As much as I rail against yoga as a form of fitness (yoga is not a fitness exercise!), I will also urge and encourage and even push anyone who will listen to me to do yoga for spirituality.
There are so many benefits to yoga from a mind, body, spirit perspective that ignoring it is to your own detriment. It is gentle, it is easy, and you don’t have to invest much to get into it.
So why not just do it already!
What Is Yoga?
First, let’s talk about what yoga even is. You already know from my comment above that it is not a form of fitness exercise. And I am not alone. The New York Times recently released two separate studies showing that yoga simply does not meet the standards for fitness exercise.
And if the yoga you are doing does meet those guidelines (getting your heart rate up, making your breath fast, building muscle, etc.), what you are doing is not yoga.
You can find countless yogis on the internet saying essentially the same thing, and in much harsher terms.
(These yogis take their practice so seriously!)
None of this is to say that you should not be doing whatever power “yoga” you are doing to qualify as fitness. It is to say that you should also be doing actual yoga.
What is actual yoga?
Yoga is a an ancient practice from India that has been built into the daily spiritual lives of followers of a number of religions from that region. Hinduism, Buddhist, Jainism, you name it, all incorporate yoga into their rituals.
The meaning of the word “yoga” is “to join” or “to unite,” and there exist references and teachings on yoga that aim and unifying the mind, the body, and the spirit through practiced breathwork.
The idea is to stretch and strengthen your body in ways that force you to focus on your breath, to continue to come back to breath, breath, breath.
The thinking in yoga for spirituality is that we will meet God in our breath.
When we can sit with ourselves, hold a pose, flow with movement and breath, we will encounter the divine.
What Is a Spiritual Practice?
A spiritual practice, then, is anything you do ritualistically to meet the divine.
It could be a walk in nature, it could be meditation, it could be prayer, it could even be acts of service.
And yes, it could be yoga.
The goal of a spiritual practice is to surrender yourself to a higher power.
Russell Brand’s book Recovery is all about the 12-step program for addicts. He notes in the book that the program is designed as a spiritual practice, though it does not have to be religious.
He also points out that you are never done with the 12 steps, that you can take as long as you need, and that you may have to return to the steps over and over.
This definition fits a spiritual practice perfectly, and yoga for spirituality lines up perfectly.
It is lifelong, it is habitual, it brings you peace, it brings you closer to the divine, it opens you up, it is entirely focused on something larger than yourself.
Is Yoga a Spiritual Practice?
By these descriptions, then, yes, yoga is absolutely a spiritual practice. If you are not connecting to your spirituality when you do yoga, you are not doing yoga. You are doing a fitness exercise.
Which is, of course, fine, but I am here writing today about yoga as a spiritual practice and the benefits of it as such.
Yoga, as it was originally designed, is gentle; it is slow, and it is rhythmic. Even in a faster paced classroom, the movement is slower than that of an aerobics class.
A good yoga teacher will encourage you to go at your own pace, to only do what works in your practice, and to push yourself just a bit beyond your self imposed limitations.
She will also, in most cases, help you adjust your posture and settle into your poses better. She may place hands on you, if you are comfortable with that, and she will create a soothing setting in the classroom.
You should feel at ease in a yoga class, and you should build an atmosphere of ease in your own studio or any room where you do yoga at home.
It should feel like your own church of sorts.
As you move through each pose in yoga, you should come back to your breath. You can do box breathing, you can hold your breath for a bit at the end of each exhale, and you can even force breath out quickly as with lion’s breath, but the focus should always be on breath.
Very few of us focus on our breath because it is something we take for granted. In fact, most of us never use our full lung capacity in a single day, filling up our lungs to capacity and then exhaling out all of our breath to completely empty our lungs, and then doing it again.
This practice allows you to clear your thoughts, go completely silent, become completely still, and yes, meet something bigger than us.
As someone who has never been religious, I enjoy yoga as a spiritual practice because it allows me to meet my God, the Universe, or as I see it, the consciousness of Nature.
But you can incorporate yoga into your own religion or spirituality, regardless of what it is. That is the joy of yoga as a spiritual practice.
Should You Have a Spiritual Practice?
So now you might be saying, “well who says I need a spiritual practice? I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in God.”
Or, you might be wondering, “I already have a spiritual practice. What do I need yoga for if not for exercise?”
Look, you do not have to be religious or even believe in God. In fact, you can believe that when you die nothing happens and you just turn to dust.
But the reality is that people with faith in something bigger than themselves, in short, people with a spiritual practice, tend to live longer than those without one by an entire decade.
The benefits of a spiritual practice are numerous, from longevity to an improved emotional state, from a stronger immune system to a reduced risk of disease, and more.
There is just something about truly believing that we are part of something larger, that we are all connected, that is incredibly healthy, freeing, and peaceful for humans.
And again, you don’t have to join a religion or go to church. Simply explore alternative ways to adopt or deepen your faith.
What is interesting about seeking faith and spirituality is that once you start looking, you will find it in abundance.
5 Ways to Use Yoga for Spirituality
So, how do you use yoga for spirituality then, if you have never tried it before?
Of course, breath is the most important and most basic part of yoga. It is not only good for physical health but also for your mental and spiritual health as well. Realize that the word respiration and inspiration come from the same root work for breath.
If you do nothing else with yoga, you can get in 15 minutes of breathwork a day and feel like you accomplished a spiritual goal.
- Open Up
Yoga can often be ugly and awkward and uncomfortable, even for the most advanced practitioners. When you challenge yourself to go a little bit deeper with your downward dog, or flow a little bit quicker through your vinyasa, you find yourself improving.
And when you improve, you are encouraged to open up a bit more, and then a bit more.
Opening up is a key way to deepen your spirituality.
- Celebrate Your Body
So many of us are lacking in self love, and yoga is a great way to bring us back to our bodies and celebrate just what they are capable of. It is truly empowering.
There is no greater form of spirituality than self love because the more you love and care for yourself, the more excess you have to give others, which is the height of spirituality. It is the 12th step in the 12 step program.
Once you put your house in order, you are capable of helping others, and that is really meeting God.
Yoga helps you get there by helping you see how powerful you are in your own human body.
- Quiet Your Mind
It’s hard to be spiritual when your mind is racing with worry, depression, anxiety.
Yoga helps you clear all that out.
Because it brings you back to breath, it helps you focus on that breath rather than your racing thoughts.
They will still come in, of course, but you can clear them out more easily, which sets you up for a great meditation after yoga.
- Connect with Your Spirit
And finally, yoga helps you connect with your spirit. Once you can clear your mind and get really present, you can step out of your ego and fully embrace your spirit.
And that, my friends, is the real goal.