The fact that yoga is now offered in health clubs and gyms does not mean yoga is a physical exercise. It only means that the demand for yoga is such that offering yoga this way is good business. In an online article of Yoga Journal, one yoga teacher is quoted as saying, "People get turned on to yoga in health clubs, and if they're looking to deepen their practice, they'll go to the yoga studio. It's definitely a way in," (Nora Isaacs, "Pumping Iron, Practicing Yoga," accessed Feb. 16, 2004, at http://www.yogajournal.com/views/1008_1.cfm ). Thus, those who find yoga helpful or intriguing may likely go on to more serious study in a yoga studio.
Even the poses, the asanas, critical to yoga, are not simply physical positions:
"Asana is a powerful practice-and, as we've seen, it can be a doorway into the most profound teachings of yoga. But asana alone is not enough. Asana practice can reveal some fundamental yogic teachings: for example, the ancient Upanishadic insight that our true nature is not defined by our bodies, our thoughts, or our personalities. But such initial insights are just a beginning. The process of integrating these realizations into the core of our being-of slowly dismantling our attachment to our illusions-is often a long one. At a certain point in this process, most serious students are naturally going to want to deepen their practice to include some of the other instruments in the yogic toolkit." (Anne Cushman, "The New Yoga," Yoga Journal, Jan/Feb, 2000, accessed Feb. 17, 2004, at http://www.yogajournal.com/views/281_11.cfm ).
Iyengar writes that "Patanjali says that when an asana is correctly performed, the dualities between body and mind, mind and soul, have to vanish...When the asanas are performed in this way, the body cells, which have their own memories and intelligence, are kept healthy," (Iyengar, 55-56).
While disavowing yoga as a religion, another writer states: "While many Westerners come to yoga primarily for its health benefits, it seems safe to say that most people who open to yoga will, in time, find its meditative qualities and more subtle effects on the mind and emotions equally (if not more) beneficial. They will, in other words, come to see yoga as a spiritual practice" (Phil Catalfo, "Is Yoga a Religion?" Yoga Journal, March/April 2001, accessed 2/17/04 at http://www.yogajournal.com/views/283_2.cfm ). So even a yoga practice that starts off as physical has a subtle influence such that one may eventually be drawn to its spiritual nature.
To say yoga is not a religion is to miss the point. Many people, especially those in the West, think that for something to be religious, there should be prayer, worship, or the study of a "holy" book. These things are not readily apparent in hatha yoga and so it is dismissed as non-religious. However, spiritual practices do not have to exhibit these particular signs, especially if the spirituality is Eastern or New Age. The concept of prayer and worship varies from religion to religion, and from culture to culture. Eastern religions are made up of various practices; hatha yoga is one of many practices found in Hindu beliefs. To deny the spiritual nature and foundations of yoga is inaccurate at best.
Hatha yoga is an integral part of a religious practice, its origins, terms, and purposes entwined deeply in ancient spiritual teachings and beliefs. As one can see, trying to change the language or purpose of yoga does not work; the spirituality keeps bouncing back and showing through the cracks. Whether you call yoga a spiritual practice or a fitness regimen, you cannot escape its intrinsic spiritual nature.
Yoga sources, teachers, and experts universally recognize the spiritual nature of yoga:
"It is not so much a physical practice but a spiritual practice based on Shakti, the fundamental vibrating energy of every human being." http://sivasakti.com/articles/intro-asanas.html
"Hatha Yoga refers to positive (sun) and to negative (moon) currents in the system. These currents are to be balanced and mastered so that vital force, prana, can be regulated, the mind cleared and superconscious states experienced." http://holistic-online.com/Yoga/yoga_types_hatha_yoga.htm
"Yoga is the process of becoming free from limited definitions of the field of consciousness. Then the abiding of the seer (I), in my own true nature"; - Yoga Sutras of Patanjali I. 2,3. http://hrih.hypermart.net/patanjali/
"There are seven chakras, or energy centers, in the body that become blocked by longheld tension and low self-esteem. But practicing poses that correspond to each chakra can release these blocks and clear the path to higher consciousness." From the Yoga Journal site at http://www.yogajournal.com/newtoyoga/seventh1.cfm
The Atman, or "real" Self that is eternal, "can only be experienced when all the sensory activity ceases to impact the mind and when the mind itself is freed from the movement of thoughts and sense objects and the torment of desires, which are the prime cause of all human activity and suffering. The experience comes 'when the mind and the five senses are stilled andW when the intellect is stilled ....They say that Yoga is complete stillness in which one enters that state of Oneness.'" http://hinduwebsite.com/atman.htm
"Yoga plainly states that man is essentially of the nature of Bliss, perfection, peace and freedom. Everlastingly he is one with That. The achieving of 'at-onement' with that wonderful Perfection (Divinity) is Yoga. To regain the true awareness and to realise once again his everlasting oneness with the Divine is actually the purpose of Yoga. The central message of Yoga is: Wherever you are, whatever you are, try to find God, try to live a noble life purify yourself of the lower nature. Shine with virtue. Create in yourself the divine qualities and awaken the Divine within you, and move towards God." http://www.divinelifesociety.org/sadhana/YOGA/purpose.html
You can find more evidence for the spirituality of the asanas and of yoga at
Alternative to yoga: For stretching excercises, try The Stretch Deck, a set of 50 heavy-duty cards showing stretches for all the major muscle groups. Each card shows an illustration of a single stretch with step-by-step instructions on the reverse side. The cards also list the benefits of each stretch and offer a helpful tip. These cards are available from Bas Bleu Booksellers at 1-800-433-1155 and cost $14.95 (as of 2004), a lot cheaper than yoga classes!
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