Many North Americans and westerners are turning to practices that promote spiritual experience rather than religious beliefs. One such widely practiced phenomenon that contributes to this transition from religious belief to spiritual experience is the practice of Yoga. Amidst this transition there are also many who have taken on Yoga without any religious beliefs preceding the adoption of Yoga.
Yoga, a physical, mental and spiritual discipline originates in India with its roots in Hinduism. The word Yoga is derived from the Sanskrit word Yuj, which essentially means to join, unite or connect. Yoga can also mean “combined”. All over the world many people have adopted Yoga into their daily or weekly personal well-being regimes. A majority of these individuals are still working on the “combined” aspect of Yoga in which the goal is to ultimately connect with yourself (emitting any outside existences that are in front of you in the current state of mind) to acquire a state of consciousness beyond what is in front of you in a way that you are still using what is in front of you but experiencing it as if it is all around you and apart of you. To gain the true, immeasurable benefits of Yoga, one should not only partake in the exercise and physical aspects of Yoga but at the same time experience a change in perception meaning one should see things as if they are everywhere including within oneself. Thus, what many “yogis” may be endeavouring is a spiritual experience or state of mind which they may eventually attain but could do so more easily with a combination of belief or practice of religion.
Historically in India, particularly as a result of the influence of Hinduism, the ultimate goal of Yoga is the attainment of liberation (Moksha) from worldly suffering and the cycle of birth and death (Samsara). For many Hindus who practice Yoga from a Hinduism lens, the term self-realization and god-realization go hand-in-hand and are one and the same. The belief is that the true nature of self-realization is the same as the nature of God. Yoga was practiced together as a community in which a Guru taught it to a large group with the combination of Hindu hymns, rituals and physical postures which related to the natural world. As time passed, the practice of Yoga has become more self-centred through the act of meditation, alone in peace. This community-based to individual-based shift has led to the loss of religious aspects associated with Yoga. In the west, large groups do get together and perform yoga as a whole group but in most cases the religious aspects of Yoga are hardly adhered to or addressed due to the mix of the group. This mass expansion of Yoga has thus influenced those who also partake in Yoga individually leading them to practice Yoga more for a personal spiritual elation free of any religious association. When a practice has benefited the healing of millions of people globally, could it not be possible that the strengths of Yoga could be even more effective with a religious component?
In the past, Yoga was practiced by people to achieve a union closer to God (through integration of aspects of self including mind, body and spirit) whereas in the west or modern day yoga is practiced more so for the union with self and thus clarity of mind. The beauty of Yoga is that it can be shared with the world and adapted by all in a way that heals them. Reading into the religious history of Yoga while keeping in mind where it branches from as well as how it has changed and been adapted over the years can help to both gain the physical and spiritual benefits of it. How one chooses to practice Yoga is their own individual choice but being aware of the roots of the practice they are wholeheartedly participating in only helps to pay tribute to the history of the discipline itself.
By Sucheta Rustagi