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Spiritual Yoga for Beginners: An Essential Guide

An Introduction to Spiritual Yoga Philosophy & Practice

A Summary of Spiritual Yoga (Philosophy and Practice) in Under 500 Words

We spend our entire lives striving to be “at peace”—to permanently eliminate the anxiousness of feeling inadequate or incomplete. This basic background dis-ease that we feel manifests as some version of the sense that “I’m not yet enough” or “there’s something missing in me” or “I have to get rid of my inner inadequacies or “badness”, and then I will never feel compelled to strive for anything again. I will finally be “at peace”.

 

And we assume that our sense of feeling incomplete will permanently disappear once we’ve obtained whatever we think will secure our sense of self against the sense of being incomplete—whatever will give us permanent emotional, psychological, material, and/or social security (i.e., financial freedom, perfect mental health, the undying love/loyalty of a partner, fame or recognition, the new car or house or job or promotion or body, etc.). Adding “weight” to our individual self, we think, will make us invulnerable to unpredictable sources of discomfort. Then, we think, we will be finally “at peace”, finally “whole”/“complete”, and impervious to our own vulnerabilities (including challenges to our self-image).

But this desire to find permanent security actually reinforces the basic sense of incompleteness that we’re trying to eliminate. In other words, striving for permanent freedom from personal suffering might be the very thing keeping us from the sense of “fulfillment” that yoga is intended to help us realize. 

Yoga is not the destruction of the anxiety of inadequacy; yoga is not the destruction of invulnerability. Yoga is what remains once we’ve abandoned the quest to destroy our every inadequacy, an abandonment that occurs as a result of bearing witness to the incarnations of the impulse to self-transcend. And this results in becoming aware of the myriad ways in which our awareness is determined. In yoga, you realize your freedom as you become aware of the ways in which you are determined. This requires being able to remain with our unwanted thoughts and painful emotions (rather than unthinkingly avoid them). The practices of yoga just are variations of no longer fleeing yourself. 

What remains is a more direct experience—or awareness—of a self/world that is relatively less constrained by self-interest. What remains, in other words, is a direct awareness that we each are irrevocably embedded in structures of dependence that precede and exceed us—structures that will never allow us to self-exist. What remains, in yet other words, is a direct awareness of one’s “entire” self—self-awareness. (And in yoga, self-awareness is self-transcendence.)

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But this desire to find permanent security actually reinforces the basic sense of incompleteness that we’re trying to eliminate. In other words, striving for permanent freedom from personal suffering might be the very thing keeping us from the sense of “fulfillment” that yoga is intended to help us realize.

Spiritual Yoga For Beginners:
The Essential Guide

Introduction: How to Study Yoga

Learning yoga principles/concepts/topics requires learning the purpose of yoga. What is yoga actually about? What is the object of the study of yoga?

The first and most important part of studying yoga is understanding what you’re studying. If you don’t understand what you’re studying, you are unlikely to understand yoga philosophy/practice, and can even become more liable to reinforcing the very problem you were attempting to subvert. 

Yoga philosophy is the study of experience itself, the very thing in/as which you exist, the very thing that is always already happening, the very thing outside of which you could never position yourself, the very thing that doesn’t conform to your will, the very thing that contains all other things—which is the basis for all of your thinking, perceiving, behaving, feeling, your knowing, your identity, your will—the very horizons of your awareness (and its intervening space).

 

In other words, the object of the study of yoga is not some other time or place outside of the single tissue of experience. Or, if it is some other place/time, it is some “other” place/time within your innermost experience, within the single experiencing that you are always already having. The object of the study of yoga just is this, the single happening of experience, in/as which you happen to find yourself. A most basic description of our starting point is something like there is experiencing, or awareness just is happening or even appearing is happening, and this appearing is not subject to my will.

 

And so the yogin must turn to the very object of the teachings of yoga philosophy—experience itself—in order to understand what these teachings mean. The meaning of the words in these teachings are not reducible to the words themselves; instead, the words are indicating (something within/about) the very experience that you are always already having. The teachings of the philosophy of yoga endeavour to instantiate [something about] experiencing itself. And these teachings are endeavours in which you must participate in order to clearly see what they are trying to get you to see. As such, they require a different kind of paying attention.

 

To treat the teachings of yoga philosophy as a storehouse of facts or reasons, arguments or concepts, rules or practices (the memorization or ritual enactment of which will necessarily produce “enlightenment”) is misguided at best and, at worst, reproduces the very suffering from which you, the spiritual aspirant, are seeking freedom. As endeavours, these teachings are attempts to re-animate the living sense of direct encounters with experiencing itself. The yogin must turn to very object of these teachings—experience itself—in order to understand their meaning, asking, “how is this a description of the very experience I am always already having? How is this a description of the structure of my ‘subjective’ experience?” (Just the same, when these texts often make reference to historical figures/concepts/texts, one must turn to precisely these figures/concepts/texts in order to understand their role in the description at hand.)

 

The teachings of yoga philosophy often contain practices which function as preconditions for direct apprehension of their lessons about the nature of experience. The practices of yoga philosophy are not instructions for arriving at some other place outside of (or prior to) experience but are rather aimed at quieting automatic (pre-reflective) pre-occupation in order to allow for contact with the “depths” of experiencing itself (which are very much within the very singular experience you are already having—and all that it contains: other people, space, desire, thoughts, time, embodiment, things/objectivity, memory, language, freedom, etc.).

 

To do this—to describe the form of experience as it actually is, independent of our personal pre-occupation—these teachings often deployed new concepts and conceptual frameworks to express the unique nature of their contact with experience (e.g, prakṛti, guṇa, karma, advaita, atman, ahaṃkāra, bhakti, vairāgya, yoga, etc.). It is because their guide was experience itself that they allowed experience itself to guide how they presented it. In other words, they allowed the form of their expression to conform to their direct experiencing; they let experience say itself. Each philosophical/spiritual tradition deployed language in unfamiliar ways, inaugurating new ways of understanding—and demanding new ways of paying attention to—experience itself.

 

This unfamiliar deployment of language produced what is perhaps better described as a ‘poetics’ rather than as a ‘logic’ or ‘science’, something like a poetics of freedom: to know or to directly see the nature/way of yoga—to know the yoga of yoga or the yoga of the Absolute/Self—is an experience of affective insight, an insight that discloses itself in and as flesh—the flesh of the world.

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To treat the teachings of yoga philosophy as a storehouse of facts or reasons, arguments or concepts, rules or practices (the memorization or ritual enactment of which will necessarily produce “enlightenment”) is misguided at best and, at worst, reproduces the very suffering from which you are seeking freedom.

The Essential Guide to Spiritual Yoga
Part 1: Our Core Spiritual Problem

What is the Meaning or Purpose of Yoga?
What Problem is Solved by Spiritual Practice & Cultivating Spirituality?
And Why Yoga? What Benefits Does Yoga Philosophy & Practice Offer (Beyond Postures)?

Your (individual, independent) self craves a sense of wholeness/completeness/purity that would permanently eliminate its inner sense of lack, so it can (finally) be “at peace”, never compelled to strive for anything ever again. The separate self wants to rid itself of the feeling that “something is missing in me” or “I’m incomplete”. It is always searching for ground—something stable and permanent—upon which it can secure itself (e.g., money, status, fame—recognition); it wants to be wholly self-sufficient and impervious to any and all sense of insecurity/anxiety. It wants to be its own ground; it wants to be able to determine/control the forces—internal and external—that determine it. In short, it wants something it could never achieve.

The self seeks to resolve or complete itself by accumulating things in the “external” world (e.g., money, fame, love, etc.) that will give its own individual existence more weight, earn it more recognition, allow it to feel more real and less incomplete/lacking. There is a noticeable weight to the presence of a billionaire or an A-list celebrity; attention tends to gravitate towards them. It is this sense of weight (or real-ness) that the self pursues under the assumption that this increased weight will (permanently) eliminate its sense of emptiness. It seeks a sense of security in this weightiness.

 

Of course, we can never be our own ground, and our continued (inescapable) reliance on others (either on their direct recognition or their recognition inscribed in symbols like money) means that this pursuit—no matter how successful—will never satisfy the separate self: in fact, the self relies precisely on the opinions of others in order to no longer care about the opinions of others.

But we feel compelled to matter. This isn’t something we ‘learn’. Nor is it something we can ‘turn off’. Having the desire to matter in the world, to others—to have an existence that means something, as a ‘real’ thing whose will/presence has some weight—is a given.

 

What the self finds most troubling is that its reality—i.e., the extent to which it ‘matters’ and to which its existence/will has some weight—depends on the recognition of other people. To ‘matter’ in the real world means mattering to other people, and this means that the extent to which the self ‘matters’ depends on others and not on itself. Its existence depends on forces it could never control. It could never be ‘self-sufficient’ or ‘self-existing’. It cannot control who/what others choose to recognize. Its experience of its own sense of self rests on something it doesn’t—and could never—possess.

 

And so the self attempts to attain what it has learned will add some weight/reality to its own existence (e.g., fame, money, status, power, etc.). The self, in other words, uses these things to command others to acknowledge the weight of its existence. And the more it feels compelled to ‘matter’—that is, the more it needs the recognition of others—the more others become a tool for or a threat to its own mattering.

 

But the self cannot solve this problem by acquiring things that demand recognition because no amount of recognition will be enough to solve the problem. The self’s anxiety of inner lack is not caused by inner lack itself, but rather by the self’s craving for self-existence, by its craving to be self-existing—to be something/someone that doesn’t depend on forces beyond its control, including others and their will—by its refusal to tolerate its own (permanent and non-optional) lack of self-existence.

 

Instead of being able to sit with this inescapable dis-ease, it runs from itself as it looks to make itself matter more, become ‘more real’. As a result of this running from itself, it continues to deal with the suffering that accompanies its continued failure at filling itself up in/through the world. It becomes overprotective of itself, avoiding whatever reminds it of its vulnerabilities—people, places, situations, feelings, thoughts. It, in other words, becomes mired in self-preoccupation, trying to solidify its own ground, to accumulate a sense of wholeness for itself in order to eliminate the precariousness of its own existence.

The self’s craving to be more substantial only reinforces its lack; it can never achieve the substantiality it desires. The craving reinforces its sense of separateness. This separate self inherits and develops a range of habits to manage the discomfort of being incomplete. The relentless feeling of vulnerability motivates particular ways—self-interested ways—of being in the world, ways that keep us ‘stuck’ in identities/situations/habits that produce and re-produce suffering.

What is (spiritual) yoga? This first part describes the the problem that yoga solves. Solving this problem is the spiritual purpose of yoga (regardless of whether your quest is ending suffering or discovering the “truth”—in yoga, both quests lead you to the same place). This is the beginning of (spiritual) yoga.

what is spiritual yoga purpose of yoga
The self’s anxiety of inner lack is not caused by inner lack itself, but rather by the self’s craving for self-existence, by its craving to be self-existing—to be something/someone that doesn’t depend on forces beyond its control, including others and their will—by its refusal to tolerate its own (permanent and non-optional) lack of self-existence.

The Essential Guide to Spiritual Yoga
Part 2: The Yogic Solution

Why Practice Yoga?
What is the Meaning/Experience of Yoga Practice?
What “Solution” Does The Yogic Path Offer for the Anxiety of Inadequacy?

The practices of yoga are just variations of no longer fleeing yourself.

‘No longer fleeing yourself’ means simply sitting with your anxieties rather than reinforcing the habits you've inherited and developed in order to avoid your anxieties, and to avoid the people and situations that produce your anxiety. Being able to sit with your anxiety means that your life won’t be determined by your anxiety. Sitting with your anxiety means being able to sit with your unwanted thoughts, difficult emotions, and the (dizzying) anxiety of your freedom—i.e., the dizzying anxiety of the uncertainty of being undefined.

When we are unable to sit with our anxiety, our lives become narrower and narrower (as the list of things/people/situations that we need to avoid grows). When we are unable to sit with our anxiety, our bodies become more and more rigid, as there are more and more reasons for the body to tense up. And when we are unable to sit with our anxiety, we become more and more frustrated (as our avoidance habits produce and re-produce self-sabotaging behaviours). Feelings of isolation and meaninglessness become more commonplace, and this intensifies our desires/frustrations around acquiring whatever ‘next’ thing we think will “finally” make us feel “complete”.

No longer fleeing your anxiety is ultimately no longer fleeing the anxiety of inadequacy, fleeing from the feeling that “there's something wrong with me”, from the need to fill the/our ‘emptiness’ with stuff (because the silence is simply too loud), to fill up our sense of sense of self with what we think will make it more weighty/“real” (and which—we think—will necessarily command the recognition of others). Following our impulse to make ourselves more worthy of recognition—i.e., to fix an inherent sense of inner lack—just further solidifies (what is commonly referred to as) the “ego”, the solidity of which prevents us from pursuing our most meaningful projects without prohibitive levels of doubt and insecurity.

 

As the ego becomes more transparent, we are able to see—on a personal level—the various manifestations of our grasping for permanent ego security. In other words, we are able to see how the manifestations of my grasping is affecting me and my life. At the same time, however, we are able to see the nature of the ego’s “emptiness” (the very thing we were attempting to avoid): the ego doesn’t self-exist but instead remains irrevocably subject to physiological and social forces and could never be anything like “self-sufficient”.

Trying to combat our anxieties with techniques isn’t enough to reduce our suffering. Stress management techniques don’t address our core anxiety of inadequacy. Craving anxiety relief is still craving. And fighting with anxiety typically just results in more anxiety. And anxiety reduction—if it is the quest of an ego looking to further self-protect/elevate—only re-produces the suffering we were attempting to eliminate in the first place (if even only about sanitizing ourselves of our anxiety).

 

And so yoga practice just involves no longer fleeing yourself (a process that may or may not include āsana practice).

No Longer Fleeing Yourself:
“Freedom” in the Philosophy of Yoga

No longer fleeing ourself, we are able to see how our awareness is often pre-determined by our cravings/aversions. As we begin to see the various ways in which we are determined (both personally and structurally), we are able to recognize our freedom: there is something about “you” (as awareness, the “you” reading these words right now) that isn’t reducible to any of the things that determine it—society, culture, language, body, etc., and that could do something other than unthinkingly embody its hitherto habitual self. It is in bearing witness to the ways in which we are determined that we realize the part of ourselves that is essentially undefined. And this freedom, to the ego, is anxiety-producing, because being undefined or un-“real” or even “weightless” is precisely what it was attempting to avoid in the first place. The ego wants to be more substantial. And so, in this sense, anxiety cannot be disposed of because you will always be—essentially and irrevocably—a freedom.

 

But this freedom is always embedded. Indeed, there is something about “you”—as awareness, the awareness reading these words right now—that isn’t reducible to its determining factors, however “you”—the functioning member of society capable of reading and understanding these words—are precisely a product of determining factors. You—the functioning member of society—are the product of your pre-personal impulses/inclinations being translated into some specific, personal bodily-familial-social-historical-linguisitic context.

 

And so relief from the anxiety of your freedom just requires developing the capacity to sit with your anxiety (i.e., with your freedom, with yourself-as-subject). But because this freedom is always embedded in some determinate context, this requires developing the capacity to sit with the terms of your situation (i.e., with your determinacies, your particularities, with yourself-as-subject-to). Our impulse towards becoming independently in-finite prohibits the reconciliation of our particularities or determinacies with the demands of wholeness in a way that re-produces suffering. Reconciliation that minimizes suffering requires ego transparency, and ego transparency requires disposing of our inherent impulse to evade our particularities (in order to self-elevate, to seek (permanent) ego security, to become more substantial, to self [v.]) by sitting with it, by no longer fleeing it, by no longer fleeing yourself.

The process of becoming at home with ourselves releases us from the grip of our self-interested motivations. Our experience of the world (including others) becomes less centred around “me” and my personal will. And my motivations are transformed: forms of greed and aversion become less intense—I become more open and generous (often without even knowing it). And as I become less wrapped up in and by myself, I am less hindered by my deluded sense of the world (based on my self-importance), and I become more comfortable opening up to being actualized by the world’s possibilities rather than defending ourselves from a world that seems alien and impenetrable. Instead of keeping myself walled-off in contracted, restless, unpleasant self-isolation, I am more able to become an easy participant in the world, to reconcile myself with the world, and honour my natural inspirations—that is, participate in the world in way that encourages me—and my specific history and preferences/inclinations—to be more open, less determined by self-defence (including defending myself from my own past).

What is spiritual yoga practice? Yoga as a spiritual practice is becoming aware of your freedom as you become aware of your determinacies—which is called self-awareness in yoga. Self-awareness just is becoming aware of the various factors determining our awareness. Becoming aware of the various factors determining our existing ways of being allows us to (1) transcend the limitations imposed by the factors that are disposable, and (2) pursue the freedoms permitted by those factors that are ineliminable. Self-awareness is self-transcendence. But self-awareness is not available to those who habitually flee themselves.

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Trying to combat our anxieties with techniques isn’t enough to reduce our suffering. Stress management techniques don’t address our core anxiety of inadequacy. Craving anxiety relief is still craving. And fighting with anxiety typically just results in more anxiety. And anxiety reduction—if it is the quest of an ego looking to further self-protect/elevate—only re-produces the suffering we were attempting to eliminate in the first place (if even only about sanitizing ourselves of our anxiety).

The Essential Guide to Spiritual Yoga
Part 3: The Benefit of Spiritual Yoga

What are Yoga’s Spiritual Benefits?
What are the Benefits of Using Yoga Practice to Cultivate One’s Spirituality? 
What is the Result of Yoga Practice?

Self-interested motivations try to secure a vulnerable, wounded, individual self. These motivations further reinforce the individual self’s sense of separateness, which further removes it from experiencing the sense of wholeness that it craves. This is precisely because the wholeness it pursues is purely personal: it is my wholeness, what will make me in-finite, myself bulletproof, fill my wounded/empty heart.

But seeking personal wholeness is often no different than seeking personal immortality. The self doesn’t exist in a vacuum but in a world. Wholeness demands reconciliation, both of “inner” and “outer” othernessess. Wholeness is a reconciliation and is not the result of self-elevation or fixing the terms of one’s situation so that the existing (craving) self feels better. Any “reconciliation” admits the will of more than one thing (in this case, freedom and determinacies—puruṣa and prakṛti in the language of sāṃkhya yoga); wholeness is not the consequence of the world bending to “me” and my personal will, elevating me, making me feel great all of the time.

 

This is the irony of self-awareness, self-realization, self-acceptance, self-compassion, self-love, etc.: they are the result of releasing the self-interested motivations borne of our reaction to our inner lack (i.e., seeking a permanent sense of personal completeness in the world). This is “accomplished” only by being able to sit with the anxiety of being incomplete. In other words, these modes of “self-care” are not things that you “do”, but are rather the results of freeing ourselves from the limitations imposed by our habitual self’s desire for unlimited recognition and/or security. 

 

So, what is yoga? Yoga is what remains when we’ve abandoned the impossible quest for permanent personal wholeness/completeness/purity and when—unencumbered by toxic self-interest—we make contact with Reality itself: the singular Reality that does not conform to our individual will, the absolute Reality that gives me my will and of which me and my will are but an expression—the very flesh, so to speak, of the world. 

 

The yogin recognizes that it can never be “whole” or “complete” (on its own) but rather recognizes that it is always already a participant in wholeness that precedes and exceeds itself and its personal will. The yogin participates in wholeness. As a result, the yogin is less entrapped by its own desire—less trapped by itself.  The yogin feels more connected (but didn’t seek connectedness in order to fill its personal void). The yogin feels more open (but didn’t seek “openness” in order to remedy its sense of being “closed”). The yogin feels more authentic or “pure” (but didn’t seek “purity” in order to remedy its disgust with its body/mind/self). The yogin can become more aware of—and responsive to—its own inner habits, needs, motivations, standards. The yogin realizes how it itself is something like an expression of wholeness that had previously been attempting to make wholeness its own (and experienced suffering as a result). As a participant in wholeness, the yogin recognizes that I am better when everyone is better.

Furthermore, as we develop the capacity to sit with our inner sense of lack, we are given to the cultivation of such qualities as generosity, loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, emotional intelligence, resilience/adaptability, etc., while remaining “detached” from expected outcomes around the cultivation of these qualities. It is our capacity to sit with ourselves that allows for releasing self-interest and to seeing directly—to knowing or even “realizing”—our self (and all that this contains/entails), including the ways in which our attention is always already (and irremediably) wrapped up in our material existential situation (which are also our “self”).

 

To be sure, as a habit that runs deeper than any other habit, self-interest is not something that you will turn off once and for all; in fact, trying to accomplish this (getting rid of desire or of the ego) is precisely a manifestation of our original problem: the quest for permanent personal wholeness/completeness—this time by purifying oneself of self-interest. Instead, self-interest is released—gradually, more often than not—as we deepen our capacity to sit with the inadequacy that motivates the desire to become perfect/complete/whole/pure. In other words, we cannot dispose of self-interest, but we moderate it by no longer fleeing ourselves.

And so what is yoga? Again, yoga is what remains when we’ve abandoned the impossible quest for permanent personal wholeness/completeness/purity and when—unencumbered by toxic self-interest—we make contact with Reality itself. In other words, yoga is realized in becoming aware of the way(s) in which your awareness is always already determined. Or, stated differently, yoga is the self-transcendence that is self-awareness. Yoga is realizing just this, my whole Self, the Self of which I am a part. Yoga is is fulfilling the Self, being the Self, myself. Yoga—a spiritual approach to yoga—just is no longer fleeing yourself. 

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So, what is yoga? Yoga is what remains when we’ve abandoned the impossible quest for permanent personal wholeness/completeness/purity and when—unencumbered by toxic self-interest—we make contact with Reality itself... yoga is realized in becoming aware of the way(s) in which your awareness is always already determined. Or, stated differently, yoga is the self-transcendence that is self-awareness.

Frequently Asked Questions about Spirituality in Yoga (by Beginners & Advanced Practitioners of Yoga)

What is Spirituality in Yoga?

What is spirituality? The cultivation of one’s spirituality is just the cultivation of one’s sense of wholeness—of the realization of one’s “entire” self, so to speak. In yoga, this requires, first, the cultivation/realization of one’s freedom from limitations imposed by the habits of desire (and avoidance) produced by the quest for unconditioned ego security in whatever form it takes: financial freedom, perfect mental health (i.e., only pleasant emotions), unrivalled power/status/fame, full control of our personal world, and even—perhaps especially—enlightenment itself.

 

As we spend less time habitually and automatically avoiding our unwanted thoughts and painful emotions, we are able to bear witness to the ways in which our attention is pre-absorbed. And as we become more comfortable with our own inner life, we become aware of the very (non-optional) factors determining our attention, the realization of which is the realization of our freedom. In other words, yoga just is self-awareness; and in yoga, self-awareness is self-transcendence. 

And so if you are turning to spiritual yoga for the “spiritual growth”, you would do well to have some definition of “spiritual growth”: what do you think “spiritual growth” will be like or feel like? Sometimes our expectations around what constitutes “spiritual growth” becomes the primary impediment to the cultivation of our spirituality.

What is the Most Spiritual Type of Yoga?

In yoga, what you do is far less important than how you do it. Any yoga practice can be pursued in order to attempt to permanently eliminate our sense of being incomplete—to matter more, to command others’ recognition, etc.—will only reinforce the problem that our spirituality was attempting to solve.

 

Ultimately, the specifics of your spiritual path don’t matter. Regardless of your means for realizing yoga—regardless of the so-called type of yoga (haṭha yoga, jñāna yoga, bhakti yoga, karma yoga, etc.) or the specific practice (yogāsana [poses/postures], dhyāna [meditation], prāṇāyama [breath control], mantra, etc.), or the specific tradition/lineage in which you practice (kriyā yoga, kuṇḍaliṇī yoga, yin yoga, hot yoga, etc.), or the text you use to guide your practice (pradīpikā, yogasūtra, bhagavad gītā, etc.), or the philosophy underlying your practice (sāṃkhya, advaita, etc.), or even your religious practice/affiliation (Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Atheist, etc.)—regardless of any of these specifics—any yoga practice ensnared in the process osecuring one’s identity/ego and running from inner lack will only reinforce the very problem you are attempting to subvert

 

In yoga, wholeness is what remains when we abandon the quest to (1) fill up our sense of lack and/or (2) destroy the anxiety/fear/compulsions that this sense of lack produces. But this spiritual objective is not accomplished with willpower alone, which is why the traditions of yoga required practice—to free awareness from the old maps (or memories/habits/karmas) inscribed in the body (and the breath) that we developed an inherited in order to avoid our deepest anxiety.

 

This never stops being true—neither for the beginner, nor for the advanced practitioner—but rather is the in-disposable struggle that defines our lives, which is to say, it defines our spiritual journey (and you might think of the following things in terms of one’s relationship with this struggle: spiritual practice, spiritual growth or spiritual connectionspiritual health or spiritual wellness, etc.). As such, this guide to [spiritual] yoga is not only for the beginner but is for both beginners and advanced yogis, and everyone in between.

How Do I Start a Spiritual Yoga Practice?

To begin a [spiritual] yoga practice, you can begin wherever you are, with whatever you’re already doing. There is only one requirement for practicing [spiritual] yoga, and you always already have it: your attention; everything else is non-essential. As long as you remain aware of the “spirit” or “goal” of yoga—becoming free by realizing the ways in which you are always already determined or, stated differently, becoming independent by becoming aware of the ways in which you are irrevocably embedded in structures of dependence—the specific practice doesn’t matter. If your goal is “spiritual growth”, then you must define what “spiritual growth” means or, more specifically, what do you think “spiritual growth” will be/feel like? (And sometimes your conception of what constitutes “spiritual growth” becomes your primary obstacle.) There are no yoga classes that teach or specialize in “spiritual yoga”.

That said, it remains true that certain practices are more conducive to creating the conditions for the cultivation of one’s awareness, which is why these particular practices were central components of nearly all traditions of yoga: breath control [prāṇāyāma] and meditation [dhyāna].

 

A breath-control practice and/or a meditation practice are ideal places to start. The first “goal” is just to be able to notice the ways in which we are habitually and automatically taken in/up with our inner/outer world, including the ways that we habitually and automatically avoid the more challenging aspects of ourselves. The experience of relative “stillness” (sometimes likened to being in the “present moment”—which is the primary function of traditional forms of yoga meditation and breath-control—functions like a kind of abstention, allowing us to become directly aware of our habitual, instinctive self and the ways our awareness is always already being consumed by our inner/outer world—including by the habitual ways we habitually evade the discomfort of [the experience of] our deficiencies.

 

That said, no practice—meditation or otherwise—guarantees that one remains attuned to this “spirit” of yoga and to its spiritual “goal”, and if we begin to use meditation/breathwork practice—or yoga practice in general, of course—as a way of correcting, perfecting, or elevating ourselves rather than as a tool of self awareness, we, again, only reinforce the problem we were attempting to solve. This means that our meditation isn’t an attempt at “understanding”, especially if the “understanding” we seek is in order to some way to destroy our vulnerability.

A spiritual perspective on the “spirit” of meditation is available in our section of this guide on spiritual practice.

Beyond “Spiritual Yoga Poses”:
Spiritual Yoga Teachings in 60 Seconds

Further Reading on Spiritual Yoga

We have sections of this guide that further explore yoga philosophy and yoga practice, including a detailed guide exploring the purpose of meditation.

At balraj.yoga, this spiritual approach to yoga underlies everything we do. This isn’t a guide to [spiritual] yoga just for those beginning yoga, but is relevant for anyone practicing yoga. Futhermore, we do not consider spirituality to be an aspect/facet/side of yoga, but rather as synonymous with yoga itself. In other words, a guide to “spiritual yoga for beginners” just is a guide to yoga; “beginner yoga” just is yoga, and “spiritual” yoga just is yoga. Even though one’s sense of one’s self/world will change as one deepens their practice, a yogin remains a “beginner” in their approach; yoga begins and ends with no longer fleeing yourself. And because our emphasis is on classical/spiritual yoga, we do not have content about most topics commonly asked by people practicing yoga today, such as yoga poses/alignment or physical postures, flexibility, hatha yoga, yoga classes and yoga teacher training, so-called “spiritual” yoga poses, etc. We do not have articles available on yoga history (including on Patanjali), but recommend James Mallinson’s and Mark Singleton’s 2017 book, Roots of Yoga

The different “types” of traditional yoga (the most popular of which are karma yoga, bhakti yoga, jñāna yoga, and rāja yoga—but also others, including tantra yoga and haṭha yoga) all place emphasis on different moments of arriving at the “spiritual” conclusion that the cultivation of one’s sense of wholeness is the recognition that one exceeds oneself, so to speak, that your individual existence is not a self-contained one—it does not self-exist—but rather “belongs” to something that exceeds and precedes you (including, but not limited to, “consciousness” or God, or “spirit” or even “love”, etc.). Different spiritual traditions explain this something in different ways and have different ways of engaging with (or realizing) it. The result of this acknowledgement offers worldly benefits, including greater “inner peace”, better relationships, and a greater capacity for action and transforming one’s situation. (We discuss the nature of freedom/transformation more in the yoga practice section of this guide to spiritual yoga.)

For those looking to further explore the theme of “inner lack” (what is described above as our core spiritual problem), see the work of philosopher and Zen teacher, David R. Loy. Few have been able to articulate the basic problem of the suffering of “self” in phenomenological terms as clearly as Loy. His 2008 book, Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution (Wisdom Publications) is a concise introduction to his thinking (and is highly recommended). For those with some background in Continental philosophy and psychotherapy, consider his book, Lack & Transcendence: The Problem of Death and Life in Psychotherapy, Existentialism, and Buddhism (2018 [1996], Wisdom). For those looking to further explore the theme of “ontological security” (i.e., our desire to feel more “real”), see R.D. Liang’s 1960 book, The Divided Self.

For those looking to further explore how freedom is implicated in determinacy (and what this means for an ethics of openness), see philosopher John Russon’s 2017 article, ‘Freedom and Passivity: Attention, Work, and Language’. (We explore this theme further in our article on Prakṛti and Puruṣa in the philosophy section of this guide.) Russon’s highly-engaging and accessible philosophy is a rich exploration of phenomenology and existentialism and is highly recommended. John Russon’s YouTube Channel provides excellent companions (and introductions) to the dense (and rich) works of philosophy with which his scholarship engages (primarily phenomenology/existentialism, German Idealism, and ancient Greek philosophy).

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