When I first started to practice Yoga, I used it to retain flexibility. Then, I discovered Yoga could also help me rehab injuries and rebuild strength. My practice was exclusively physical – no chanting, no meditation, not even pranayama (except for Ujjayi) – and that didn’t really feel wrong for me. But then, I started doing Yin Yoga to work on my ligaments, and the most remarkable thing happened.
In Yin Yoga, you need to hold each pose for 3′-5′, a completely new experience for me as I was used to much shorter holds (30″-1′). You’re also instructed to “breathe into” the area you’re stretching. So, I started to relax into the poses and focus on my breath. I was aware of thoughts bouncing around in my head, but if you were to ask me afterwards what I’d been thinking about, I would have no clue – I realize now that I was actually in a meditative state. And when the timer would go off to signal a pose switch, I would wonder whether I’d set it up wrong – it felt too soon to get out of the pose! This was truly amazing, but was it a spiritual experience?
Well, the day after my very first Yin Yoga class, I had an incredible outburst of anger. Everything seemed fine, but for no reason I just suddenly snapped. After calming down, I took a step back and tried to analyze what had happened. The only way I can explain it is that the practice had forced my mind to quiet to such a degree that long-suppressed feelings of disappointment, hopelessness, and bitterness were brought to the surface. My defenses (i.e. the constant verbal chatter in my head) were down and I was forced to face issues I thought I’d dealt with – apparently not. What followed was an emotional release the likes of which I’d rarely experienced before. This prompted me to start incorporating meditation into my practice.
Whether that was a spiritual experience (a communion with one’s higher self?) is a matter of perspective, I guess. In the end, I’m a creature of cold, hard logic and prefer to think of it as an intense therapy session :p
Does that mean that doing Yoga for (physical/emotional/psychological) health is the same as doing Yoga for spirituality? Well, they overlap at times, but I believe the intention set at the beginning of a session is what truly sets them apart. When I approach a class intending to connect with my body and quiet my mind, I’m experiencing it in a completely different way than someone who sees it as a spiritual practice. On the surface, we may be doing the same poses, moving our bodies the same way, but what happens deep down is another story.
Although I doubt I’ll be chanting in Sanskrit (or any other language for that matter) or honoring Indian elephant-gods anytime soon, I truly believe people who approach Yoga as a physical practice would benefit greatly from incorporating a few of its less physical aspects into their lives.
Whatever path you choose, though, Yoga remains a transformational experience. Among other things, it can help you change your body in a subtle but profound manner, alter the way you deal with emotions, and restructure your self-image. Ultimately, the You that steps onto the mat is never the same as You one stepping off it.