Is Yoga a Spiritual Practice

Yoga Center of Chico

By Tom Hess

Tom HessYes, what makes yoga practice spiritual is the deepening of the experience for the practitioner. This inner experience is the means to see the true Self within. Most modern yoga today teach a series of postures that relate to the body with stretching and strengthening positions that increase the health of the student’s body.

This is good on many levels. At this level of yoga practice the practice becomes a body-oriented practice, or in traditional yoga terminology, this layer of body is the Anamaya Kosa, or physical layer of our existence. For many this is enough for them and they are practitioners of yoga. This level of practice is beneficial, and it makes people feel good on the outside. But this layer is only the beginning.

The next thing that these physical postures do for the individual student is the cleaning out the way energy moves through the body. This is done by releasing tension in the body that is held in unnecessary places that hinder the flow of energy through the body. This is also accomplished by aligning the body into proper alignment so that the energy of the body flows freely. Pranayama, the yogic practice of breath control, is vital here as a means to create and distribute the energy created throughout the physical body. This work on the physical level also lengthens and tones the nerve fibers of the body that allow sensation to travel throughout the body, giving feedback to the student to help them refine their understanding. Dealing with and managing this level of the energetic body is called the Pranayama Kosa in traditional yoga.

When all of this is happening, there is the presence of the mind. The mind here is not something that is doing the observing, it is a tool for the observer within. The mind here is an observed participant in the performance of a posture. The mind is to be observed and guided into a single pointed viewing of the actions of the body and prana that flows throughout the body. It is as if you are telling your thigh muscle to contract to lift your kneecap. You direct the mind to think about the lifted thigh muscle and this is a single focused thought of the mind. You control your mind just as you control your body. This layer of yogic practice is the Manomaya Kosa, the layer of mindfulness.

And then there is the observation. The mind is told to engage the action of the leg and the senses feel the leg, and the mind goes to another layer, a layer of discernment. The discerning mind feels whether the right or left leg is activating more and then acts to create a balanced feeling within the body. This layer of discernment is the Vijnanamaya Kosa, the layer of our consciousness that has wisdom. This wisdom is to be fostered and encouraged within the practice. This wisdom is what guides us forward towards the correct path for ourselves.

The next layer of the yoga practice is the layer of bliss. Where the body feels balanced and alive with the breath of prana that travels throughout the body in a well-balanced way guided by the wisdom of the discernment. This is the path of yoga.

So, one can work the yoga practice on any of these levels. All of them are good and beneficial to the practitioner in varying degrees. But if you want the deeper fruits of the yoga practice you will practice all of these levels. This journey inward is what makes the path of yoga a spiritual path.

If interested, one can refer to “Light on Life” by BKS Iyengar.

Other Articles from Tom Hess

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali-Chapter 4