spiritual yoga practice for beginners:
the spirituality & foundations of yoga in practice
The Purpose of Yoga Practice
Yoga Beyond Poses: A Spiritual Approach to Yoga Practice
Ultimately, yoga just is no longer fleeing yourself.
At the root of yoga practice is the cultivation of inner stability. This means being able to sit with uncomfortable aspects of our inner life. We sit with them rather than run from them, because running from them means that they are in control. In sitting with them instead of running from—or trying to destroy—them, we eventually experience ourselves and the world in a way that is relatively free of our own self-interest, and thus free from the various rigidities involved in self-protection.
But the primary purpose of yoga in practice is, strictly speaking, not to produce anything—such as more relaxation or more “consciousness”—nor is it to get rid of anything—such as painful emotions, unwanted thoughts, and even desire. The experience of desire is not really optional, and if I find myself compelled to get rid of my desire, this desire (to get rid of desire) only confirms the very thing I am trying to subvert.
Furthermore, if I try to get rid of my desire (or my shame or my lack of status), I remain ensnared in a the dualism of desire/desirelessness and, as a result, I become hypersensitive to my desires (or shame or lack of status) and hypercritical of myself for having them. In other words, I become further entrenched in the trap of running from myself towards something that I think will grant permanent security to my identity, further entrenched in self-obsession. I become further entrenched in trying to self-elevate in order to deal with the pain of inadequacy/insecurity, defining reality in terms of my own needs, seeing the world in terms of its relevance/irrelevance for my own projects (including my primary project of eliminating my inner lack). Engaged in this impossible task (and treating both others and the world instrumentally), I suffer; I neither live nor feel well. In yoga, the cultivation of inner stability is simultaneously the cultivation a kind of selflessness. (To learn more about selflessness and its importance for yoga, visit our section on yoga philosophy.)
And so the specifics of your spiritual path in yoga—i.e., the specific way you practice yoga (e.g., postures, breath control, basic meditation such as mantra meditation or mindfulness practices, etc.)—doesn’t matter as much as the commitment to cultivating the capacity to simply noticing and sitting with your inner life (including your desires/impulses) rather than trying to fix/eliminate (or even “transcend”) them. This is simple, but not easy—if only because the ego is quite capable of trying to fix or eliminate ourselves in indirect ways. In a so-called spiritual approach to yoga practice, it is this impulse—to fix/eliminate or be somewhere or something else—that must remain on your radar (while, of course, not trying to fix/eliminate it).
But this is only the “beginning” of yoga practice. Inner stability will divest your experience of self-interest and your memory/habit (or karma), and will create the conditions for the realizations that are, ultimately, the purpose of yoga practice. In fact, almost everything we associate with yoga practice—such as dhyāna [meditation], prāṇāyāma [breath control], yogāsana [postures], etc.—are actually somewhat preparatory.
That said, benefits of these yoga practices abound, and these yoga practices often make the process changing your life/self much easier: it is easier to change your habits from a place or space of focused, stable awareness than from a place of reactive avoidance. We explore what this looks like in our section on yoga lifestyle & yoga for freedom, personal growth, and success. We also offer content about the philosophical foundations of yoga. These are all part of our guide on yoga spirituality.
Videos on yoga in practice and articles about yoga in practice (beyond everything commonly associated with yoga practice(s), such as yoga poses, physical exercise, reducing stress, how to “find balance”, daily yoga routines, etc.) can be found below. We also answer frequently-asked questions about yoga in practice below.
...if I try to get rid of my desire (or my shame or my lack of status), I remain ensnared in a the dualism of desire/desirelessness and, as a result, I become hypersensitive to my desires (or shame or lack of status) and hypercritical of myself for having them. In other words, I become further entrenched in the trap of running from myself towards something that I think will grant permanent security to my identity, further entrenched in self-obsession.
Frequently Asked Questions about Spiritual Practice in Yoga
Why is Yoga called a Practice? What is Yoga in Practice?
Throughout the history of yoga, the word “yoga” has referred to both a practice and a process—as in, “I practice yoga”—and as an outcome or result—as in, “I have realized/achieved yoga”. Either way, the goal was relief from suffering.
Relief from suffering required discerning the ways in which our attention was always already pre-occupied—how our awareness is subject to a materiality that is neither optional nor subject to our will. (We are unable to discern—and thus yoked to—our attention from the unending flow of inner/outer appearances.) In this discernment, our attention would no longer be possessed; we could no longer be yoked to particular habits of thinking, feeling, behaving, perceiving, etc.—particularly those motivated by the desire to self-exist, to make ourselves more “real”, to have our individual existence carry more weight in the world, to matter more (by trying to do more, be more, and/or have more... including “consciousness” or “enlightenment” or “prāṇa/breath/life”).
No longer habitually absorbed in our own inner/outer world, we could re-possess our attention. We could bear witness to the world divested of our self-interest, and notice—among other things—the radical and ungrounded dependence of our individual existence and the nature of its impossible (and relentless) quest to ground itself—indeed, like an ocean wave trying to become its own permanent self-same entity—by, again, trying to matter more, by way of having more, doing more, being more (and, in some instances, even giving more).
So why, then, is yoga called a “practice”?
Teachers refer to yoga as a “practice” because striving to achieve some outcome would only reinforce the problem that yoga was intended to solve, and striving for enlightenment is no different if we are striving to rid ourselves of our sense of inner lack. In fact, the pursuit of yoga (as a result/outcome) as the pursuit of invulnerability/perfection (including in the guise of becoming enlightened, of acquiring one/more of yoga’s benefits, and/or some version of acquiring more “consciousness” or even “prāṇa/breath/life”) can lead us to weaponize our spiritual practice.
Yoga is also called a “practice” because there is no “end” to it. You—the person reading this right now—are (and will always be) simultaneously (1) a historical-material being required to live out the (endless flow of) needs of your (changing) determinate situation (that is not subject to your will) and (2) an awareness/consciousness that is not reducible to your materiality. In this context, practicing yoga—as the practice of noticing how your awareness is always already pre-wrapped-up—is indisposable.
Yoga in practice: just as it is somewhat strange that “yoga” and “spiritual yoga” are distinguished, it is also somewhat strange that “yoga” and “yoga practice” are distinguished. And so even though yoga is always a “practice”, we will nonetheless sometimes refer to yoga practice as yoga in practice. The phrase, yoga in practice perhaps better captures the idea that one’s individual practices are expressions of the spirit of yoga.