How I Discovered the Spiritual Side of Yoga
Though you can't force it on people, slowly embracing it can be transformative.
That spiritual, introspective aspect of yoga isn’t for everyone — but there are ways to get people to give it a try.
I was — admittedly — the least spiritual yogi ever when I first tried yoga. I just wanted to lose weight and try doing it in a new way. I’d been to dozens of group fitness classes at different gyms and I just never really cared for any of them.
When it came time for savasana at the end of my first ever class, I thought to myself, “Wow, I get to lie on the ground at the end of class! This is amazing!” My instructor proceeded to tell us to inhale light, exhale darkness, and gave various other prompts to encourage us to relax and meditate. My very un-yogi thought was, “Wow, this is really some hippie stuff.”
I actually cringe when I think back on my early thoughts and impressions. I didn't get it, I wasn't making my mind properly open to the lessons. I enjoyed the rest after a tough practice, but I definitely wasn’t buying into mindful meditation right away.
While it’s hard to embrace the spiritual side of yoga for skeptics, there are scientifically proven benefits to practicing mindful meditation. The scientific journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity published a study on how a meditation style called “mindfulness meditation” significantly reduced the levels of stress hormones in participants.
There are scientific benefits to meditation and positive thinking. These practices are part of the foundation of yoga.
The “spiritual” side of yoga can be as simple as meditating.
You don’t need any special equipment to meditate. It can be fun to light incense or do something fancy like that, but I’ll be honest, I typically don’t meditate with any bells and whistles. It’s still very calming, even if I do it in my living room.
When talking about the “spiritual” side of yoga, I don’t mean chanting hymns. If you want to do that, more power you, but the “spiritual” side could be as simple as trying to meditate or trying to set an intention in your practice. It doesn’t mean rushing out to the store and buying mala beads.
Practicing positive thinking alongside your yoga can go a long way.
Recently, in class, my teacher was doing her part to encourage everyone to push a little harder and hold the difficult poses a little bit longer.
It might sound like crazy “woo woo yogi” stuff, as I’ve jokingly heard it called, but embracing that spiritual side of yoga can really do wonders for your health. The science behind that fact is legitimate and well-proven.
The Harvard Gazette looked at a study where researchers used brain scans to see precisely how much impact mindful meditation was having on their participants. The research team’s goal was to see how mindfulness may change the brain itself. Essentially, that means if a mental process could elicit a physical response.
In the study, when comparing early scans to scans toward the end of the study, the research team picked up a visual change in the part of the brain known as the amygdala. The amygdala is best known for its role in fear processing, which is how this all relates to stress.
In the mindfulness study shared by The Harvard Gazette, the amygdala was significantly less activated after eight weeks of training in mindful meditation. That means the meditation was working; people were less stressed, even during their typical days and when they weren’t actively meditating.
Some people just don’t want the spiritual side of yoga — and that’s okay.
If someone is in it strictly for weight loss and only goes to hot yoga classes, that’s completely fine. If someone has strong religious beliefs or any reason at all to not touch any mild form of spirituality with a ten-foot pole, that’s completely fine. Some people have strong religious beliefs that may conflict with the spiritual side of yoga; that's fine too. We can all go to yoga classes for our own completely unique reasons and enjoy ourselves.
Whatever your reason for going to yoga is, it’s valid. If it works for you and makes you happy, well, your yoga practice is working for you.
I was very disinterested in spirituality when I first started. It wasn’t simple, melancholic disinterest in my case though; I had a lot of preconceived notions about mindfulness and spirituality that just weren’t accurate.
A spiritual yoga teacher can help you embrace meditation and positive thinking.
If you want to ease someone into trying it, try and get them to go to a class with the most relatable spiritual instructor you know.
Alternatively, if you’re entertaining the idea of trying meditation and positive thinking on your own, try a lot of different instructors. Some will be all about the workout, others will delve into more spiritual topics.
Some things will resonate with you and some won’t. Think about all the different instructors you learn from and think about the ones that have the most relatable thoughts and lessons. If you’re trying to recruit a skeptic, go to those instructors who initially come off as more down-to-earth.
First, challenge yourself to really open your mind and listen when people speak passionately about mindfulness and meditation.
If you are interested in the spiritual side of the practice, the first step is opening your mind and really listening to your teachers.
In reality, so many of the instructors who try to share meaningful principles that may sound a little unorthodox are actually very down-to-earth people. It’s hard to encourage people to change their ways and embrace different ways of thinking without sounding a little out there at times.
Plus, here’s the biggest thing; if someone isn’t open to learning or changing, they’re going to write off spiritual lessons as nonsense that doesn’t apply to them. I don’t say this to attack anyone or make them feel bad — I was like this at first. But eventually, I realized that I could learn a lot from yoga.
So many of the spiritual lessons in yoga are practical lessons about finding balance and being happier through day to day life. It isn’t a religion or something that would contradict with your religion.
Second, try meditation with them and then move up to guided meditation.
Guided meditations are an incredible way too get that extra bit of help to focus on something other than your daily thoughts. If you want to get really experimental, sound healings can be a lovely complement to meditation.
Let’s get back to the actionable items. I am, admittedly, still pretty bad at meditation. But I’ve tried to make the best of that. I’ve also tried to forge out my own personal approach to getting better at meditating. To get closer to quieting my thoughts successfully, I’ve used meditation to improve my writing. By thinking about the stories I’m working on, I can remove my thoughts from my day-to-day stress, and eventually, work up to proper meditation.
I’m not a very fast meditator, as you can guess. But you can do this too; you can channel your thoughts to something in your life that helps you exercise creativity or makes you calm down. From there, it’s easier to quiet those thoughts and ease into a meditative state. Ultimately, meditation is a personal activity. It’s worth it to figure out what works for you before you write yourself off as being unable to meditate.
Everyone needs to find the spiritual side of yoga on their own terms.
It might start slowly. It could start with something as simple as setting an intention during your practice. Though it’s incredibly painful, you can’t tell someone to sit or lay down on their mat and start meditating.
If they want to try that side of yoga, they need to make that decision for themselves.
Even though I honestly did think it was silly when I first started practicing, my mind changed very quickly once I started seeing the impact of mindfulness, meditation, and positive thinking at work. Those elements have become one of the key reasons why I practice yoga. It’s more than just for flexibility and exercise.
This is, essentially, how discovering the spiritual side needs to happen for everyone. You can gently encourage others to try it, but it’s a road people need to decide to walk for themselves.