As we know it in the West, modern yoga has collected many critiques against it over time. People no longer think modern yoga is yoga for the soul. Critics deem it unworthy of being called “yoga” and instead equate it to a system of exercises akin to gymnastics. They say it’s no longer yoga for the soul but exercise for the body, as is running, weight training and pilates.
While it’s true that some yoga classes focus more on sculpting and strengthening the body, even those are “yoga for the soul,” if you will. Caring for the body is an act of caring for the mind. Both are connected. Caring for the mind is caring for how we experience reality and, thus, consciousness. Yoga certainly helps us connect to the soul, the aspect of ourselves that some say is responsible for how we experience the world.
Movement Itself is Yoga For the Soul
Movement can be anything that, well, gets you moving! Movement is running, walking and riding a bicycle. Movement is lifting weights. Movement is stretching. Like yoga, these forms of movement can be spiritual, too. They connect us deeper with our bodies and thus with the world.
But the movement in yoga is especially spiritual. Yoga asanas, or postures, focus on how we move in relation to how we think and operate in the world. Research conducted in recent years reveals that we actually store emotions in our bodies.
With the body-emotion connection in mind, modern yoga teachers focus on “opening” areas of the body (hips, jaw, neck, back, etc.), where we tend to hold emotional tension. While other forms of exercise such as running, have benefits of their own, it doesn’t work in the same way as yoga. The postures in yoga are designed to open and strengthen not only the body but also the mind.
Meditation as a Key Ingredient to Yoga
Whether we notice it or not, the mind becomes somewhat meditative while we exercise. This means that, during exercise, we tend to hone in more on what we’re actually doing (the present moment) rather than succumbing to self-absorption, anxiety, and so on.
In yoga, there is a particular focus on meditation as compared to other exercises. Many teachers believe that true yoga for the soul should focus on what the mind does during posture-work.
When stepping into a yoga class, the teacher often tells the practitioner to temporarily forget what occupied their minds before entering the room.
“Be here with the practice,” they’ll often say. “Focus on the breath.”
It’s become common knowledge that meditation is good for the mind (and body). This is probably why many modern yoga classes continue to use meditation techniques. Some classes begin with a seated meditation. Almost all classes end in a posture known as savasana (corpse pose). The yoga practitioner rests on their back with the conscious intent of deeply focusing the mind (meditating).
Breathing as a Key Ingredient to Yoga
TKV Desikachar, yoga teacher and son of yoga pioneer Tirumalai Krishnamacharya once said, “The quality of our breath expresses our inner feelings.” These words follow the increasing scientific consensus that breath control can change your life by significantly increasing psychological well-being.
Pranayama is the practice of breath control in yoga. True yoga for the soul, according to many teachers, must include the practice of breath control in order to smooth out our “inner feelings,” as Desikachar said.
Pranayama is often practiced during a session of asanas. A restricted breathing technique called ujjayi pranayama is completed in postures to help warm and oxygenate the body.
Pranayama also forms the core of kundalini yoga practices, which some enthusiasts consider to be the most authentic yoga for the soul. Kundalini is a practice primarily consisting of breathing techniques built in a series of kriyas, breathing-focused postures that, according to teachers, can rapidly accelerate spiritual development.
Pranayama and its everyday application in modern yoga is another example of how modern yoga is still yoga for the soul—it is still yoga for spiritual development.
Yoga Today is a Life-Changing Practice
I will end with another quote. This one is by Amit Ray, author of Yoga and Vipassana: An Integrated Life Style: “Yoga is not a religion. It is a science, science of well-being, science of youthfulness, science of integrating body, mind and soul.”
As science continually proves the benefits of yoga, it’s beginning to feel more appropriate to call yoga a science in and of itself. Yoga is a spiritual science that, on a physical level, can fine-tune the body, mind and soul in a way that can help each of us experience reality on a deeper, more meaningful level.
Let’s not dismiss modern yoga as unworthy and “un-spiritual.” Sure, some classes may seem like nothing more than a workout unworthy of having “yoga” in their names. But exercise can be a spiritual practice in itself, and as previously mentioned, most yoga classes today offer the powerful practices of meditation and pranayama.
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