When I was twelve, my Aunt Melissa came back from a year in Rishikesh, India, where she had been living in an ashram, and taught my sister and me hatha yoga postures. I was somewhat suspicious of yoga, having recently become extremely enthusiastic about Jesus’s teachings, but my aunt assured me that yoga was a spiritual discipline that could be used by people of any faith, an idea that seems to have penetrated very deeply into my twelve year old brain.
Unlike some of the other practices discussed in this website such as qigong and Hindu worship, hatha yoga is a widespread practice in our culture and therefore quite readily available. Yet for this same reason it is often not seen as a spiritual practice at all. Yoga is an entire system of philosophy, including many disciplines such as meditation and moral teaching. In the West the term yoga is usually used to refer only to the physical yoga postures. This form of yoga can be wonderful for exercise and stress reduction, but for those who have experienced yoga primarily as divorced from its original context it can sometimes be difficult to understand how to use yoga as a spiritual practice.
I myself have stopped taking yoga classes because I have been unable to find any classes in my neighborhood that stress the spiritual dimension of yoga, and I became tired of injuring myself when young teachers demanded that we change poses at breakneck speed. I now use DVDs in my home, which enable me to go at my own speed, pausing the disk if necessary. I repeat routines day after day until I know them and understand them and do short routines for 20 to 30 minutes, which feels better to my aging body.
Working in this slow and gentle way, I find myself more able to be present in each pose, enjoying the feel of it, and I see greater changes taking place in my body. I notice the ways in which different poses affect my mind and I become more aware of which parts of my body are most likely to be out of balance. Areas which have always been tight and inflexible are slowly opening. I feel that these openings correspond to emotional openings that are taking place, but the correlations are often mysterious and difficult to articulate. I feel a deeper knowledge of my body than I have ever felt before, but it is a silent knowledge. The ancient Greek prescription to “know thyself” is usually taken to refer to introspection and philosophical undertakings, but knowing ourselves at a more physical level can also be deeply transformative. I have also seen how helpful yoga can be for people who are uncomfortable with silent forms of meditation; the element of motion enables them to focus more easily and to steady their minds in a way that eventually makes meditation easier.
My own experience of yoga has certainly been affected by the ways in which yoga is most commonly presented in our culture. I have not really explored yoga within the context of Hindu tradition, and my understanding of yoga is still in many ways a superficial one. Yet I have felt the ways in which yoga can help us when we are stuck, its physical opening of the body leading to a corresponding loosening of our emotional constrictions. I have seen in myself and others how body practices such as yoga help us to translate the fruits of meditation into action. In the West we often see our physical bodies as somehow not included in our spiritual selves, but yoga helps us to gather our bodies into our spiritual identities.