Is yoga a spiritual practice or a physical one?

This is a great question, because it takes us straight away to the heart of what yoga is dealing with: dualism. In yoga, as pointed to by the very word itself, the practitioner’s aim is in achieving yoga, “union” or one could even say “integration”. It is not uncommon to find at the start of a yoga book, talk of this union is of union with God, union between the mind, body and spirit or other similar explanations. Yet, at least early on in our yogic career, we often only experience these words as concepts or abstract philosophies and we may find them appealing or off-putting.
Yoga can be immensely integrating calming and energising and our approach to life becomes at least a little more enthusiastic, even refreshed. For some, this experience may fit the term “spiritual”, for others perhaps not. If “spiritual” means integrated and whole, more calm and tranquil, less reactive more reflective, earthed or centred in our present experience, then many of us would be happy to use the word to describe our personal connection with yoga. If, on the other hand, the word means believing in that which is outside any personal penetration or experience, if it means being somehow being separate from others, feeling more clever or special than others, then again there are a great many of us who would shy away from its use.

It is not, then, a question of being physical or spiritual. It is more that through the increased intimacy from moving into the practice, through, say improving the postures on a physical level (moving with more grace, precision, depth and range) then we begin to experience our physical reality more subtlety. This increased subtlety means that where we saw big obstacles, each with its own title and fairly fixed attributes, we begin instead to see detail. Instead of seeing “can” or “can’t”, we see the journey ahead and we can feel our relationship with our lives rather than having a sense that we have to somehow happen to our lives or that our lives somehow happen to us.

So, in yoga, the physical experience simply deepens and we see its inherent and constant movement where before where we may have been only sustaining snapshots of reality. We begin to view it as a flow which is calming and brings the mind into a peaceful resignation, content that life is not against us but simply has its own flow; the mind no longer views its surroundings as favourable or unfavourable but simply as a creative opportunity and becomes absorbed in its relationship with life. This feeling then being profoundly blissful, connected and peaceful can then be described as “spiritual”. One could say then that at the deepest, fullest experience of the physical, one finds oneself immersed in the highest penetration of the spiritual.

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Quotes

Like a firmament, devoid of edge or centre,
Meditate on vastness and infinity.
To understand the innate truth,
Unite skill and wisdom.

Like the sun and moon in all their glory,
Mediate clearly without darkness,
Knowing that all beings are your parents,
Love and show compassion to them.

— Milarepa