photo by Tomas Pantin
Yoga is a spiritual practice. Yoga is not a mysterious, elusive, or ambiguous thing. It has taken on a mysterious light due to ignorance and exploitation. We may say that reality is mysterious, or that the self is mysterious, but yoga as a method to shed light on those things is clearly defined. Its purpose is moksha, which means liberation, referring to liberation from samsara, which is the cycle of death and rebirth. There are 4 primary methods of achieving moksha through yoga: bhakti yoga, jnana yoga, karma yoga, and raja yoga.
Bhakti yoga is the practice of devotion to a form of God. Through various means of focusing one's mind and energy on their chosen deity, they will thereby accomplish refinement of their consciousness. In time their soul will shed the impediments to their transcendence and move closer to moksha.
Jnana yoga is the practice of intellectual development. As one increases in knowledge and understanding, they shed their delusions and associated bad karmas. Knowledge is power as they say.
Karma yoga is the practice of living and working in service to others. This kind of life generates good karma for the yogi, which purifies and refines their soul. It is a matter of time until this mode of living elevates one to the state of moksha.
Raja yoga is the practice of total self development. It contains elements of the other three forms within its aspects. Also known as classical yoga, or ashtanga yoga, it consists of 8 parts: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi.
Though there are multiple forms of yoga, their goal is one and the same. In modern times, we see many other so called types of yoga, sometimes named after a person and may involve some kind of copyright. If a person's name is associated with it, this denotes a lineage, not a type of yoga. Please recognize that a specific sequence of postures is not enough to constitute a unique yoga system. If your "system" contains yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, or samadhi, then it is neither new nor unique. If it's purpose isn't moksha, then it isn't yoga. If you are the creator of a yoga for abs exercise routine, or a yoga for strength program, or yoga for flexibility, yoga for a bigger butt, etc., please stop calling it yoga.
Asana (yoga postures) is only part of the yoga process. It is what likely first comes to mind when we hear the term yoga, because that is what we see most often. The practice of yoga asana has many benefits. It improves our physical health in many ways. The huge amount of interest in this aspect of yoga has made the name yoga very marketable, despite the fact that yoga's roots as a spiritual practice are in conflict with the philosophical and religious foundations of western culture. One unfortunate result of this trend is that many people in western culture ignorantly regard any purpose beyond those physical health benefits as superstitious mumbo jumbo, and yet still have no problem with labeling their exercise routine as a new type of yoga.
We can get a clue about the purpose of asana by observing its position in the 8 part system. It comes right before pranayama. Logic would suggest that asana is preparation for pranayama. That's exactly correct. How so? Asana practice improves and increases the flow of energy in the body as well as increasing one's sensitivity to that flow, thereby preparing the yogi for pranayama. Asana practice gradually causes our body structure to change into a more efficient configuration, in both form and function. That is a sophisticated way of saying that it's good for your health. The amount of benefit one derives from it depends on how advanced their asana practice becomes. As it develops, we become aware of specific alignments and specific points along those alignments that interact with each other to create specific effects. In order to achieve an advanced pose, a certain level of body awareness and operational efficiency is required. That means certain body regions and points have to be exchanging energy within a certain degree of efficiency. So practicing and mastering the pose is a sure way of establishing that energy state within the body. We learn to walk only after we are able to balance on our feet. We learn to run after that balance is refined to a certain degree. A body that is capable of achieving a specific yoga pose corresponds to a certain state of internal energy flow. Someone that has mastered all asanas possesses a body with an ideal state of internal energy flow. This state provides the ideal foundation from which to proceed further with the yoga process. If you are not interested in proceeding further with the process, that's up to you, but remember that your decision has no effect on the meaning of the word yoga and what its purpose is and has been since long before you existed. It is unlikely that a person will be able to master all of the asanas without learning to utilize their subtle energy meridians (nadis) to help them along the way. This is another reason why asana is preparation for pranayama.
Yoga asana is pertinent to spiritual development because it causes one to have experiences that will require one to reexamine the parameters by which they define their self. As your asana practice reaches the advanced level, and you become capable of directing your energy through your nadis, you may wonder what is actually happening in that process. You may wonder why is it that you are able to effect certain changes in your body merely by the power of mental focus. You may wonder why is it that these nadis that you use in your asanas show up again in your meditation practice, or why mental distraction robs you of your physical strength. The parameters by which you identify yourself are extremely powerful. The ramifications of self identity extend farther and deeper into your experience of reality than you realize. Your body is the instrument of perception through which you perceive this reality. When your instrument is refined, your perception of reality is enhanced. The more that happens, the more that which you think yourself to be will appear to change. Your definition of self will then have to change. Just as when you view an object under intense magnification, you discover that it's state of being is not as it appeared to be without that enhanced perception. As your body is brought to the limits of its capability, you will develop a new perception of your own self. As your experience of reality is brought to its limits, you may observe how your definition of self has an effect on your experience of reality.
After one is established in the practice of asana, pranayama, and pratyahara, their attempts at dharana and dhyana (concentration and meditation) will yield different results than if the person was not so established in those. In order to maintain the practice of asana and pranayama beyond a certain number of years, one will have to have learned to incorporate meditation practices to act as a support for that intense practice. In so doing, they will learn by experience how these aspects of yoga are related and benefit each other. Practice of asana may not be entirely necessary for success in meditation for some people, but it does help tremendously, which is why it is part of the process. Once you are able to enter the state of meditation and bring that energy into your body, you will eventually come to realize that there is nothing else in your experience that feels as good, brings as much joy, or supports your health and wellbeing as much as yoga does. If you continue to practice meditation with a sufficient amount of discipline, you will eventually experience a separation of your consciousness from your body. At that point you will know from experience that your consciousness does not depend on the body. This knowledge comes with certain ramifications in one's understanding of reality. Then you will understand why yoga is a spiritual practice.