One time a student asked, ‘How can I spiritualise my yoga asana practice? Are yoga asanas and pranayam intrinsically spiritual?’
Yoga asanas are not intrinsically spiritual, but they can be.
There are many reasons people take to a yoga practice these days. It is well known that asanas help us care for our joints, muscles, bones and nervous system; not to mention our digestion, heart rate and energy levels. These are all physical benefits of asanas, and used as such these yoga practices are not spiritual but are very physically and mentally rewarding.
So how can we spiritualise our yoga practice? It is simple: through our intention, the attitude that we take to the mat. Actually just about any activity that we perform can be spiritualised according to our intention, such as working, cleaning, exercising. We simply go about our lives in such a way with the intention of pleasing the Supreme Person. These activities then become our sadhana or spiritual practices. So if our intention is the same as the goal of yoga – to develop our loving relationship with the Supreme, then all our activities can be an offering to Him.
So that brings up the question, “How can I use yoga asanas to achieve the goal of yoga?” There are 2 ways that our physical yoga practices can be a spiritual activity.
Firstly, in order to carry out our daily sadhana it is most conducive to be healthy and strong, with a clear mind and lots of energy. Asanas are one of the best exercise programs to achieve this. So if our goal in life is to use our body, our mind, our possessions, in fact our very life to achieve the ultimate goal of yoga, then keeping our body healthy becomes a spiritual activity, whether it is asanas or walking or going to the gym.
Secondly, asanas and pranayam have a subtly purifying effect. They help us to become more aware of our body and how our external life affects our consciousness. As we experience the benefits of our practice we become more discerning as to the certain foods, for example, that make us lethargic or the ones that give us energy. Or we may notice that some of the people we hang out with are influencing us more away from our spiritual path while others may be having a beneficial effect. This discernment will gradually spread to all areas of our life: how long we sleep, the entertainment we seek and eventually even the silent mind talk we engage in.
Ultimately through physical yoga practices we can come to the platform of the mode of goodness, which although not yet spiritual, is a great spring board for our spiritual life. When we are dwelling in this consciousness of the mode of goodness, or sattva guna, and we are more likely to be attracted to peaceful situations, we lose our restlessness, feel calmer and become less materialistic.
This is a nice gentle consciousness, but it is not yet spiritual. Our true spiritual journey starts when we open our hearts and minds to the Supreme. These physical practices of yoga therefore can help us come to a state where we feel inclined to transcend this world and they make it easier for us to give up activities which are unfavourable to our spiritual journey.
While it is not necessary to practice physical yoga to achieve the goal of yoga, with the right intention these practices can aid us greatly in our spiritual quest and themselves can become part of our sadhana or spiritual practices.
To fully understand this concept we can draw on the analogy of taking a shower. Before we take a shower we need to get prepared. We need the soap and the water, we need to take our clothes off, have a towel ready and fresh clothes to put on, and all these actions become part of our bathing activity. Similarly our yoga asanas can become part of our spiritual practice; we can prepare ourselves for spiritual life by keeping our body healthy and also become a little purified, a little more discerning on what will help us and what will be a deterrent. With these intentions our physical yoga practices become part of our spiritual journey.
By Vrndavan Dasi
Founder and Principal of Veda Yoga Teacher Training