Defining spirituality is a tricky business.  There really isn’t one steady image of what spirituality is that one can frame and hang neatly on the wall, as it fluctuates and redefines itself through the minds and hearts of different practices, different people, different cultures, different religions, and different intentions.  It is a highly subjective matter, and therefore wears all the many masks of individual personal definitions and perspectives.  Spirituality is often seen as a striving towards or the development of a personal relationship with a God, a higher consciousness, divinity, the higher Self, the transcendent, or the sacred that provides a source of values and purpose, self-awareness and self-transcendence, understanding, wisdom, and integration (Nelson, 2009).

Each personal relationship within this spiritual context has its own framework and individual resonance that guides one towards his or her own personal evolution.  This striving can materialize in both the theist and the atheist.  It doesn’t have to be religious in nature, although religion is spiritual in nature.  According to Sadhguruji (2013),  the real spirituality occurs in the seeking of the seeker:

An atheist cannot be spiritual, but you must understand that even a theist cannot be spiritual because an atheist and a theist are not different.  One believes there is God; another believes there is no God.  Both of them are believing something that they do not know…. They are the same people putting up an act of being different.  A spiritual seeker is neither a theist nor an atheist.  He has realized that he does not know, so he is seeking.  The moment you believe something, you become blind to everything else.

This questioning, this feeling that there must be something more than this, this effervescent curiosity is what pushes an individual to begin the seeking.  We do not know the answers to how the universe was created or why we are here.  Yearning for just a little more knowledge is the drive that moves the deepest parts of a person’s being, willing itself towards defining a personal spirituality and oftentimes developing a spiritual practice in order to have a handle on the mystery and maybe grab onto just a little bit of the magic.  This endless human curiosity has ever asked the hard questions and offered myriad answers to those questions.  Each answer is steeped deeply in cultural values, experiences, insights, symbols, and archetypes, further widening the array of possible definitions to the word spirituality.  Here, the focus is on spirituality as it is framed within Yogic practice, which would say that the cause of this striving towards something more, the yearning, is caused by God itself, which is also yearning for realization of and realignment with its creation.

What is Yoga?

After a brief introduction — 1.1 Atha yoganusasanam; with prayers for divine blessings, now begins the exposition of the sacred art of yoga — the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali defines the goal of Yoga itself.  1.2 Yogah cittavritti nirodhah.  According to Patanjali, first and foremost, Yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness (Iyengar, 1993, pp. 44-45).  The word Yoga itself means “to yoke” or to bring into alignment and oneness.  The cessation of the movements of the mind happens after a profound, deep, and consistent Yoga practice.  Once the mind stills, the yogi is able to see his or her real self, the Atman, and its relationship to Brahman (God).

Patanjali is generally considered the first being to compile in written form the spiritual teachings that had up until that point — roughly 500-200 BC — been a strictly oral initiatory tradition formed with the intention of removing obstacles on the path of spiritual development (Iyengar, 1993).  Although Yoga itself isn’t a religion, it does have religious associations within Hinduism and Advaita Vedanta philosophy.

This is not the idea typically associated with Yoga in the West because we have stripped the spiritual meaning from the practice, removed the sutras, and omitted any hint of its spiritual roots and philosophies in the classes, which focus largely on only one limb of the eight limbs of the Yoga ashtanga, Asana. These are the physical exercises or poses practiced as a method of strengthening the body and stilling the mind in preparation for the deeper spiritual work.  By doing so, what is typically understood as Yoga and practiced in the West isn’t actually really Yoga, but a preparation for Yoga.  The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali only mention Asana briefly in sutras 11.46 – 11.48:

Sthira sukham asanam prayatna saithilya ananta samapattibhyam tatah dvandvah anabhighatah: asana is perfect firmness of body, steadiness of intelligence, and benevolence of spirit.  Perfection in an asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached.  From then on, the sadhaka is undisturbed by dualities (Iyengar, 1993, pp. 149-152).

So if Yoga isn’t just an exercise class that we can take for an hour at the gym in order to feel more relaxed and healthy, then what is it?  True, having a fit and healthy body affects the mind positively and is essential to begin a Yoga practice, but it isn’t the only concern.  Not even the first concern.  As it was intended, Yoga is a completely holistic spiritual practice.  “Yoga is an art, a science and a philosophy.  It touches the life of man at every level, physical, mental, and spiritual.  It is a practical method for making one’s life purposeful, useful and noble” (Iyengar, p. xviiii).

Without the philosophy and spirituality, there is something decidedly missing here.  This is a major issue as Yoga becomes more popular in the West.  Yoga is swiftly becoming multi billion-dollar industry in America, mainly practiced by upper-middle class, well-educated, women (Yoga Statistics, 2015).  Many know nothing about the origins of the practice and simply participate because stretching and exercise feels good.  After some experience and exposure, the more involved Yoga practitioner may become interested in researching a bit deeper about the practice and often finds that his or her own personal spiritual beliefs and religious observances are not aligned with those of Yoga.  This is especially so because the monistic roots of Yoga within Advaita Vedanta are in direct opposition to the dualistic views of most Western religions.  Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that Yoga be recognized as a spiritual path and not just an exercise plan.  Although it is possible to have a fairly deep Asana practice without approaching the philosophy behind it, at some point the practitioner will have to accept whether or not his or her own beliefs resonate with the end goal of a Yoga practice and question whether or on the or she can delve deeper.

Spirituality in Yoga

There has been no teaching which remained a mere word of mouth or dogma of schools.  Every doctrine has been turned into a passionate conviction, stirring the heart of man and quickening his breath, and completely transforming his personal nature….  It is not enough to know the truth; the truth must be lived.  The goal…is not to know the ultimate truth but to realize it, to become one with it (Radhakrishnan & Moore (eds.) 1957, pp. xxiv).

Spirituality in Yoga is a combination of a personal relationship with universal consciousness, self-awareness, self-evolution, and a process of reuniting with the source consciousness known as Brahman.  The pre-Hindu philosophy that Patanjali developed his Yoga out of was Advaita Vedanta, which is one of the world’s oldest spiritual philosophies.  This philosophy is a monistic paradigm that includes three fundamental principals:

Unitary consciousness is all that exists: (A) the phenomenal world appears to exist, but it is merely an illusory manifestation of unitary consciousness.  The phenomenal world is insubstantial; (B) when one ignores the universal consciousness, the phenomenal world appears to be substantial and is taken as a something rather than the negation which it is; and (C) manifestations of universal consciousness have identified with the phenomenal world, but are engaged in the process of recognizing themselves as universal consciousness (Ajaya, 1983, pp. 17).

In Yoga, the unitary conscious previously mentioned is Brahman, known as satcitananda (infinite existence, infinite consciousness, and infinite bliss).  “God dwells within our own hearts as the divine Self or Atman.  The Atman is never born nor will it ever die.  Pure, perfect, free from limitations, the Atman is one with Brahman” (A brief overview of Vedanta, 2015).  The divine source consciousness manifested everything in the material universe — every human being, plant, animal, and all inorganic matter — and within each of its individual manifestations it resides like a seed in the soil, waiting for the rain of spiritual yearning to germinate, grow, and evolve as pure consciousness.  It is present in every motion, every thought, every action, every desire, and every sensation that we have.  It is curiously experiencing itself through us.  We are essentially God consciousness in individual form separated by delusion, ego, and misrecognition of our true Self.

Brahman isn’t necessarily even God as we may think of it in the West.  “Rather it is the conception that there is only one existence, one consciousness that is universal.  In this system, there is neither the worshipper nor the worshipped, for what may have appeared to be two is actually one” (Ajaya, 1983, p. 17).

This illusion of separation is further exacerbated by the fact that we are inside this physical manifestation of the universe, governed by our egos, stuck in a cycle of delusion (Maya), and doomed to repeat past mistakes and be chained to a cycle of birth and rebirth (Samsara) until we gain the knowledge of the truth of Atman and Brahman and do the difficult work of realigning ourselves completely.  Therefore, Yoga is essentially a practice by which the yogi trains his or her mind, body, and spirit to a state of purity and non-attachment to ego, to the illusion of the physical universal manifestation, and to the senses so that he or she may realign with Brahman and be released from the cycle of birth and death to join the space outside of all creation in total bliss.

The Four Types of Yoga for Four Aspects

Yoga is divided into several different methods of spiritual practice that are meant to bring the yogi into spiritual development and maturity.  These different methods are separated into specific practices and observances that the yogi may follow according to what his or her relative nature is.

All important schools of Yoga can be divided into two broad divisions.  Bhavanayoga; this is Yoga of cultivating proper attitude of mind towards objects of the world and their relationship with oneself.  The main schools of Yoga under this division are (1) Jñanayoga, (2) Bhaktiyoga, and (3) Karmayoga.  Pana Samyama Yoga: This consists of controlling the breath to control the mind.  The main schools under this vision are (1) Mantrayoga, (2) Hathayoga, (3) Layayoga, and (4) Rajayoga (Sahay, 2013, pp. iii-vii).

Because it is obvious that different people have different tendencies, preferences, and personalities, yoga has provided several different pathways one may travel to reach the center goal of samadhi, oneness.

Bhaktiyoga is the path of devotion.  This method is for those people who are inclined towards emotionality and adoration.  The bhakta participates in devotional meditations that emphasize a relationship with God, the One, the Higher Consciousness, the Divine, or Brahman.  In the meditations of the bhakta, this higher energy is worshipped.  Contemplation of the nature of Brahman, the nature of the soul and the Self or Atman, and the uniting of the two are dwelled upon.  The nature of this relationship and the bringing of the two together fills the bhakta with bliss and divine consciousness.  This type of Yoga fosters a very strong and personal relationship with the Divine energy.  Bhakti Yoga is known for causing a deeper access to the samadhis, or oneness states, which are the final limb of Yoga (Yoga as a spiritual path, 2000).  In a comparative religious sense, Bhaktiyoga could be seen as similar to Sufism (Islam, 2004; Frager & Fadiman, 1976) and also with Agape within Christianity among others.

A bhakta loves the lord because he is lovable, there is no other motive originating or directing this Divine emotion to the true devotee…. his ideal becomes one of the perfect love which is free from all fear….it is a universal love.  It is love without limit, it is love in itself, the absolute love (Islam , 2004, p. 134).

Karmayoga is the path of action.  “The word karma derives from the Sanskrit root kri (to do or to make); it means ‘action,’ but in some respects karma is also the results of our actions — we reap what we sow.  Then when we add the word ‘yoga,’ it means that the action is done with meditative awareness” (Vivekananda, 2005, p. 188).  This is Yoga for the outgoing and people-friendly person.  In Karmayoga the yogi participates in service, work, and actions without any desire for recompense of any sort.  “It purifies the heart by teaching you to act selflessly…. By detaching yourself from the fruits of your actions and offering them up to God, you learn to sublimate the ego” (The Four Paths of Yoga, 2010).  Each action is performed with a clear meditative awareness, concentration that is so pointed as to remove all other thought processes, strict observance of reactive patterns from a non-attached position, with a positive and selfless attitude, and for the benefit of others and the higher power.

We are just the instrument of divine grace…. In that state of awareness there is no stress…. I am not the doer, and I am unattached to the outcome of the process…. So Karmayoga, properly lived, is the ultimate anti-stress mechanism and takes us to partnership with the supreme consciousness.  Through Karmayoga, all life becomes a sacrament (Vivekananda, 2005, p.198)

Jñanayoga is for the more intellectually minded individuals on the spiritual path of Yoga.  The word Jñana itself means knowledge and wisdom, “but not intellectual knowledge or reasoning…. Jñana is an advanced spiritual practice (sadhana), a process of self-inquiry, with a strong concentrated mind” (Vivekananda, 2005, p. 203).  Within the meditative awareness of Jñana, the spiritual seeker aims to explore his or her own intuitive knowledge of the inner Self, the wonders of the universe, and what is soul (purusha) and what is not-soul (prakriti).  Jñana is most intricately linked with Advaita Vedanta philosophy, monism, and what is considered right knowledge.  Jñanayoga lists four principal means: (A) understanding of right and wrong, good and bad, pure and impure, permanent and impermanent; (B) complete detachment from pleasure seeking; (C) tranquility, sense restraint, cessation of attachment, endurance, mental collectedness, and acceptance of transcendental reality; and (D) desire for the attainment of emancipation from the cycle of birth and death (Sahay, 2013).

Rajayoga is the Royal Yoga of the eightfold path of Patanjali.  This is the most inclusive and for the very disciplined person.  Some only associate Rajayoga with the final three limbs of the ashtanga, concentration, meditation, and absorption.  Others, such as Swami Vivekananda (1956), include the entire eight limbs within Rajayoga.    “The Eight Limbs are a progressive series of steps or disciplines which purify the body and mind, ultimately leading the yogi to enlightenment” (The four paths of yoga, 2010).  The eightfold path begins with the Yamas and the Niyamas, which are actions taken to harmonize one’s relationship with oneself and one’s interpersonal relationships.  Within the Yamas, the observances are non-harming, honesty, not stealing, non-attachment, and energy continence/God awareness.  Within the Niyamas, the observances are purity of mind, body and environment; contentment; endurance and will power; self-study; and faith/devotion.

These ethical codes are intended to soften the heart and ego of the yogi to prepare him or her for the deeper work.  Acting outside of these particular observances is thought to cause disturbances in the mind and body, making it impossible to achieve the stillness required to advance in Yoga.  These disturbances will come up in meditation and cause hindrances.  After the observances comes the physical postures, breathing control, sensory withdrawal, concentration, meditation, and the final goal of attainment of oneness (Samadhi) with the Divine (Vivekananda, 2005).

Hatha Yoga is the physical practice that we are most familiar with in the West: Asana, the physical postures, and Pranayama, the breathing exercises. The other branches of Yoga are closely related to specific styles of meditation and breathing exercises.  Most of these can be practiced within Raja Yoga as well.


There are many different ways by which a yogi may make his or her way towards the end goal of Samadhi, or complete oneness with the Divine.  Although the end goal of all the paths of Yoga are the same, each one accounts for different characteristics within the individual yogi and therefore the yogi has to choose which is in better alignment for him or herself.  Each one is based on the personal insights of countless yogis that have walked these paths before, and each one is seeing a radical change since being introduced to other cultures and adapted to those cultures and their spiritual or religious views, and therefore is evolving itself actively.

As Ferrer (2009) states, “The radical openness, interrelatedness, and creativity of the mystery and/or the cosmos allows for the participatory cocreation of an indefinite number of self-disclosures of reality and corresponding religious worlds” (p.142).  As Yoga grows and expands outside of its birthplace it will continue to be applied and modified as it incorporates all the new minds and hearts that approach it as a spiritual path.  In the last fifty years alone, especially in the West, many different methods and philosophies have been created and attributed to Yoga that are expanding its reach and meaning.  As long as it keeps leading people home to their God, their higher Self, their Divine, their Universal Consciousness, or whatever the yogi wants to call it, then it is still a living, breathing art form and spiritual path that is curiously experiencing itself on its way home.



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