If you are wondering what the connection is between yoga and spiritual practice, we should first clarify that the goal of all the yoga practices is to bring us closer towards enlightenment, aka Samadhi. It is a state of constant connection to the Greater Source and sometimes described as an experiential realization of or awakening to the true nature of the ourselves and the world.
The second thing you should know is that doing the physical exercises done in most yoga classes (asanas) is just one of several practices prescribed in yoga (practices that include living by a moral code, exerting control over the breath, meditation, etc).
While most yoga practitioners aren't having their spiritual awakening to the true nature of all life anytime soon, there are still many spiritual benefits to doing yoga poses on their own. Listed are 8 ways in which asanas and spirituality are connected.
1. Asanas allow the body to be healthy enough to sit for long periods of meditation. In order for our bodies to sit up straight for hours with ease and without the distraction of joint stiffness or muscle pain, we must have a reasonable amount of strength paired with a reasonable amount of flexibility. Yoga poses are designed to give us just that.
2. They provide a lens through which to understand our emotions. The body reflects what is happening on a deeper level. We store a lot of emotions in our body. When are feeling down in the dumps, we tend to hunch. When we are happy or proud, we stand up tall. When we are stressed we tend to feel tightness in the neck, shoulders or hips. By aligning our bodies, we can influence our mood/state of mind.
3. Moving the body everyday creates a practice of discipline. Sometimes, just getting to yoga class is an act of discipline, amiright?
4. Moving our bodies into alignment allows energy to move through them more efficiently. Our daily habits (sitting too much, hunching forward, walking/running, right-handedness/left-handedness) can create misalignments in our bodies over time. By consciously moving our bodies into correct alignment, we allow energy to flow through us more efficiently. For example, if we can sit up straight with our spine in optimal alignment, we avoid damaging or obstructing our spinal cord. In yoga, energy is often equated to life force or consciousness. So the freer the movement of energy through the body, the more easily we can connect to the “Greater Source” of energy in the universe.
5. When you do yoga, you begin to understand your own habits and reactions. Are you the type of person that gets bored during the warm-up? Or maybe you are silently cursing the teaching in pigeon pose? Do you feel compelled to do that 20th chaturanga even though you previously had a shoulder injury? All of your decisions/reactions during class reveal something about you, and once you know what they mean, you can start to bring about real self-transformation.
6. Doing advanced yoga poses required a deep level of concentration. Concentration is the one of the most important skills needed to get to advanced meditation and when you are in an arm balance or inversion, boy, do you need a lot of concentration!
7. Doing yoga poses requires control over some the subtleties of the body and over our breath. Learning these skills is a precursor to having complete governance of ourselves, which is really the point of enlightenment. Moving towards enlightenment really means that we stop doing things on autopilot, subconsciously and instead do things consciously, with intention. For example, when you have an itch, do you automatically just scratch it? What would happen if you didn’t? Yoga helps us to understand this idea. When you have an itch in headstand, you definitely don’t scratch it.
8. Asanas help us stay healthy. I think it is safe to say that if you have a healthy body that doesn't experience much pain or illness you likely to be happier, nicer to those around you, more self-sufficient and more fulfilled than if you had a body that experienced greater illness and/or pain.
Now that you know how asanas help move us embody our spiritual selves, let me just emphasize that doing yoga poses alone is probably not going to turn you into the Buddha. Poses are just one part of yoga practices and meditation might arguably be the most important practice. But doing yoga poses is an easy way to begin accessing and understanding your inner Self.