The fourth article in this 5-part myth-debunker is an aim to put right one of the most common misconceptions surrounding yoga: spirituality.
For people who don’t know much about yoga, what do you think when you consider yoga? Many people think you have to be some sort of spiritual being to do yoga, many people think of the word ‘hippy.’
There are lots of traditions, rituals and practices that are linked with yoga which may seem rather hippy-esque to some, but the important thing to note is, none of this stuff is mandatory.
You can practice yoga no matter what your spiritual (or lack of!) beliefs may be.
The origins of Yoga
Yoga originated in India and comes from a set of spiritual philosophies first written down by Patanjali in the Sutras.
Over the (many!) years, yoga has moved over to the West and it has become something else — it is now regularly practiced without the spirituality or the philosophies, it can often just be a physical activity, a meditative exercise or just some time to yourself.
Whether this shift in traditions is a good thing or not is widely debated in the yoga world (see my article), but the bottom line seems to be that yoga can be what we make of it.
In the West, to people who aren’t too familiar with yoga or have perhaps never practiced it, it can have certain reputations.
Some people think that yoga is for hippies.
You have no right practicing yoga unless you have ridiculously long hair, are an avid vegan, constantly have peace and love for every living being and brandish a peace sign instead of a handshake….right?
But there are some aspects of such a lifestyle that are associated with yoga.
Yoga and lifestyle
An example of one of these aspects of a “hippy”-esque lifestyle is diet.
If I force down a sachet of wheatgrass daily does this make me a hippy? The reason many yogis do this is not to create a “yogi image” (trust me, no-one would put themselves through such a taste purely for vanity reasons) but for the effects and natural wellness advantages it has on our energy levels.
Or, how about the meditation rituals within yoga?
Does chanting my three ‘Ohms’ at the beginning of class make me a hippy? It can seem slightly daunting if you have never done it before, and I have certainly had students who feel uncomfortable chanting any sort of mantra in class, but is it spiritual or scientific?
Well, it’s what you make of it really.
Personally, it is a ritual for me which gives a nod to the traditional teachings passed onto me when I undertook my teacher training. However, I sincerely acknowledge the health benefits of chanting, which can often be overlooked. Chanting or singing a mantra brings awareness to the vibrational energy, which helps to stimulate the glands and neurons in the brain thus the sound vibrations benefit the physical and mental well-being.
At the same time, certain mantras have different meanings; some pray for nourishment, others look for peace and energy in our practice.
So these rituals which may, at first glance, seem like spiritual practices, are in fact a mixture of scientific therapies and spiritual rituals.
Yoga and alternative medicine
Ayurveda, the traditional system of medicine native to India is something that may be seen as a spiritual practice in the West, but it is just another form of medicine.
In India, more than half the population use ayurveda as their primary form of health care, but if presented with it in this country, many may be untrusting of this unknown form of medicine.
Alternative or complementary medicines and therapies (alternative in this instance meaning alternative to modern Western medicine), can often be dismissed as hippy mumbo jumbo, but for me the science of ayurveda seems to make a lot of sense compared to prescribing chemically-filled medication for the majority of ailments (as Western medicine often does).
Ayurvedic medicine believes that everyone has a body type, of which there are three:
These are called doshas.
Everyone has a dominant dosha, but most people are a mixture of two or three.
The reason why one dosha is always dominant is because generally people are out of balance in their body types, which is why we all react differently to different aspects such as diet, lifestyle, climate etc.
Ayurveda can help us to not only diagnose our dosha, but discover our imbalances in hope of maintaining a balance in our health.
On a personal level this seems to make sense.
All spirituality and beliefs aside, we are all different — but many of us are similar in some ways. Particularly in that we can be naturally drawn to and repelled from certain elements in our lives (e.g. sleep patterns, types of foods, different climates).
The doshas become imbalanced when we are naturally drawn to one of these elements, but our lifestyle limits us from taking in enough of it; thus ayurveda would prescribe more or less of this (e.g. more exposure to hot weather, more of certain spices in foods, less/more sleep). Ayurveda acknowledges that we often have similar tendencies to others but conducts prescriptions and advice on an individual level, taking the person’s own needs into account and having an awareness that there is not one rule or one drug that will fix everyone.
This method of diagnosing someone and using such thinking within medical circumstances will seem foreign to some of us in the West.
Probably because it is foreign!
How to define Yoga?
But hopefully having given you a small taster of information about Indian philosophies and medicine has encouraged us all to look at what we might at first deem to be “spiritual”, and realize these things can be very scientific.
Of course, that is not to knock spirituality in any way.
I believe there is no need to define yoga.
Though it is technically defined as a ‘spiritual science’, it can be whatever you make of it. Yoga can and should be for everyone and anyone, and it certainly is what you want it to be.
Yoga can be exercise, it can be a de-stressing tool and it can be a series of spiritual rituals or simply some “me-time.”
For many people it is a mixture of all of these.
Do we all need to be imitating a version of Elizabeth Gilbert’s life to be a yogi?
I sincerely hope not.
Do we need to define our spirituality and stick to it in order not to lose our reputation as yogi extraordinaire? So asking ‘do I need to be spiritual to practice yoga?’ is kind of similar to asking ‘Do I need to have syrup on my pancakes?’ It’s totally subjective — it can be what you want and what you make of it.
But either way, it’s pretty damn good.