Why Do You Practice Yoga and Does it Matter?

For me yoga is a spiritual practice with physical benefits.  I enjoy it and I practice daily because I have found it transformative.  The term spiritual draws differing responses from each person, depending on how they interpret the meaning of the word. For me its meaning is somewhat fluid, as it exhibits varying qualities at different times.  I like yoga and meditation as they allow me to discover things for myself rather than being told what it is about. Although I also like to read the teachings, it is the fruit of my own practice that leads to understanding.  I find that fairly scientific but it is also very subjective, as all my experiences are interpreted by me.  Yoga certainly helps me to see through these illusions though and to question and experience more of what actually is.  For me mostly I am just trying to get beyond my thoughts and experience more of what actually is, be it spiritual or physical.

 

People practice yoga for all sorts of reasons.  As a teacher, here are some of ones I have come across: inner calm, relaxation, spiritual, losing weight, recovering from injury, increasing flexibility, help with sport (cross-training), help with sleep, anxiety, stress, increasing general health and wellbeing.  The list of reasons is endless.  For me any reason is valid.  Yoga is great and I feel many people can benefit from it.  Yoga in the West is sometimes criticized for having lost its spirituality for the sake of commercialism.  Whilst reading the Hatha Yoga Pradipika with Christine and her students we discussed this as it is brought up a number of times in Swami Muktibodhananda’s commentary

 

“Originally, a sadhaka practiced hatha yoga  for many years to prepare himself for the awakening of kundalini, or in terms of raja yoga, for the experience of Samadhi.  However, in the last fifty years, with the revival of yoga in the West, it seems the real goal of yoga has been overlooked or even completely forgotten.  Today, yoga is generally practiced to improve or restore health, to reduce stress, to prevent the body from ageing or to beautify it.  Hatha yoga does fulfil these of objectives, but it should be kept in mind that they are certainly not the goal.” Swami Muktibodhananda, The Hatha Yoga Pradipika

 

While I think this is a valid point, I feel that more people are practicing and getting benefit from yoga than ever before.  I feel this is a good thing, whatever the reasons and generally people’s reason for practicing changes with time, I know mine has.  As a yoga teacher I try my best to make yoga accessible to the varying needs of my students.  I sometimes feel that this openness does mean that spirituality and philosophy are not discussed as much as they could be.  I make an effort to connect with my students and hope that they will feel they can talk to me about the deeper aspect of their practice.  I am always interested to hear about other people’s experiences.  I also hope that this blog serves to broaden what I share about yoga and what we discuss both here on the blog and in class and so far I am finding this to be the case.

 

If you are interested in exploring yoga philosophy I highly recommend readingThe Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice, which contains a translation and commentary of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras at the back.  It is a wonderful book and a great starting point for this vast subject.  If you are practicing yoga to get fitter or loose weight, good for you – you may find you get even more from it than you expected…

 

Why do you practice yoga?  Have your reasons changed since you started practicing yoga? What is your experience about the physical and spiritual aspects of your yoga practice?

About Helen Aldred

Helen Aldred practices and teaches ashtanga yoga in Liverpool. She loves to share and discuss yoga, as well as health and wellbeing. Follow her on twitter and join Ashtanga yoga Liverpool's Facebook community .

Comments

  1. Hi Helen,
    I think it’s a pity that the more spiritual and philosophical elements are rarely discussed by students or teachers, except perhaps in a workshop setting where time has been allowed for it. Also I think at the start students are rarely open to what they (me) perceive as the more “out there” practices.
    I never envisioned yoga being such an integral part of my life, in the beginning it was merely a part of the recovery from a shoulder tennis injury. I had no inkling it would lead to spending nearly 2 hours a day, 6 days a week doing my practice and as for going to India for 3 months, now that was far out. But little by little it grows on you, you start to try and organise your life around being able to find time for the practice, you lose touch with friends but make many new ones in the yoga community. As time passes you become more interested in the philosophy and realise how the practice not only changes your body, but changes your attitudes to people and situations, I have certainly become quieter and more inward looking.
    I think some people new to yoga are ready to take it all in, but most come for the physical practice and the rest needs time.

  2. Hi Kevin,
    Thanks, for sharing your experiences. I love Pattabhi Jois’s quote “99 per cent practice, 1 per cent theory” because to me you have to experience things for yourself to understand any theory. I wonder if when you first started yoga for your tennis injury you would have been turned off it if your teacher had talked about the spiritual aspect of the practice, would have been open to it? It may have even turned you off the practice which you now benefit from daily. I like what you say at the end “the rest needs time”, I think people should be given the space to find out what it means to them.

  3. I didn’t actually have any teaching for a number of years. The therapist I went to eventually (after giving up on the GP’s pills), did massage & gave me yoga based exercises to do 4 times a day. The improvement was amazing, my idea of what yoga constituted at the time was a church Hall with people sitting in Lotus chanting “om”. So I went to the Library and borrowed a yoga book, they only had one and i started to play around on my own. No doubt doing it all wrong and unaligned, but I just had the feeling from somewhere that it was right, just doing it and being present with myself, that was a new experience in itself.

    It wasn’t until The Lifecentre opened that I actually attended a proper yoga class. And so lucky it was Liz Lark, who made it fun,but very challenging, I remember my first try at Trikonasana B, my hand nowhere near the ground as sweat poured and my legs trembled. I was hooked, I wanted to do this, despite the fact that I used to crawl out of there too shattered to speak, I always crawled up to McD’s for a strawberry milkshake after class!
    I had no idea I was doing what I now know as Ashtanga either.

    I was sad when Liz stopped teaching that Sunday morning class. But I seem to have been lucky in that I have found each subsequent teacher over the years has moved my practice forward, I have met them at the right time and been ready for their own teaching. If I had met some of them earlier I would probably have run a mile and abandoned the practice. Dena Kingsberg is the one who first introduced me to teaching outside of the Asana practice, to chanting and some of the more philosophical and thought provoking aspects. She did it in such a way that it wasn’t dogmatic or “out there”, she just opened my eyes to it and left it up to us, so after she went home again, I was inspired to seek out these “Sutra’s” etc on my own.

    In Mysore having the time, I enjoyed the extra Sutra and HYP classes. Back home now it’s something sadly missing, finding 2 hours to practice is a challenge. I enjoyed the Sutra workshop Hamish did a couple of Sundays ago.

  4. I agree with what Kevin said, I own a hot studio in town. I was not the enthusiast in the partnership, but I have to say I have changed attitudes towards situations and people. Just simply due to practice. I have found I need my fix or I don’t feel content going to bed. Most people I see in our studio are there for physical gains but if someone is open to the theory of practice it can change their whole out look on life and how the deal with obstacles in their paths. We deal with a lot of professional people, solicitors and alike. We set up to try and be a more well being centre and help with stress through Yoga and other therapies. The sort of people you would never expect to become yogi’s, but they are having the same thoughts as myself.

  5. Thanks for a good post and for initiating an interesting and important discussion.
    I’m a yoga practitioner myself of 10 years and a teacher of Ashtanga Yoga in Leeds. I have been asking myself those very same questions recently about why I do yoga, what is it for and after so many years of practising… what is the connection between the physical asana practice and the Indian philosophy? My practice has most certainly changed over those years and my interest in the ‘spiritual’ aspect increased. I enjoy reading the ancient texts and modern philosophy books, but what are their direct connection with wanting to touch your toes or even wanting to find inner calm? And should there be one?
    I don’t know the answers to these question but think it’s a very interesting discussion.

  6. Hi Marie,
    Thanks for your comment. I love your questions. I think you are right that we don’t have to find “the” answer, yet asking ourselves is certainly useful. I have found like you have that my answers change over time.

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