What Is Spiritual Yoga?
Editor’s Note: The following article is excerpted from Nayaswami Gyandev’s forthcoming book, Spiritual Yoga: Awakening to Higher Awareness. The book will be available for purchase in January 2014. For more details, see the ad for the book in the right sidebar of the Clarity Magazine home page.
Spiritual Yoga? Isn’t that redundant?
Well, yes and no. Yes, because Yoga is—and always has been—first and foremost a spiritual discipline. And it’s much more than physical postures; it’s a comprehensive system for allying self-effort with divine grace in order to experience the eternal oneness of soul and Spirit.
And no, because not everyone comes to Yoga for spiritual reasons. Many people come instead for physical therapy, or stress reduction, or most commonly, a fitness regime.
Increasingly, those needs are being met by specialized approaches that, although they offer many benefits, often omit the spiritual dimension of Yoga.
Now, with spiritual hunger growing worldwide, more and more people are asking, “How can Yoga help meet my spiritual needs?” They suspect that spiritual experience can be cultivated through Yoga practices—and they’re right. That’s why I’ve written this book: to show others how to quicken their spiritual growth by skillfully integrating the postures, breathing exercises, and meditation.
In fact, any approach to Yoga can uplift your state of mind to some degree. It will uplift you even more if you practice with right attitude, the most powerful spiritual tool of all. And still more is possible if you also cooperate actively with the inner workings of subtle energy and consciousness. Such is the approach in this book. (Right attitude, which we’ll explore, is not about moral judgments; it’s about what raises consciousness.)
In more than thirty years of teaching, I’ve seen that anyone can practice this way and receive marvelous benefits on all levels: physical, mental, and spiritual. There’s no need to be young, or thin, or flexible. Each person can find an expression of this practice that suits his or her condition, abilities, and goals. Although parts of this book are specific to the system that I teach—Ananda Yoga®—all the principles are universal: they come from the ancient Yoga tradition. And happily, many other teachers are exploring these same principles and sharing them with their students. I hope that this book will in some way encourage and support each of them.
Imagine that you’ve hired Michelangelo. You’ve heard that he’s a good painter, and you want him to repaint your kitchen cabinets. Plain white. No doubt he would do a great job, but might you be missing out on something much better?
It’s the same with Hatha Yoga, the physical branch of the greater science of Raja Yoga. If you practice only for its physical and psychological benefits—increased flexibility, strength, and vitality, reduced pain or stress, and so on—you’ll receive some of those benefits, but you’re likely to miss out on something much better! For Hatha Yoga is above all a tool for spiritual growth. Its highest purpose is to help you raise your consciousness and achieve ever greater, ever more unshakeable happiness.
Can mere bodily positions and breathing exercises do that for you? A little bit, yes, but much more is possible if you know how to amplify the effects of these practices through the hidden powers of your mind and heart. This book shows you how. If you’re new to Hatha Yoga, you’ll find here instructions to begin a safe, enjoyable practice that will raise your consciousness. If you’re experienced, you’ll find many ways to deepen your practice by working more directly with energy and consciousness.
The Only Source of Knowledge
Spiritual Yoga is a quest to know a greater reality—beyond the senses, intellect, and emotions. Your concept of that reality might be cosmic: Spirit, Higher Power, Truth, God, Divine Mother. Or it might be very personal: soul, Higher Self, your own highest potential.
Or it might be something else altogether. Yet for every spiritual seeker, the goal is the same: to experience that greater reality. Belief can’t take us there. Although belief can motivate us and guide our efforts, it is not knowledge—and if we cling dogmatically to belief, it can keep us from knowing. Experience is the only source of knowledge.
Paramhansa Yogananda put it simply: “The yogi must turn his conceptions into perceptions.” Another great yogi, Swami Vivekananda, said, “It is no doubt a blessing to be born into a religion, but it is a misfortune to die in one.” Both were urging people to go beyond belief and religion into direct, personal experience.
In this book I’ll use a variety of names for that greater reality, in hopes that personal beliefs—yours or mine—won’t get in the way of knowing. Whatever names I use, dear friend, please substitute your own preferred name. Let’s move together into ever-deeper personal experience.
The Bigger Picture
Although this book is primarily about techniques, Yoga is much more than that. It’s a complete system of living that can be practiced by anyone, anywhere. Techniques alone cannot bring the highest spiritual attainment: Self-realization, the blissful, enduring experience of your inherent oneness with all that is. They can, however, lift your consciousness and give powerful support to all your spiritual efforts, as you’ll discover through your own practice.
Hatha Yoga, like its parent discipline, Raja Yoga, is a science. Why? First, it’s based on universal aspects of human nature. Second, it focuses on direct experience, not on beliefs. Third, anyone who performs the Hatha experiment will receive predictable benefits. Ah, but how much benefit will you receive, and how quickly? Here’s where the art of Hatha Yoga comes in.
As in any field of endeavor, the outward aspects of Hatha practice will, by themselves, bring only limited benefit. Many people know the techniques of artistic painting, for example, yet only those with deep inner understanding of how to apply those techniques can paint on the level of a Michelangelo. In business, the most successful people have an intuitive feel for their products or services, and for the needs of the marketplace. It’s the same in art, sports, science, literature, farming, music—you name it.
Similarly, to receive the most from Hatha Yoga techniques, you need certain inner tools and understanding to work effectively on subtle levels of your being. The practices in this book will help you develop those inner resources. To begin the journey, let’s get more specific about the science of spiritual Hatha Yoga.
Every day, you experience part of the scientific basis for Hatha Yoga: your state of mind causes certain movements of energy within your body, and those movements in turn affect your bodily position. It’s simply body language.
For example, disappointment, lethargy, and gloom cause energy to flow downward in the body, away from the brain. That flow in turn influences your posture: you’ll tend to slump, as if closing yourself off from life. The very words you use reflect that downward movement: “I feel down,” or “I feel low,” or “I feel depressed.”
On the other hand, happiness, enthusiasm, and inspiration cause energy to flow upward toward the brain, which then comes alive. You straighten up into an expansive, life-affirming posture. You tend to inhale as if to embrace the world—and you smile. Your words, too, reflect that upward flow: “I feel on top of the world,” or “I’m in high spirits,” or “I’m feeling upbeat.” You’ve certainly experienced all this, even if you haven’t seen it as a chain of influence: mind affects energy, which in turn affects the body.
The Key Insight
The reverse is also true: through bodily position you can lift energy toward your brain, and that will in turn uplift your state of mind. This simple insight is a cornerstone of Hatha Yoga, and you can easily prove it to yourself:
Exercise: On a scale of 1 to 10, rate your current state of mind: 1 is lousy and 10 is terrific. Now set this book aside and stand up.
Stand very erect, with your chest open. Reach your arms overhead, bringing your body into the shape of the letter “Y.” Gaze upward. Reach your entire body upward in the direction of your gaze. Inhale smoothly and deeply, hold your breath, and smile broadly. Stay in this position for a few moments, then exhale with a hearty laugh and relax your arms back down into a normal upright standing position. Breathe naturally.
Now rate your current state of mind once again. I’ll bet that you’ve moved higher up the scale—and if you put a lot of energy into it, maybe off the scale.
Think about it: all you did was make physical movements. This is not rocket science. Quite the contrary: it’s so much a part of us that we usually pay scant attention to it. That’s why we don’t realize its power. Imagine what can happen when you do pay attention to it, and when you add the power of your mind and energy—as you will in later chapters. Fasten your seatbelt!
By the way, you could (although who would want to?) adopt a bodily position that would move you down the scale. All you need to do is slump, exhale strongly, gaze downward, and frown. And if you keep on doing that . . . well, please don’t.
These are very simple examples of the effect of the body on energy and consciousness. Yoga offers many techniques that use the body to lift energy more powerfully than this—and the more energy you lift, the more you’ll raise your consciousness. As you’ll see in later chapters, each of Hatha Yoga’s many asanas and pranayamas has its own special effect on energy and consciousness. You can weave these techniques into an overall practice that brings abundant, calm, focused energy to the brain. That will uplift your consciousness, preparing you for Yoga’s most powerful tool: meditation.
The Heart Plays a Role, Too
With all the emphasis on bringing energy to the brain, you may wonder, “Does this mean that the heart isn’t important, spiritually?” No, the heart is vital, for it guides the process of spiritual growth from beginning to end. The heart is the source of all desire, and spiritual growth begins with the desire for true happiness. The heart is also the seat of intuitive perception, through which you will experience the ultimate fulfillment: realization of the Self.
Unfortunately, the heart also presents the biggest spiritual obstacles, for it’s the seat of emotion, attachment, and desires for self-gratification. These tendencies agitate the heart, disrupting our intuitive perception. They can pull energy downward or outward more strongly than the techniques can lift it inward and upward. They can distort the mind’s perceptions, skew decisions, and keep one small and self-centered.
Overcoming these tendencies is the very essence of spiritual growth. In his classic text, the Yoga Sutras, the ancient sage Patanjali writes, “Yoga is the neutralization of the whirlpools of likes and dislikes [which are centered in the heart].”
How to overcome those tendencies? Certainly not by suppressing them. That would be unhealthy—also futile, says the Bhagavad Gita, Yoga’s foremost scripture. Rather, yogis seek to improve their emotional reactions and release attachments, so as not to reinforce those tendencies. At the same time, they seek to increase, calm, and redirect the energy of the entire body—especially the heart—toward the brain. This helps lift the heart out of the turmoil of emotion and desire, and raise consciousness. It also creates in the brain an energy magnet that will help lift even more energy.
Overcoming those tendencies is a big job, and techniques alone aren’t enough. They can, however, greatly aid your efforts if you take your practice beyond its mechanical aspects—into the art of it.
Although the mind and heart can cause trouble, they also hold keys to a deeper practice, and to a deeper spiritual life generally. For among their many faculties are six that are especially helpful for overcoming the downward or outward pulls on your energy and consciousness. These six keys are:
Editor’s note: The book goes on to explore those faculties and help the reader use them to deepen the practice of meditation and a wide variety of asanas and pranayamas. It also explores a number of everyday lifestyle considerations that can contribute greatly to higher awareness.
Nayaswami Gyandev is the director of Ananda Yoga and Ananda Yoga Teacher Training. He has taught Ananda Yoga and meditation for more than 30 years. He teaches at The Expanding Light retreat at Ananda Village, as well as throughout the U.S. and India. He is a co-founder of Yoga Alliance, the organization that sets standards for training yoga teachers in the U.S., and he is currently a member of the Alliance’s board of directors.