Spiritual vs Non-Spiritual Yoga Practice6 min read

More and more frequently I hear these days when I encounter new students the words “spiritual” and “non-spiritual practice”. Recently I had a conversation with a new coming student about his preference for spiritual yoga classes rather than classes with too many and “difficult” asanas. When I asked him to tell me why he chose that kind of approach the answer was:

“I need a peaceful, meditation, relaxing state of mind and not a fitness program. Something more spiritual than physical”. That was the phrase that intrigued me to write this article.

The profile of the student was a middle-aged man with an office job and a family. The extreme needs of modern life prevented him from “physical” exercise, something that was evident from the beginning of our meeting. So the first piece of the puzzle is that we as humans have forgotten the natural state of our bodies and the purpose that we have been given them: to use them in their full potential so that our soul can be expressed and manifested!

The student was probably influenced by someone else, or by something he has read. So he made the connection than the equanimity of the mind, thus your whole existence is irrelevant to the equanimity of the body. And by the word equanimity, I’m not referring to something “pleasant” because most of the time the things we perceive as “pleasant” are leading us to the most unpleasant situations. Imagine someone who finds pleasure in eating a lot. After a very short period of time the unpleasant situation that he’s into, not only gives him a hard time in his daily life, with the extra weight, but it also compromises his inner organs and as a result his health. Equanimity is a state that most of the time requires physical practice to take place for a long period of time, and as in all practices, we will encounter difficulties and failures along with effort.

Now that we have cleared all the above going back to the request of the student we’ll notice that most of us want inner peace, in one way or another. Most of the time we find “tools” that after a while add to us more frustration than peace. Eventually, most of us get the picture and try something else. But the truth is that we still want, we need that inner peace. We need to shut down the mind which is shooting us with thoughts in bursting mode. In our mind core, even if we don’t know it, we seek the state of nirodhah. In the Sanskrit text Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the word nirodhah is referred to as control, restrain and we find it at the beginning of the first book (samadhi pada), in sutra I.2 yogas citta vritti nirodhah, which means that with yoga practice we can control the changing states of the mind. The changing states of the mind or activities (vrittis) are influenced by the kleshas (YS II.3), which empower those activities. Ignorance (avidya) is the most important of the five kleshas because it’s the origin of the other four, ego (asmita), attachment (raga), aversion (dvesa), and clinging to life (abhinivesah).

As you can see, ignorance of the mind produces all the others, and in our case, the ignorance of the mind drives the “ego” (asmita) to identify something by giving a label or a name, because the known, can become understood from the mind and manipulated. All of these occur just to avoid the unpleasant (aversion) which in our case is physical exercise. The labels which discriminate one practice from the other are “spiritual” and “non-spiritual”. So we already fell into the trap of our confused mind. The vicious circle of aversion combined with attachment (holding on to “pleasant things”) gives more room to ignorance, which in turn empowers all the previous four. So the vrittis are becoming stronger, and more established in the citta (mind) and the peace we’ve been looking for is more elusive than ever. These vrittis create, depending on their establishment five types of the thinking mind. Kshipta (disturbed), Mudha (dull), Vikshipta (distracted), Ekagra (one-pointed), Nirodhah (mastered).

To create an ekagra (one-pointed) mind the practitioner is required to have an intention, combined with action towards a focused practice, thus cultivating a sattvic (from sattva, peaceful) state. This forces the other two gunas (tamas and rajas) to be transcended, therefore the mind can be still (nirodhah, mastered) and start higher meditation. This is something extremely difficult to understand and accomplish by simply sitting down in a meditative posture (lotus pose, or worst with crossed legs and a curving spine). Someone with no or little experience and knowledge (vidya) in order to acknowledge the imprinted subconscious behavioral patterns (samskaras), confronts outstanding difficulties in the process of thought cessation because of the very patterns that the mind manifests and keeps him imprisoned. If it was a simple process all people on earth would be balanced, well thinkers making acts through goodwill. Imagine after a very stressful day we would need only minutes on our couch to completely solve what is bothering us and continue uninterrupted and focused with our happy and peaceful life.

To overcome this pitfall and find a way out from our mind maze, in Yoga Sutras, Patanjali gives us a map, a “prescription” to follow if we want to search deeper and seek for the true Self, which will bring peace in the mind and happiness to the individual. There among certain technics, he introduces us to the term asana, which means posture. He describes the asana as sthira and shukham (YS II.46), meaning steady and comfortable. This instantly unfolds the purpose of the asana, which is nothing more than a “preparation” of the yogi’s body, to be still and without distractions for a prolong time, when the next step of the “prescription”, the next area of the map, pranayama (breath expansion), takes place. Meditation techniques, which eventually come after years of practice lead to the nirodhah, the cessation of thoughts and peace of mind.

That’s why we take advantage of the body through the asana (exercise) which in combination with our breath, it creates a moving meditation. Another reason for using the asana is that we are simulating equivalent situations of our daily life that distract us or manifest through them certain emotions, and we observe those emotions and reactions in a safer and controlled environment. When after years of practice, we can keep our calm, inside a sequence of asanas without losing our breath, without losing our focus from physical pains or restrains and most important when we realize and acknowledge our emotions that arise, then we might be ready for a still meditation. This doesn’t mean that a certain level of proficiency in the asana must be reached to meditate, but on the other hand, we can see the connection between the two tools and the tricks that the mind can play to avoid something that is not desirable.

The practice, like all practices, is the tool, which is irrelevant to the final goal. The knife, for example, can be used both for peeling an apple and for hurting someone. The same tool, the knife, produced a completely different result, coherent with the intention of the user. Maybe someone is practicing a tone of asanas and at the same time is meditating and someone else looks like “meditating” in a sitting position but he can’t even breathe correctly, and vice versa. A tool is always a tool and from that tool, we can’t jump to conclusions for the outcome of the practitioner. The intent, the effort and the duration of the practitioner using that certain tool give the final outcome.

So is your practice spiritual or non-spiritual?

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