The Elephant In the Room: Is Yoga Spiritual?

yoga spiritual pose
Photo by k.a. gilbert

For some yogis, a strand of beads or a Ganesha statue can help shift awareness and set the tone for practice, while others may consider them nothing more than cool hipster trappings. But for some people, malas and murtis—along with chanting, Sanskrit, incense, and ancient texts—push yoga into the category of religion. In 2013 concerned parents in Encinitas went to court over the teaching of yoga in schools, arguing that it violated their religious freedom. The judge ruled that yoga is not a religion, but there’s an elephant in the room: Yoga is spiritual.

While dictionaries disagree on a definition of “spiritual,” I think most of us would concur that spirituality is the search for something profound—something beyond ordinary existence or greater than one’s self. This certainly rings true for those who practice the eight limbs outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. But it’s also true for those who hit the gym a couple times a week for an asana class. No matter how or why you practice, Hatha Yoga is a system for self-improvement, and many who’ve started going to classes to gain physical strength or lose weight have discovered that yoga offers “something” more.

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Yoga uses the body to go beyond the body—even by itself asana can inspire a shift in consciousness. And while Hatha Yoga isn’t a religion, as a system or a philosophy, it can support and complement prayer, praise, contemplation, and other spiritual practices, whether one happens to be a Christian, or an Orthodox Jew, or an atheist (yes, atheists can be spiritual).

Very likely, most people who are uncomfortable with the idea of yoga as a spiritual practice are actually uncomfortable with its symbolism and cultural tie-ins. Hatha Yoga shares the same cultural roots as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, and yoga philosophy has elements of sankhya and Vedanta. But you don’t have to know who Shiva was to practice yoga or reap its benefits. Nor does acknowledging Shiva as a symbol of transformation make you a Hindu. Yoga can be as simple as bare feet and breath, or it can be a rich dish of influences and layered meanings.

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If anyone can understand that kind of syncretism, it should be Westerners. Look, for example, at the myriad ways we acknowledge Christmas. Though most of us think of it as a Christian holiday, many non-Christians celebrate it, and it certainly has secular aspects as well as echoes of paganism and shamanism. Weave that together with a handful of cultural and familial threads—from trees and lights to red-and-green tamales to tiny reindeer—and it becomes obvious that we’re adept at recognizing a good thing and incorporating it within a personal tapestry of beliefs and traditions.

We’ve done the same with yoga—and more than a few complain that yoga in the West has become watered down or over-commercialized as we’ve incorporated it within our fast-moving society of commerce, laws, and technology. As a culture, we’re quick to define and evaluate our experiences. Is yoga religious or spiritual—or is it simply personal? Like the blind men and the elephant, each of us will experience yoga’s practices in our own unique ways. And allowing experience to inform us is one of yoga’s greatest lessons, the key to being in the moment and experiencing pure presence…and that’s the foundation of a spiritual practice.

How does yoga weave into your spirituality?

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