I’ve been reading a great book recently called Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion. Okay, so it’s not a light read or a barrel of laughs but it is an incisive, illuminating and somewhat contentious examination of how the term spirituality has been used in the western marketplace.
What the book suggests is that instead of leading us beyond ourselves to realise our true identity (as Brahman, the Tao, Buddha-nature etc. etc.) where we are inter-connected with all beings, spirituality as it is sold in the western marketplace is a very self(with a small ‘s’)-orientated commodity that promises to make you a better you.
Yoga is by no means any different when it comes to this. Yoga promises everything from stress reduction, a better developed physique, increased focus, magical powers and eventually something called Enlightenment. All this has been fully co-opted by the materialist machine that offers it back to us at 3-for-1 and 70% off.
The promise of the western yoga ‘masters’ out there is that all this can be yours! You too can be a special, spiritual, all round nice and squeaky clean somebody (see Yoga Journal for good examples).
Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras (the philosophical text that most forms of practice claim as their foundation), on the other hand suggests that yoga is not something that can be bought or acquired. It is not about buying into a lifestyle that is an addition to self-image. Patanjali says (2.28), “By the practice of the limbs of yoga we remove obstructive impurities and in the process gain in-sight into the true nature of who we are” (or something to that effect).
Patanjali does not say that we need to become better people, like the pop image of pure and bendy yogis and yoginis. Rather he says, our true nature is already within us. We just need to peel away the layers that obscure our seeing it. Like a diamond caked in mud, the practice of yoga is designed to remove the outer layers of impurity, not to add more layers of a better sort of mud! It is not about becoming the idealised image of who we want to be but about discovering who we already really are.
Often the motive for practising yoga is ‘selfish’. It is all about I, me and mine (notice then tendency of yoga practitioners to talk about ‘my’ practise!) and instead of going beyond this little atomised separate self (itself conceptually the product of western capitalist societies) it is potentially being reinforced as we do our spiritual work.
In doing so we forget about the rest of the world and the fact that our privileged position in which we are able to pursue our spiritual development happens against a backdrop and is, some would argue, supported by a world of injustices and suffering…. as long as we do our 2 hours or whatever of yoga a day we can be content that somehow we are raising the planet’s vibration (or something like that).
I’m not suggesting here that there’s anything wrong with that. Everything in its place. There is, however, a potential for our yoga to go wider and deeper. The intention here is not to lay a guilt trip or deter anybody from spiritual practice. Rather it is an invitation for us to continually examine and inquire into our motives for practice. By bringing to awareness our unconscious and conditioned patterns, by continual internal self-inquiry, we may begin to move towards a form of yoga that places its emphasis less on the external form and discovers instead yoga’s deeper meanings.
Luke Jordan teaches Ashtanga Yoga around the world.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on Luke’s article. Do you approach your practice in a spiritual way? How do you feel about the idea of a true nature? How does this post resonate with your own experiences or reading? Feel free to comment below.