The myth of spiritual postural yoga

Edit: This article was republished in full by elephantjournal.com on April 7, 2015. You can read it here.

I don’t teach anything spiritual in my yoga classes. I don’t feel the need to and I have no personal interest, although I am curious and have an intellectual interest in religion and spirituality. I haven’t had a spiritual experience in a yoga class in years, although I used to in the early years of taking yoga classes. I can tell you why I had those experiences.

It’s because I believed the myth that postural yoga (the usual yoga class you’d take at a gym or yoga studio that focuses on stretching and strength-building poses) is a spiritual practice. Now, through reading, I hold the position, based on facts and research, that the postural yoga practiced today is not a spiritual or religious practice in and of itself. It’s just a way to make your body healthy. I learned this in a book titled “Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice” by Mark Singleton. Singleton tells us that, through his research, he discovered that many of the poses yoga students practice with much reverence in yoga classes every day are nothing more than 100 year old gymnastic poses. True, the hundreds of yoga poses available were practiced and mastered by famous Indian yogis, T. Krishnamacharya, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, and B.K.S. Iyengar (the latter two being students of Krishnamacharya) but they practiced these poses mainly because they were taught as gymnastics in the British army. We’ll leave off the history element there but suffice it to say, trikonasana (triangle pose) is not 5,000 years old.

The thing to focus on when considering why you practice postural yoga and what you get out of it spiritually is how taking care of your body effects your mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Many people go day to day suffering physical ailments and pains. This physical experience can create emotional, mental, and spiritual suffering. Beyond that, it can simply be so distracting to suffer physically, that one doesn’t even have the energy to think about the existential experience.

If the physical body is well, pain-free, and resistant to illness, the emotional, mental, and spiritual experience, the existential experience can develop and deepen, perhaps beyond the physical body. In my classes, I teach students to be aware of how their body feels in a pose, what their breathing sounds like, and how much is too much when working on more challenging poses. I don’t teach anything spiritual because I don’t want to and I don’t need to. When your body feels better and healthy, you can be a better, kinder, more patient person. My contribution to the world through teaching yoga is making people feel healthier, (hopefully) happier, and more in tune with their bodies so that they can have a better physical experience in the world. It’s not through aligning your chakras (but if you feel like that happened in my class, that’s okay too).

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