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.
WHAT THE HECK IS A KINESIOLOGIST?
This past year, I fulfilled a goal that was nearly a decade in the making. I became a Registered Kinesiologist. And as thrilled as I was to have finally climbed that mountain when I arrived at the summit, I was often greeted with “Congratulations … what’s a kinesiologist?”
Since kinesiology is a relatively new profession here in Canada you might be unclear about what a kinesiologist is/does. No worries, I’m here to explain.
What is Kinesiology?
Put simply; it's the scientific study of human movement. The term comes from the Greek word kinesis, which means ‘to move.’
I actually had no idea what kinesiology was either - until after I became a yoga teacher. A foundational yoga teacher training gives you the skills to teach classes for people that are generally healthy, but the students that were actually showing up for my yoga classes had all kinds of health conditions I didn’t understand: heart conditions, cystic fibrosis, spinal stenosis, arthritis, osteoporosis, and cancer. The first rule of yoga is ‘DO NO HARM,’ and I knew that I didn’t know enough about the health conditions I was seeing to know whether I was helping or harming. My lack of knowledge about how to work skillfully with these clients scared me. I found myself looking for continuing education that would help me understand the human body better, and that’s when I stumbled into a conscious movement practice called Yoga Tune Up®.
Yoga Tune Up® is a movement style grounded in anatomy, physiology, and biomechanics. This is where I first learned that kinesiology was ‘a thing.’ I was instantly bit by the learning bug. In 2015, I returned to high school to get the math and science pre-requisites I needed that I didn’t get the first time I did high school. My younger self was sure I wouldn't ever need that. Oh, youth!
What’s a Kinesiologist?
A kinesiologist is an expert in human movement and all its many components. Studying to become a kinesiologist involves intensive university training to learn about human movement from different perspectives:
In my schooling, I focused on exercise for older adults. I got loads of hands-on experience training clients at Brock University’s Wellness & Research Centre’s Senior Fit Program - a gym dedicated to folks over the age of 55. In addition, I did a couple of independent studies with older adults. In one, I designed an exercise prescription for a gentleman with Parkinson’s disease. In another, I developed a group exercise program for folks with Osteoporosis.
Studying to become a Kinesiologist is a body nerd’s delight. I loved it - except for physics. Physics was excruciating (but totally necessary).
In Ontario, a ‘Kinesiologist’ or ‘Registered Kinesiologist’ is a protected title, meaning you have to have the credentials and be registered with the College of Kinesiologists of Ontario before you can hang the shingle outside your door.
What does a Kinesiologist do?
A kinesiologist prescribes movement to prevent, manage and rehabilitate injuries, to improve athletic performance or to support the treatment of illness and chronic disease. We can do this for anyone of any age or ability level that wants a hands-on, personalized approach to enhance their health and well-being through movement. Simply put:
A KINESIOLOGIST IS A HUMAN MOVEMENT SPECIALIST THAT USES SCIENCE AND RESEARCH TO PRESCRIBE MOVEMENT AS MEDICINE.
What kinds of health conditions can you prescribe exercise for?
Exercise can be very helpful in the prevention of injury and chronic disease. Movement gives you energy, decreases stress (the leading cause of disease), makes you stronger, and prolongs your independence as you age.
2 out of 3 Ontario residents have at least one chronic condition, including physical and mental health issues. Canada's Public Health Agency has found that physical activity reduces the risk of over 25 common chronic conditions, including cardiovascular disease, stroke, hypertension, colon cancer, breast cancer, Type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and some mental health conditions.
The improvements that can be made with an exercise intervention are, in some cases, astonishing.
Different kinds of exercise alter biochemistry in different ways. For example, resistance training shifts biochemistry to signal bone and muscle growth. In adults with non-severe depression, exercise has been shown to be just as effective as pharmaceutical drugs in reducing depressive symptoms.
As experts in human movement and exercise science, Kinesiologists help people develop, improve and sustain healthy exercise and physical activity habits to prevent chronic disease. They apply movement and exercise science principles to help clients manage chronic conditions through education, physical activity, and exercise-based strategies.
It’s not uncommon for people to have overlapping health conditions. And it’s easy to become confused about which exercise advice to follow. For example, the exercise guidelines you might read online for osteoarthritis may contradict the advice given for osteoporosis. Figuring out which exercises are helpful/harmful can become quite confusing if you have both conditions. A kinesiologist provides special guidance, customization, and coaching that helps you clarify conflicting/confusing information regarding your health and wellness. They tailor exercise programming specifically for your needs.
Exercise is fundamental to your physical and mental health. Kinesiologists are the recognized experts in exercise as a form of healthcare.
Where do kinesiologists work?
Kinesiologists complement other healthcare professionals. They can set up a private practice doing high-performance coaching or personal training, but they also work in hospitals, rehab clinics, gyms, and yoga and pilates studios. You can also find them working in ergonomics, public health promotion or in case management for insurance companies.
Kinesiology is a relatively new profession, and with an aging population, it’s rapidly evolving. It’s incredibly exciting to be on the crest of this new wave in healthcare: movement medicine.
The practice of kinesiology varies from one province to another in Canada. In Ontario, kinesiologists are government-regulated health professionals. If you wish to work with a kinesiologist to improve your health, it may be covered by your extended benefits. In recognition of the important role that movement plays in your overall health and as an incentive to keep moving, you can write-off your kinesiology expenses on your income taxes. Bonus!!
Want to start moving?
Guess what? You ARE already a mover. Whether you think you are or not.
We’re all engaged in some form of movement all of the time. It’s a huge part of what it means to be human. (See my August/22 blog)
As my favourite biomechanist/writer Katy Bowman says, ‘Every moment is movement.’ Think about it; you’re always making some kind of shape with your body. There is never a moment of the day when you’re shapeless. But, you can overdose on certain movements (like sitting) and underdose on others (like resistance or cardiovascular training). You can also overdose on movement and underdose on rest. Rest is as vital to our mental and physical health as movement is. It’s all a balancing act.
How a Kinesiologist can help you
I love this aspect of kinesiology because it empowers YOU to take your health and well-being into your own hands - and that’s its own powerful medicine!
For more information:
Visit: Canada’s 24-hour movement guidelines
Take the Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire. Determine if you’re ready to begin an exercise program now or if you should seek advice from your doctor before becoming more physically active.
Find a Registered Kinesiologist in Ontario or drop me a line.
The dark days of winter are here. You probably noticed.
In the midst of darkness, we need reminders of the light. Perhaps that’s why so many of the world’s religions have a celebration of light scheduled in the darkness of winter: Diwali, Christmas, Winter Solstice, and Hanukkah spring to mind. Perhaps you can think of others?
Themes of light and luminosity are sprinkled throughout the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (the book that lays out the classical path of yoga practice). The Sutras define yoga as ‘the stilling of the mind’s fluctuations’ and remind us that when we bring the mind to stillness, our true self can ‘shine forth,’ transparent and luminous. When our inner light is revealed, we become a source of warmth and comfort for ourselves and others. But how do we still our minds so that our true self can shine? Patanjali suggests
“….focusing on the light within which is free from all suffering and sorrow.” Sutra 1.36
Screeech. Stop the bus. That’s an actual place? Free from suffering and sorrow? And it’s inside me?
The ancient mystic yogis would say, “Yep, it sure is.” They believed that there is a divine light of awareness seated in each of our hearts. This inner light radiates love and compassion, it illuminates the truth, and it connects us to one another. And the bonus — it’s always there — constant and unwavering, like the light of the sun. Yet, we can get so caught up in the drama of everyday life we fail to remember it’s shining there.
Here are 5 practices to help you still the mind’s fluctuations (vrittis) so you can reconnect with your most radiant self and get your inner glow on.
1. SET AN INTENTION – Remember your why!
Quick refresher: What is the purpose of yoga? The purpose of yoga is to still the mind’s vrittis so your true self can shine through. How can you do this? Set an intention to re-connect with your inner light, and repeat positive, light-affirming phrases that will guide you to stillness.
Be of service.
Share my gifts and talents with the world.
Let my inner light shine – for the benefit of everyone.
Repeat these phrases often — upon waking, before bed and anytime you feel unsure of yourself. Write these phrases on a sticky note and place one on your mirror, your laptop, the fridge, heck, anywhere —to remind yourself of your unique talents and innate goodness at every opportunity. Then shine them all over everyone. Completely indiscriminately. Like the rays of the sun that shine down on everyone.
An alternate practice: play the song 'This Little Light of Mine' (below). And sing it like you mean it!
This is your why!
2. SAYING NAMASTE
In modern India, ‘namaste’ is commonly said as an everyday ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye.’ Here in the west, you’re likely to hear it at the end of a yoga class. But it means more than Class is over. You can pack up and go home now. ‘Namaste’ literally means ‘I bow to you.’
The ancient mystic yogis believed that there’s divinity in everyone and everything. When you say ‘namaste’ to someone in the context of a yoga class, it’s more than a casual greeting/parting. It means you recognize and honour the light of divinity in their hearts. It’s the same spark of divinity that resides in your heart. When you say ‘namaste,’ think of it as a practice in acknowledging that deep down, we’re all the same. ‘Namaste’ encourages us to look past superficial differences and connect with our universal heart. We ALL share the inner light of divine awareness. When we remember that, it guides us to act towards others with compassion and kindness, however different we may seem on the surface.
Using Sanskrit terms is also a way to connect with, acknowledge and show reverence for yoga’s roots
In Sanskrit, mudra means ‘sign’ or ‘seal. A hand mudra is a gesture used in yoga and meditation meant to illicit a particular state of being (seal) or to symbolize a particular meaning (sign). It deepens one’s practice.
In Anjali Mudra, the hands press together, fingers touching and pointed up, with the thumbs at the heart centre. It’s a symbolic representation of our interconnectedness and an acknowledgment that we see the divine light in one another.
Anjali mudra is also used throughout a yoga class — at the start of each Sun Salutation and in poses like Tree and Prayer Lunge Twist — bringing the heart centre into the practice.
In the yogic view of the body, the spiritual heart center is hidden deep inside the chest in a space known as the cave of the heart. Anjali mudra nourishes this awareness, gently encouraging you to contemplate your inner light and bask in the radiant glow of your heart.
4. CONTEMPLATE YOUR CONNECTION WITH OTHERS.
We may disagree with each other — we all know discussing religion or politics at the dinner table is risky business. Those conversations are loaded with the potential to create lots of friction and highlight our differences. But, even when our loved ones tell us about their bizarre food choices (Keto, Vegetarian, Meat Eater, or pineapple on pizza), it’s good practice to remember that in our hearts, we all essentially want the same things. We want to be happy, to be healthy, to feel loved, and to feel safe.
One of my favourite practices for acknowledging this simple truth is the ‘Just Like Me’ compassion practice. You can do it as a formal seated meditation, but it’s also the perfect thing to do when you’re right in the moment with someone that’s irritating you. Say, when you’re grocery shopping, and the cart in front of you has twenty items for the express check-out, or honestly, I’m just trying to merge on the highway, repeating ‘Just Like Me’ is a total game-changer! This practice reminds you to look beneath the superficial layer of the difficulty you’re having with someone and to see that we are the same in our hearts.
Mirabai Bush and Ram Dass include the ‘Just Like Me’ meditation in their book, Walking Each Other Home
Let’s take a moment. Pull up a seat, get comfortable, bring a difficult person (or any person) to mind, and let’s begin. As you hold this person in your thoughts, mentally say:
This person has a body and a mind, just like me.
This person has feelings, emotions, and thoughts, just like me.
This person has experienced physical and emotional pain and suffering, just like me.
This person has at some time been sad, disappointed, angry, or hurt, just like me.
This person has felt unworthy or inadequate, just like me.
This person worries and is frightened sometimes, just like me.
This person will die, just like me.
This person has longed for friendship, just like me.
This person is learning about life, just like me.
This person wants to be caring and kind to others, just like me.
This person wants to be content with what life has given them, just like me.
This person wishes to be free from pain and suffering, just like me.
This person wishes to be safe and healthy, just like me.
This person wishes to be happy, just like me.
This person wishes to be loved, just like me.
Now, allow wishes for well-being to arise:
I wish this person to have the strength, resources, and social support they need to navigate the difficulties in life with ease.
I wish this person to be free from pain and suffering.
I wish this person to be peaceful and happy.
I wish this person to be loved . . . because this person is a fellow human being, just like me.
Click here for a guided audio version of this practice.
The Yoga Sutras tell us that the root cause of human suffering is feeling ‘separate’ or disconnected. So, it’s not surprising that many of yoga’s practices, designed to help us quiet our minds and uncover our light, also invite us to sense our heart’s connection to others. We are connecting to the glow, the light, the source, the unity of humanity and beyond.
5. CHANT ‘AUM’
The sacred syllable ‘AUM’ represents the sound of everything in the universe vibrating together as one. It’s an audible reminder that everything is connected and that divinity is everywhere – even inside you. Yoga Sutras 1.28 & 1.29 tell us that “when expressed with great devotion, the sacred sound reveals our Divine nature” and that “with faithful repetition, the inner light luminously shines.”
If the sound ‘AUM’ doesn’t resonate with you, chant Shalom or Amen or Salaam or Amin or Omkar or... Do you know what all of these sacred sounds have in common? They contain the root sound ‘AUM.’ Coincidence? I think not.
Here’s how to get your chanting practice off the ground:
· Sit comfortably
· Choose a sacred sound, one that fills your heart with love.
· Chant it out loud
· After chanting awhile, repeat the sound in silence. Let the sentiment come straight from your heart. Tune into the feeling of your heart beating. Allow yourself to feel the sound’s vibration moving in and out of your heart centre with each pulsation. Connect your heart’s vibration with the universal vibration.
· Bask in the afterglow.
Here’s an ‘AUM, Shalom, Amen’ chant to inspire feelings of love & connection with others.
MAKE TIME TO REMEMBER YOUR BLISSFUL INNER LIGHT.
It’s easy to get swept up in the hustle and bustle of the holidays – to get so stressed and distracted that we forget to carve out time to connect with our inner light - and the light in others. Remember, to take some time each day to quiet your mind, drop into your body, and re-connect with the innate wisdom and goodness in your heart. To clear away the stressors and distractions so that your inner light is revealed.
Amanda Tripp, Yoga/body nerd and woman of a 1000 opinions