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The topic of yoga and spirituality has been a hot one in the last few years. Some believe that yoga and spirituality must be connected, while others believe that you can have one without the other. While some seek the spiritual aspect, others want just the physical side. Do they have to go together? Can you practice yoga without the spiritual aspect? Opinions vary wildly.
Wikipedia describes yoga as:
Yoga (/ˈjoʊɡə/;Sanskrit, योग Listen) is a group of physical, mental, and spiritual practices or disciplines which originated in ancient India. The ultimate goal of Yoga is moksha (liberation), although the exact definition of what form this takes depends on the philosophical or theological system with which it is conjugated.
Many traditional practitioners believe that yoga is not just a physical act, but a set of beliefs, practices, thought forms and a complete way of life that should be adhered to strictly. More modern versions allow leeway for the exclusion of some of the spiritual practices. From a traditional perspective, the spiritual and physical aspects of yoga are completely intertwined, and one cannot be had without the other.
Much like anything that comes to the West, yoga has been taken apart and re-imagined. While many Westerners have embraced the full practice of yoga, including the philosophies and spiritual aspects, others have adapted it, taking it apart for their personal use. We now have Christian yoga, goth yoga, even line-dance yoga. Yoga practices, both in studios and at home, can be found with or without any spiritual aspects, and have even been adapted to incorporate other spiritual systems.
Most frequently, while yoga is associated with calm and meditation, it’s been pared down to little more than the physical side. It’s even been taken so far as to be used as an exercise program, including high intensity variations. Whether these adaptations are good or bad is a matter of hot debate.
Personally, I don’t think anything has to be anything. Imagine a book. It can be a piece of reading material, a tool to kill insects, a doorstop, or the most powerful spiritual item someone owns. It’s all a matter of perspective and need. I don’t think yoga is any different. While it has spiritual roots, I don’t see the harm in taking the benefits of the physical practice and using them as we see fit. For me, like many others, yoga and spirituality don’t have to be one.
For myself, I actually blend yoga with my Pagan and Buddhist beliefs. I use the poses and underlying ideas in a way that works well for me. If I had to take on the beliefs and practices of traditional yogis, I’d never do yoga. I feel grateful that I was introduced to a non-spiritual version of yoga. It’s been a wonderful part of my life that I wouldn’t have touched if I had to change my spiritual beliefs to use it.
Honestly, I think things like HIIT Yoga and the stereotypes of anorexic, elitist yoga instructors are more harmful than using yoga without the spirituality. Turning yoga into yet another Western competitive activity with no respect for the practice’s origins is far worse than having respect, but making minor changes to adapt it to the individual. It’s okay to adapt things, but it’s not okay to totally disrespect what they came from.
If you want to do yoga, I say: go for it. Do you want to take on the spiritual aspects? Do it. If you don’t want to, don’t. If you want to blend yoga poses with your own spiritual practices, do it. Do be respectful of other yoga practitioners and their beliefs, but do what works for you. Yoga is a wonderful thing, and you’ll be glad you tried it if you do.