Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Is Ashtanga Yoga a spiritual practice? Some useless sociological observations, followed by more useful insights by Sarah Dee

Lest I be accused of plagiarism, I want to come right out and say that the title of this post is directly lifted from a very enlightening and illuminating post of the same title that Sarah Hatcher (Durney) wrote on her blog earlier this year.

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".

It may appear to someone who does not practice ashtanga vinyasa yoga that it may not be a 'spiritual practice' since the practice appears asana-based.

Practicing six days a week with the foundational elements of ashtanga:

vinyasa (breath-movement system),
breath (ujjayai),
bandhas (internal locks),
drishti (gaze), and
dhyana (concentration)

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? 


  1. Hi Nobel, before we can say is ashtanga spiritual practice or not please define the term "spiritual practice".

    What is "spiritual practice"?

    I used dictionary...

    "spiritual" means:

    1. pertaining to, or consisting of spirit; incorporeal.
    2. pertaining to the spirit or soul, as distinguished from the physical nature
    3. closely akin in interests, attitude, outlook, etc.

    "practice" means:

    1. habitual or customary performance; operation: office practice.
    2. habit; custom: It is not the practice here for men to wear long hair.
    3. repeated performance or systematic exercise for the purpose of acquiring skill or proficiency: Practice makes perfect.

    I can not connect these two terms "spiritual" and "practice" so please lets first define what we are talking about here. :)

    1. Let's just say that a spiritual practice is an activity that you partake in on a regular basis that changes you on a psychological and emotional level, and which may also change your worldview.

    2. Then, for me, Ashtanga yoga is spiritual practice.

  2. Well done, Nobel!

    You are fully engaged in study and your blog clearly shows your tapas. I am inspired by your work and your effort; thank you for including me in your blog as well!

    Guruji's message about 'ishwarapranidhana' really helps explain how we understand spirituality in our practices. He tells us that by starting with a physical practice such as asana, which "brings the body and sense organs under control" ("Yoga Mala" p. 16), and also prevents "diseases related to the body and sense organs" (p. 17)...this allows us to take on the sublimbs yama and niyama which encompass ishwarapranidhana.

    "through ishwarapranidhana, samadhi (union with the supreme) is attained, which in turn leads to...fulfillment." (p.16)

    It makes perfect sense here that the work we do through our daily practices (asana, breath, vinyasa, dhyana, drishti, bandha)...will bring us closer towards ishwarapranidhana and therefore, is a spiritual practice!

    As for you being an asshole, Nobel, I do not think this is the case! You wrote:

    "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"

    This is beautifully written...clearly a spiritual invocation!

    Thank you, Nobel...Sarah

    1. Thank you for not thinking I'm an asshole :-)

      Yes, purifying and strengthening the body as a vital step towards Ishvara Pranidhana... I should go read Yoga Mala again. :-)

  3. So the question is, "what does a spiritual practice look like?" Kind of a paradoxical question. The essence of yoga is experiential, it lies in the relationship between the Self and the practice, and if you don't practice it there's no point in talking about it.

    Rumi gives as good an answer as one could ask for, though -

    If anyone asks you
    how the perfect satisfaction
    of all our sexual wanting
    will look, lift your face
    and say,

    Like this.

    When someone mentions the gracefulness
    of the nightsky, climb up on the roof
    and dance and say,

    Like this.

    If anyone wants to know what "spirit" is,
    or what "God’s fragrance" means,
    lean your head toward him or her.
    Keep your face there close.

    Like this.

    When someone quotes the old poetic image
    about clouds gradually uncovering the moon,
    slowly loosen knot by knot the strings
    of your robe.

    Like this.

    If anyone wonders how Jesus raised the dead,
    don’t try to explain the miracle.
    Kiss me on the lips.

    Like this. Like this.

    When someone asks what it means
    to "die for love," point

    If someone asks how tall I am, frown
    and measure with your fingers the space
    between the creases on your forehead.

    This tall.

    The soul sometimes leaves the body, the returns.
    When someone doesn’t believe that,
    walk back into my house.

    Like this.

    When lovers moan,
    they’re telling our story.

    Like this.

    I am a sky where spirits live.
    Stare into this deepening blue,
    while the breeze says a secret.

    Like this.

    When someone asks what there is to do,
    light the candle in his hand.

    Like this.

    How did Joseph’s scent come to Jacob?


    How did Jacob’s sight return?


    A little wind cleans the eyes.

    Like this.

    When Shams comes back from Tabriz,
    he’ll put just his head around the edge
    of the door to surprise us

    Like this.

    1. Thanks. I love the way you share your love of Rumi

      Like this.

  4. about all the X behaviours, yoga really doesn't help much. I don't find yoga much help in my western-mind-life ;-) and Primary Series, that merciless mirror...
    Richard Freeman said: "It’s very rare that anyone understands. They don’t even understand that they don’t even understand." painful :-) yoga is a very selfish kind of spending time. very relative, especially at the beggining. so what I get with/from it is what I get. for me (in-love-with-Primary-Series) it is of course very spiritual. acctually I feel big openess in my soul/mind dimension and quite modest in phisical one.. I don't feel limited, I feel safe. in yoga practice I am not an adult, I am a child, so it is very proper to learn gradually. children need routine. but I am old enough to work hard. I don't know, but somehow it seems to me very-very right to do yoga in Ashtanga Vinyasa way ;-)
    and getting rid of my own assholeness - I want this process slow and gradual. otherwise I will not end with the aim I 'planned' :-)
    thank you, Nobel

    1. "yoga is a very selfish kind of spending time."

      Perhaps, but I think selfishness has this bad rep that is not always warranted. Sometimes, selfishness may be what we need to get ourselves in order.

      "I don't feel limited, I feel safe. in yoga practice I am not an adult, I am a child, so it is very proper to learn gradually. children need routine. but I am old enough to work hard."

      I hear you: I also feel the same way about practicing Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga. I wonder if this means that Ashtangis are very childlike? :-)

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    Ashtanga Yoga