I will say more about Sarah's post in a little bit. But I want to begin by making a few totally useless sociological observations about the different ways in which this question can come up in polite (or not-so-polite) yoga society. Let's face it: Whether we like it or not, this "spirituality question," as I call it, is one that many of us Ashtangis will probably face at one time or another in the course of our lives if and when we venture out beyond the confines of the shala into the broader yoga world. Most often posed by detractors or skeptics of the Ashtanga practice, this question can come up in many ways in the course of yoga conversations. As such, I think it would be interesting to spend a little time here cataloguing a few of the ways in which this question can come up in conversations in the yoga world:
(1) It is sometimes posed directly to the Ashtangi in a curiously passive-aggressive kind of way. As in, "Oh, you practice Ashtanga. I hear that it is a very physically demanding practice that is practiced mostly by ex-gymnasts/ex-dancers/ex-whatevers. You must be so strong and fit to be able to do this..."
Translation: "Since only ex-dancers/ex-gymnasts/ex-whatevers who are super-fit can do this practice, and everybody else can't, it must not be for everybody. And since spirituality is for everybody, Ashtanga must therefore be a totally unspiritual practice..."
(2) But more often than not in our ever-so-polite and ever-so-politically-correct and pristine yoga world, the question comes up in a less direct form. For instance, you may encounter a yogi who practices another supposedly more "spiritual" style (I won't tell you what these supposedly more "spiritual" styles are...). Upon hearing that you practice Ashtanga, a knowing smile will appear on the face of said yogi, who will then say something along the lines of, "Oh, that's great. But I prefer to practice a gentler, less aggressive style. " Translation: "Unlike Ashtanga, which is so aggressive and therefore not spiritual, I practice a style that is way more spiritual than yours."
(3) This often comes from people who know you well, like closed friends or loved ones. Because these are people who know you well (or at least think they do), the usual velvet gloves of polite conversation are taken off. In this manifestation, the question is usually posed in the following form: "How come you are still so X even though you do yoga everyday?", where "X" can be anything that your friend or loved one happens to observe about you which they dislike. Examples of "X" include: "hot-tempered", "rigid", "uncompassionate", "asshole-like", etc. Whether or not X happens to be true of you is, of course, another question entirely.
In any case, the translation here seems to be: "If you do this Ashtanga thing everyday, and you are still so X, then Ashtanga must not be helping you to become less X. But any spiritual practice should help you become less X. Therefore, Ashtanga must not be spiritual."
Of course, (1), (2), and (3) by no means exhaust the many many ways in which this spirituality question can pop up. Do you know of any others?
As I mentioned earlier, Sarah has some very useful and illuminating things in response to this spirituality question, which are worth quoting at length. She writes:
"Recently, a Philadelphia yoga friend of mine said, "ashtanga practice isn't a sadhana".
Practicing six days a week with the foundational elements of ashtanga:
vinyasa (breath-movement system),
bandhas (internal locks),
drishti (gaze), and
is a GIANT SPIRITUAL INVOCATION because each foundational element brings the practitioner INSIDE themselves, closer to their deeper selves...
Often in the beginning, coming to a daily ashtanga practice isn't a 'spiritual' decision to start. When or how one's ashtanga practice becomes a 'spiritual' practice varies from person to person. It is each person's specific relationship to their practice which makes it special and unique. Some people focus on the Divine during their entire practice, others the breath. Some people count through their practice, some people use one foundational element the entire time - like a specific bandha. Some people use all the foundational elements the entire time! All of these are strong tools that the ashtanga practitioner uses to sustain a concentrated state during their practice...
You have to believe in your practice. This is the "specific spiritual practice" element Vyasa is describing. You must love it - and want to do it. There will be days where you will be tired and sore and your mind may be racing or attached to something that has drawn you away. But these are the days that you must practice and are more important than ever to remove tendencies and patterns which are hidden within you.
It does not and will not work if you fully and truly do not have faith in the system. Seek out trainings, workshops, and increase your study to learn more about practice. Dive into your relationship with your practice in a deeper way to encourage this to take form.Then, with the guidelines suggested by Patanjali, you will have a sadhana because your daily practice will turn into something much richer than just an asana practice. It will develop into something very 'spiritual' because you will have developed a relationship with yourself. This is worth all the effort to get to know, as this bond will bring you closer and closer to the Divine which always surrounds you."
Ashtanga, then, is a spiritual practice, even if it doesn't look that way from the outside. The outward, seemingly unspiritual elements of the practice (the asanas) are simply tools that one uses to go within oneself and forge a relationship to one's inner being. But there is one caveat here: Just because a practice is spiritual doesn't mean that everybody who does the practice is not an asshole. It may take a long time (or maybe not at all) for the practice to help one overcome one's own asshole nature (for more of my thoughts about this issue, see this post). But I prefer to look at it this way: If I am such an asshole even though I practice, imagine what I would be like if I didn't practice?