Do you know one of the most common google searches about yoga?
Yoga without the spiritual stuff.
I know this because I went mining for info about what people want to know about yoga philosophy in the hopes of providing you with insightful and easy to understand answers. As it turns out, what people want to know about yoga philosophy is: how to avoid it! Hmmmmmm.
I genuinely love me some yoga philosophy, and I instantly felt my heart sink. But then, I started to wonder … What do people think ‘the spiritual stuff’ is?
As a thin, white, educated, leftist, hippie, vegetarian yoga practitioner, I’m in kind of an awkward position. I’m a living, breathing yoga stereotype - of white, western privilege. The embodiment of many of the things that are deeply problematic about the way yoga is portrayed in the west – which makes me an easy target for playful mockery about ‘spiritual types’, and also some legitimate criticisms and complaints. For better or worse I am what I am. And truth be told, I’m a big fan of my educated, leftist, hippie, vegetarian beliefs.
That said, things are messy in yogaland. There’s no shortage of scandals‚from gurus sexually abusing students to yoga clothing brands that fat-shame customers and charge exorbitant prices for clothes produced overseas under morally questionable conditions. Never mind the social media networks filled with bendy Barbies. Yoga has gone full on Hollywood! It’s become a style adopted by affluence.
If you walk into any modern urban yoga class who knows what you’ll get? Maybe a class centered on ab work and a few Hindu stories tossed in for good measure, or perhaps a chill electronica playlist reminiscent of a Goa rave, and some om-ing and essential oils on the side.
Maybe some people can see through the hypocrisies of modern yoga practices. Maybe the consumerism of yoga is too much to bear and there’s not a chance they’d take spiritual advice from a skinny white woman wearing $150 compression pants and a ‘Namaslay’ t-shirt. Can I blame them? Not a chance!
But then I got to wondering about other modern, western city dwellers…Maybe they;re put off by the idea of ‘spiritual stuff’ in yoga because it reminds them of the problems and hypocrisies they’ve experienced in organized religion. Maybe they’ve just sworn off organized spirituality of any kind? Again, I can’t blame them.
Or maybe they’re part of an organized religion and are worried that there’s something in the spiritual teachings of yoga that will put their soul in peril? Yet yoga is a philosophy; not a religion. Call me an optimist, but I think science, religion and philosophy can happily cohabitate in our lives.
All this controversy has invited the yoga industry to take a good hard look at itself. In that introspection has come a recognition of the glaring absence of South Asian representation in yoga studios, mainstream yoga magazines, websites, and at major yoga events. Several South Asian yoga teachers have come forward and explained in tremendous depth and clarity why they find their exclusion from western yoga’s most visible platforms alongside the appropriation of their heritage so painful.
It’s worth checking out Susannah Barkataki or Tejal Patel on this subject. They are Indian-American yoga teachers who tackle the racism, spiritual bypassing, and the whitewashing of yoga. They lay clear why representation matters. And why yoga is inherently political. When I read Barkataki’s book, I was extremely grateful to be made aware of my culturally appropriative blind spots.
Despite the problems in yogaland and the misconceptions people might have about what yoga entails, most people who have been around the yoga block will testify that practice leads to very real mental, emotional and physical health benefits. Perhaps that’s enough.
Yet, for the yogis, and many others who are steeped in traditions, there’s NO DEBATE as to whether yoga is a spiritual practice.
I’m stumped by what ‘spirituality’ actually means. Does it have to involve the existence of a sacred, supernatural realm? In the dictionary spirituality is defined as ‘the quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.’
It seems to me that yoga is primarily concerned with the physical world we find ourselves in now. So, I’m not even sure it makes sense to talk about yoga as a spiritual practice. How you interact with others, how you take care of yourself and your relationships, and how you liberate yourself (and others) from suffering, I wouldn’t necessarily call those spiritual or afterlife problems. They’re very much rooted in our current physical reality. Yoga is very concerned with giving us tools that help navigate our everyday real-life problems in a way that, hopefully, diminishes our suffering.
Is that ‘spiritual stuff’?
Again, I guess it depends on how we define spirituality. Is spirituality a quest for deeper meaning? A kind of magical metaphysical thinking? Stymied, I returned to the internet for answers and found What is Spirituality? While there doesn’t appear to be an agreed upon definition of spirituality, and although it might include a belief in a higher power, the article suggests spirituality can also include any and all of the following:
Is that what people don’t want from yoga?
If I accept that these tenets are spiritual, then I guess that would make me a spiritual teacher. But if you were to ask me if I think of myself as a spiritual teacher, I would say no.
Personally, I associate the word spirituality with … spirits. Similar to the idea of a ghost living inside a body – and I just don’t believe in that. Nonetheless, I am philosophical. I like deep diving into big questions. I like trying to understand our collective experience, and our place in the universe. In my yoga classes, there’s lots of room for contemplation about empathy, compassion, interconnectedness and how we might use our practice to help make the world a better place.
When I think a little deeper, I wonder … is it even possible to strip the philosophical stuff out of yoga? Even if your teacher doesn’t explicitly talk about the spiritual or philosophical traditions in class, it’s still there: invisibly underpinning the whole practice, and the reason yoga makes you feel so good. It’s not just the bendy bits, it’s the breath, the focus, and the solitary nature of the practice, even though you might practice in a room with hundreds of other people.
You see, the roots of a lot of modern posture practice stretch back a few thousand years to a set of yoga teachings known as the 8-Limbs of Yoga (Ashanga Yoga). The purpose of the 8 Limb path of yoga is to quiet your mind and free you from suffering so that you can rest in your true nature—a beautiful sense of one-ness and connection to everything. The 8 Limbs are the unspoken underpinning of most modern yoga classes.
What are the 8 Limbs? I’m so glad you asked.
1) Moral Principles (Yama)
2) Personal Observances (Niyama)
3) Posture (Asana)
4) Breath Regulation (Pranayama)
5) Turning Your Attention Inward (Pratyahara)
6) Focus/Concentration (Dharana)
7) Meditation (Dhyana)
8) Enlightenment/Liberation/Union/Integration (Samadhi)
If you’re practicing honouring your hamstrings’ safe limitations in a deep forward fold, you’re practicing the philosophical principles of truthfulness, self-study and non-harming (satya, svadhyaya and ahimsa) – whether your teacher explicitly tells you this or not.
If you’re focused on how your body feels, you’re interiorizing your attention and turning your focus away from the external world, a practice called pratyahara.
If you’re paying attention to your breath, you’re engaged in dharana (focus) and pranayama (breath regulation).
In other words, if you’re taking a yoga class, you’re being led through at least some of the 8 Limbs of Yoga. You are actively engaged in applied yoga philosophy. You’re participating in ‘the spiritual stuff.’ You’re taking steps on a spiritual path that was designed to lead you out of suffering and towards enlightenment.
Yet, what’s not happening in the contemporary western yoga world, and what the South Asian community is trying to impart, is that few teachers are talking about why you’re doing what you’re doing. As a teacher, I can’t help but think … isn’t that the very heart of teaching? Explaining why you’re doing what you’re doing? Helping your students understand what you’re teaching? Who amongst us hasn’t done a math problem and wondered—Why are we doing this? What’s the point? I think in matters of yoga and math, practice is so much better and more meaningful when we are given context to deepen our understanding.
You can treat yoga like it’s just another form of exercise—but even when you’re participating in the most fitness-oriented strain of practice, something deeper is going on. If you’re doing yoga poses you are connecting to the 8 Limbs. Fundamentally, you’re doing a movement meditation. This should hold lots of appeal for people who need mindfulness but can’t sit still.
And practicing mindfulness changes you. It just does. Even if the teacher doesn’t explain it to you (though I really think a teacher owes it to their students to explain what’s happening to them).
One of the first things people notice about a yoga studio is that, unlike a gym, there aren’t any mirrors. This forces you to focus less on your outward appearance and focus more on how you feel and what your body can do (pratyahara). It’s hard to objectify yourself when you can’t see yourself from the outside. When you nail your first arm balance, you notice how awesome it feels. You won’t notice that your ponytail is on sideways or your muffin top is spilling over your waistband—because you can’t see it.
In most yoga classes, you’re also not likely to get encouragement to burn fat, rip your abs or get a beach body (a beach body is just a body that happens to be on a beach, FYI). A lot of fitness culture preys on your insecurities and reinforces the toxic idea that whether your body is good or bad is based on how it looks. The fact that you brought your body to yoga and you’re giving it the old college try is good enough for yoga.
Much of yoga is focused on simply noticing; on making observations with curiosity and objectivity.. You might hear your teacher say--Notice how your body feels in Triangle—Notice the feeling of your breath flowing in and out.—Notice any thoughts or ideas that come up, and observe them without judgment.
Yoga might make you stronger, slimmer or bendier, but none of those things are the point of yoga. Yoga was designed to quiet your mind and free you from suffering. When you stop staring at yourself in a mirror and judging your body for how it looks and instead focus on how your body feels and what it can do, you liberate yourself from the tyranny of an inner voice that’s telling you you’re not good enough. That’s one of the ways yoga transforms your relationship with yourself. And freeing yourself from the tyranny of judgement leads to healthier choices. It’s a win-win situation.
Ultimately, what you end up learning from yoga, whether its stated explicitly or not, are some new ways of relating to yourself and the world. You might not think of that as ‘spiritual stuff’, but it is deeply philosophical, it can be completely transformational, and it’s the stuff that eventually leads to feeling a blissful sense of connection and belonging in the universe. If you’re in a yoga class, you’re in that process.
And, of course everyone can benefit from this whether you’re into spirituality or think it’s a load of hogwash.. You might be put off by the idea of a spiritual practice lead by a priveleged, philosophy-spouting hippie - but at the same time, just about everyone would really love to get out of their heads for an hour and feel calm, peaceful and connected. Wouldn’t they?
Learning to be objective and curious about yourself; observing your thoughts without getting caught up in them, and observing others without judgment and harsh criticism is yoga. Yoga teaches you to do all of that without having to do anything particularly woo-woo. You just show up, breathe, move and observe with compassion and awareness. That’s all.
Is that spiritual?
You tell me.
Amanda Tripp, Yoga/body nerd and woman of a 1000 opinions