Instagram pictures of exotic postures and YouTube parodies of yoga classes paint a wild picture of an ancient tradition alive and growing in the world today. Yoga has transcended its humble mat space and pervaded our culture in numerous ways — people wear Lululemon to dinner, and we hear more exchanges of namaste than ever before. Google “yoga” in any city across America and one will find a plethora of options to dabble or dive into.
Although everyone seems to have heard about yoga, the diverse milieu of traditions and teachings can be fairly overwhelming to the newcomer. And because most pop imagery around yoga focuses on its physical aspects, many who attend class don’t know that yoga is a deeply spiritual practice that has adapted and transformed through different styles and lineages. It might feel strange to step out of the materialistic, self-focused world and be greeted by talk about love, light and unity. But the ancient yogis weren’t doing headstands on SUPs or backbending over their Chihuahuas. So what is the bridge between the spiritual side of yoga, and being able to contort your body?
Here in Hawai’i there exists a perfect microcosm of the yoga world at large. Depending on your interests you can explore classes that run the gamut from aerial dance-like yoga using hanging silks to float you through your stretches, to deeply philosophical gatherings focused on meditation and chanting. For those who are just beginning, the doorway through physical postures is probably most accessible. The physical realm in itself can be a lifetime of learning if one tried all the different yoga styles. For instance, if you want to learn details of perfect alignment, try an Iyengar class. For building strength and endurance, try Kundalini or a flow-centered Power yoga class. Those who are more attracted to quiet introspection than to physical rigor may find devotional yoga and meditation more suitable. These classes emphasize the deeper, metaphysical practices of yoga.
One common thread with any practice is that with the right time and focus, yoga strengthens and stabilizes both body and mind. Like martial arts and other forms of physical activity that encourage the management of energy, yoga builds life force within the body, making it strong and balanced. But just because you perfect your handstand or peacock pose, does this mean you are a true yogi? Not quite.
Those who have been around yoga for a while discover the spiritual dimension underlying all the outer practices. The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit root word “yug,” which means to unite. This “union” is not referring to your hands touching your feet or your nose reaching your knees. It’s not even referring to uniting mind and body, which in my opinion is trickier than any inversion. According to the Yoga Sutras, one of the oldest texts that outline the complete path of practice, yoga is the uniting of individual consciousness (what you experience on a daily basis through your mind) with Divine Consciousness (the essence of truth as perceived by the Supreme Self). This is the spiritual union that all the practices of yoga are formulated to help us achieve, and what brings ultimate happiness and liberation from suffering. This is what teachers are pointing toward when they remind students to “come home to your Authentic Self” or “breathe into the peace that waits within.” Even if the words seem esoteric, recognize that a yoga class provides a sanctuary in which you can approach these inner practices that stem from the eight-limbed path outlined in the ancient text of the Yoga Sutras.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga
To become a true yogi — classically speaking — one needs to practice all eight limbs of the yoga path. Limb One is the yamas, or moral qualities we need to cultivate in order to reconnect with our true nature. They include peacefulness, truthfulness, generosity, self-control and appreciation. Limb Two is the niyamas, or observances that help us integrate our inner and outer experience, which then help create a more harmonious life. They include purification, contentment, right effort, self-reflection, and devotion. Asana is next, the practice of correct posture to create a stable physical body that can sit at ease in meditation. Then comes pranayama, the management of life force energy. Pratyahara is the fifth limb — the practice of withdrawing from the sensory pull of the material world in order to shift inward toward stillness. Once interiorized, the sixth limb is dharana or single-pointed concentration, which then connects to the seventh, Dhyana, the state of stillness where the individual consciousness reunites with its Source or Universal Consciousness. Finally, the eighth limb is samadhi, or yoga union sustained, the ever-awakening bliss of pure awareness.
This is the summary of yoga’s spiritual path. It is a lifetime (or more) of practice, so perfection is definitely not the goal! We can only do what we can at any moment. At the very least, each aspect of yoga benefits us physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually over time.
Sometimes there is confusion over the spiritual depth of yoga. For some, the “love and light” talk bantered around yoga circles can sound dogmatic and cultish. Others may wonder if such spirituality is authentic. Be assured that yoga is neither a religion nor a cult.
Instead, yoga is a philosophy of life and liberation that recognizes One Source of all consciousness and all creation, therefore aligning with all religions and faiths. People of all backgrounds and belief systems can practice yoga as a means of physical well-being and spiritual awareness, simply through the stillness developed in meditation. A yoga practice is meant to deepen your connection to whatever conception you have of the spiritual side of life.
Yoga is a lifelong exploration and there is no way you can do it wrong. It is a vast and wondrous tradition with innumerable benefits, and there’s something for everyone. Try a few different teachers and types of classes to see what feels like a good fit for you. You should always feel supported, accepted and encouraged; never pressured or intimidated. And if the talk of peace and compassion seems foreign at first, just appreciate that you are in a place where people are trying to cultivate positive qualities. This is an embodied practice that must be applied in our daily lives, and it can be encouraging to have a tribe with similar values. Above all, enjoy the ride, and let your practice free not only your body and mind, but your spirit as well.
Jennie is a yoga therapist who has shared the healing benefits of classical yoga and meditation with thousands of clients over the past 17 years. By using the formula she writes about in True Yoga, she has helped people conquer paralyzing anxiety, depression, grief, post-traumatic stress, attention deficit issues, eating disorders, and challenging relationship dynamics.