higher power). Further he even offers options to practice without a higher power – although it seems that one will forever fall short in his system without one.
Here is the thing, if you accept that yoga is a spiritual tool and therefore should have some spiritual tones to it, you can and should incorporate your own faith system into your practice. By incorporating some spiritual aspect into your yoga practice it will deepen your connection with you spirituality, strengthen your resolve in your devotion without becoming a fanatic, and it will add a new and beautiful deamination to your practice never before experienced.
Here are a few ways you can bring your spiritual practice into your yoga practice
- Setting Intentions before practice
I am a big believer in setting intentions before a practice. For one it allows you to find a focus for your practice, and for another it allows you to also recognize others in need of positive energy, and suffering. Both for myself and my students I offer them the chance to set an intention both for themselves and for the greater world around them (a person, place, or event). I give them the opportunity to recognize parts of themselves that they wish to delve deeper into and understand while practicing, as well as give them the chance to send some love to any part of the world that needs it. Allowing for both a cultivation of self study and love, as well as a greater love for those around them. Further this is something that is universal, it is non-spiritual specific. There is not a single religion or spiritual practice that I have ever found or read about that does not encourage us to both love and take care of ourselves as well as the world around us. Setting intentions just allows you to open up, and you can always choose to send yours to your higher power if you so choose.
2. Adding a prayer or mantra
I like AUM as a set prayer. Although it does have roots in Indian spiritualties, it is pretty non-descript and is just a sound representation of the higher power. However if this is something that does not strike a cord with you choose a prayer or a few words from your own background to say before you practice. Just keep it consistent. If you do go to a studio for physical practice, say these words quietly to yourself as everyone else AUMs. If you are practicing on your own, say them out loud. Repeat them and let them vibrate within you and fill you up with the love of your chosen spiritual path.
3. Set a spiritual theme for your practice
Most yoga teachers set themes for their classes. They do not or are not always spiritual based, however having one every month or so helps us further delve into our paths and ideas. If you have an at home practice, it is good to choose a passage from a spiritual text that speaks to you and read it before you practice – and before your intention. Then as you flow, keep coming back to it and let it open up to you as you meditate in movement. If you are practicing at a studio, then in all likely hood the theme has been chosen for you. If it happens to be a spiritual theme just find a way to let it speak to you – most teachers will try to relate their themes to everyone regardless. Or if you are unsure about this path, try reading your own text before class. Then let that roll around in your head instead of the theme set by the instructor.
4. When you practice use the feel of certain types of poses to feel your spiritual path
Usually in certain poses teachers will remark “feel your heart shining out” or “open up to the universe”. Again if these concepts are strange to you or do not strike a cord put your own words there – without thinking about it too much. Yes feel your heart shining out to your higher power or intention, particularly in back bends. Even with your at home practice take the time to really focus on the feeling of the poses you are practicing and put your own spiritual spin on it. My favorite pose that has spiritual meaning to me is Hanumanasana. This pose is represented of the leap over the ocean that the Hindu God Hanuman took to save the Goddess Sita from a demon in the Ramayama. Though this is a very particular story behind this pose, the allegory is not lost on any spiritual practice. By shear faith in whatever you believe great things can be accomplished. Once you can feel that will and devotion in the pose you can bring it into your day to day life.
5. Be grateful, and say a closing prayer or choice words
When you are finishing up practice and coming out of corpus pose, take a moment to reflect upon your practice and show gratitude. Thank not only your instructor, but also those that came before developing a practice that you love. Say thank you to yourself and your body for taking the time out to practice and fully participating. Then feel the changes that have occurred. Finally find your own set of closing words or prayer that you want to end with. Again you want to be consistent, as well as different from those you open with. If you are in a studio, say them silently to yourself if you do not want to Namaste, or even if you do say them just before or just after. Add an Amen if that’s your style, or just something that is scared to you that is finalizing.
6. Revisit your theme
If you are practicing at home, I suggest you do this before your do your finalizing prayer and closing words; however if you are at a studio you might want to wait until you are back in your car or at least until you are outside the studio space. Take some time and reread or revisit your theme. Just reflect on your thoughts before practice and see if they changed now that you are done. You might even have an epiphany regarding these words as you reread them and find some deeper meaning and understanding you did not have before. If you just wanted to focus on a theme, like forgiveness, just think about the concept for a few moments. Again revisit your thoughts before class and see what, if anything has changed. Maybe you even chosen to forgive someone and truly did, so now you feel a weight removed.
There is much to be said about the practice of yoga and its spiritual side. Each of its core texts has something to say about adding a spiritual note to the practice. By doing so many doors and windows will open up to you in ways that before you were unable to even see. As you choose to step deeper in your practice, and deeper in your faith, a sense of peace will prevail more calming and resilient than before. The spiritual side of yoga is not always for everyone, but just know that if you chose to walk down this beautiful path, you can always find a way to make yoga work for you.
Practice in Peace and Love ❤