Although yoga has become a hot new trend, particularly among celebrities, it is actually an ancient spiritual practice originating in India, and it has been used by Hindus for centuries as a way to gain insight into the nature of existence and gain spiritual experience. The link between yoga and spirituality has existed for thousands of years. The word yoga itself is derived from the Sanskrit word Yug which means union with the divine. Today in the west most people are familiar primarily with Hatha yoga which focuses mostly on exercise and postures. To true practitioners of Yoga this exclusive focus on the body while neglecting the mind is a waste of time and effort as the body is regarded as an impermanent object. To traditional Yoga devotees, the spiritual aspect of yoga is inextricably bound with the physical aspect; the two cannot be separated.
There are four basic yoga paths: Bhakti Yoga which is the path of devotion, Karma Yoga which is the path of selfless action, Jnana yoga which is the path of transcendental knowledge and Ashtanga Yoga which the path of Patanjali (eight step path) These four paths although different have the same objective which is to attain spiritual enlightenment through acts, meditation and movement.
There are some individuals in the west who claim yoga is not Hindu, but a universal tradition. They support their argument by pointing out that the yoga sutras do not reference the term Hindu, and that the Yoga sutras do not teach basic Hindu practices. This is untrue as the Yoga Sutras do in fact refer to Hindu and Vedic philosophy as is pointed out in related literature and traditional commentary. The Brihatyogi Yajnavalkya Smriti, an early yogic text describes in detail Vedic mantras and practices in tandem with the yogic practices of Asana and Pranayama.
There are others in the west who claim yoga is not a religion but this is also inaccurate. Yoga may not partake of religious dogma, nor do its teachers insist on its pupils converting to Hinduism, but it is still clearly a branch of the Hindu religion. The focus in traditional yoga has always been religious and spiritual, and it deals with matters of the soul, God and spirituality as all religions do. Its main focus has never been on fitness and health as many westerners seem to believe.
Yoga is not a practice exclusive to Hindus. Yoga and Buddhism are intimately connected. They follow many of the same principles and practices and use many of the same terms, as they both evolved in the same spiritual culture of Ancient India. To many in the west Yoga and Buddhism are interchangeable, and the differences are so minute as to be undetectable. Hindu-Buddhist teachings have existed for centuries, and Buddha himself was born a Hindu. It has even been argued by some scholars that Buddhism as religion apart from Hinduism did not evolve until after the death of Buddha.
The relationship between Buddhism and yoga can clearly be seen in the two main forms of Buddhism which are Mahayana, and Theravadin.The Mahayana tradition uses breathing exercises, deities and mantras as does the yogic tradition and the Theravadin although less similar to yoga also uses similar meditation and concentration methods. Unlike yoga however they reject devotional worship and the use of deities. Although there are certainly differences between Buddhism and Yoga the similarities are marked; their twin focus on spirituality and enlightenment, and the similar paths required to achieve that end are clearly derived from the same Hindu System.
Yoga and Buddhism both focus on meditation as a way to transcend karma and reach enlightenment. Both seek to alleviate suffering in man and animal and recognize the transience of life. Both also recognize that man has an ego, and the only way to truly become enlightened is to do away with it and recognize ourselves as part of the whole, not separate individuals. Both Yoga and Buddhism also recognize dharma as the basic law of the universe we all must come to understand if we are ever to become truly enlightened, and both philosophies share the same ethical values of non violence, truthfulness, and non attachment. Buddhist monks, Jain monks and yogic Monks all take the same vows.
Unfortunately but perhaps inevitably in the West Yoga has come to mean a way to exercise and get fit. The focus is primarily on the postures taught and not on the meditation side. There is nothing wrong with this per se, although it does diminish the aspect of yoga in its entirety, in order for yoga to be complete the two aspects should be taught in tandem. The problem lies in those who claim to be yoga teachers yet are unfamiliar with yogic meditation. How can a person claim to be a yoga teacher if they have not learned two of its key focuses; spirituality and meditation? The core of Yoga is its concentration on spiritual growth and perfection. If a person is not familiar with this aspect of yoga they cannot truly call themselves a yogi.
If a person is interested in pursuing yoga they should consider learning all of its aspects and not just focus on the physical benefits, although they are certainly of value too. The beauty of Yoga lies not just in what it can do for the body, but what it can do for the mind. Yoga is a way of life that can bring spiritual enlightenment and calm through meditation and movement. In today’s world of immediate gratification, where everything seems to be moving at light speed and spiritual growth has been pushed to the back burner, yoga can help individuals find peace, serenity and spiritual healing.