One of the great debates that swirl around the practice of yoga is whether it is a religious (or spiritual) practice or whether it is only a physical exercise. The experience of millions demonstrates a resounding answer: "It depends!"
Yes, it all depends on a student's sensitivity and interest. Yoga (or, technically, yoga postures or its more official name, hatha yoga) can be just an exercise, or, it can be a practice that prepares one for meditation and inner, spiritual growth.
But even as exercise, its benefits are more than physical. The point of this article is not to list its benefits but to point out its deeper purpose.
First, it is useful to point out the bias inherent in the evolution of human consciousness. Think of the medieval times; think further in time to the industrial age; think further in time to the relative crudity of science, medicine, the short life span of humans, and our poor dietary habits. Note how in each of these areas of human life, we have become more aware and sensitive. (True, not each and every person on the planet but, we could say, "on average!" And certainly in respect to you, the reader!)
The bias I am referring to is that we have come from a long period of time in which our ancestors were, by and large, relatively insensitive and unaware, and relatively ignorant, of how nature and the human body functions. This could be called a materialistic bias: a bias in favor of the outward form of things rather than their inner and energetic realities (be they chemical, biological, atomic, electrical or in terms of emotions, feelings and consciousness).
Not surprisingly, then, the practice of hatha yoga, coming as it has, from India but also from centuries of relative obscurity, is wrapped in a physical orientation. Its popularity stems in part from its appeal to our physical bias which desires and values strength, health and vitality.
Would it surprise us that a closer examination of the history of yoga reveals its link to a higher, more sensitive and spiritual, point of view? Of course not! India, no less than any other culture on the planet, has also come up through this materialistic evolution returning to a higher awareness. The difference however is simply this: India, and the knowledge of yoga, retained, even if dimly, the memory that there once existed a time (and throughout all time existed at least some individuals) when the practice of yoga was an extension of and an outward expression of a very sublime and lofty spiritual view of reality.
When the first English translations of such works as the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Vedas, and the Yoga Sutras came to the West, scholars, philosophers, religionists, poets and artists were deeply inspired by their breadth and depth. More than mere love of wisdom (philos-ophy), these were revelations of reality greater and more subtle than psychology or logic or philosophical speculation.
A series of spiritual teachers came, one by one, to the West. Among them we find Swami Vivekananda (1893) and Paramhansa Yogananda (1920). Paramhansa Yogananda (1893-1952) was a world teacher. His primary emphasis was on original yoga: which is, in its essence, a spiritual practice and as such, was focused primarily upon meditation, not yoga postures.
Yet, to his male disciples in his Los Angeles ashram, he taught yoga postures. He had his "boys" demonstrate the postures at public gatherings and he had articles printed on their use and benefits in his magazines that were distributed to members and to the public during his lifetime.
But there are other teachers from India better known for their work in hatha yoga. Notables such as K. Patthabi Jois or B.K.S. Iyengar. Paramhansa Yogananda must have known that had he put greater emphasis on hatha yoga his essential mission to teach kriya yoga (a meditation technique and a spiritual path) would have been obscured by the public's greater interest in the yoga postures.
So whereas Jois and Iyengar were also deeply spiritual, their dharma was to make hatha yoga primary. But in their work, the popularity of hatha subsumed their spiritual emphasis.
Yogananda taught his disciples that hatha yoga was optional for kriyabans (practitioners of kriya). He noted that it was easier for younger people to practice hatha. Besides, it makes sense that for those who practice meditation to achieve Self-realization, time spent meditating is more precious than time spent doing yoga postures. In part for this reason, Yogananda had discovered and created a system of 39 exercises now called Energization Exercises that take about ten to twelve minutes to complete. These are sufficient preparation for meditation and can take the place of an asana (yoga posture) practice that, to be complete, might require forty-five to seventy-five minutes of precious time in the busy life of the twenty-first century.
Hatha yoga particularly emphasizes physical exertion and effort, even when seen as a spiritual preparation. Its origins are, however, specifically that: a spiritual preparation. This does not deny their value as exercise. Nor does it deny that exercise alone can be one's motivation for practicing them. Yogananda taught his students and disciples to "Keep the body fit for Self-realization!" He was not only himself an adept at yoga, but he taught their many physical and mental benefits to his "boys."
When I came to age in yoga, during the 70's, yoga was often noted as being "integral." This was a recognition of their power to integrate body, mind and spirit. It seemed to me that as yoga postures became increasingly popular, the emphasis given to them was downgraded in favor of health, good looks, fashion and fad.
In the late 70’s as Swami Kriyananda first purchased parcels of land that were later to become Ananda Village, his earnings from teaching yoga postures paid the bills and mortgages, especially before residents of the fledgling community began to chip in.
Swami Kriyananda taught classes in hatha yoga throughout northern California, principally Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area. Back then, hatha was new and a hot item, and there weren’t the yoga studios on every corner that we have now. And he, being a disciple of the well known author of "Autobiography of a Yogi," (Paramhansa Yogananda), and being himself an excellent teacher, found that his classes were well attended.
In those years, Swami Kriyananda combined his yoga classes with an optional addition of meditation classes. After the yoga class there would be a short snack break. Then the meditation and philosophy class would take place. It was during these early years of teaching yoga that he wrote his now classic text, ART AND SCIENCE OF RAJA YOGA.
So hatha yoga once again became a kind of orphan. Though always taught at Ananda's retreat center (later many such centers and communities), hatha was never front and center in the way that kriya yoga was (and is).
And yet, the practice of hatha yoga continued and continues to awaken students' interest in meditation and in kriya yoga!
Slowly and quietly through the 1980's, 1990's and into the new century, a few key Ananda members took the lead in developing what was to be called, "Ananda Yoga." While the term has since been copyrighted, the term is actually redundant! Ananda means "joy" and the state of yoga IS joy! But, well, why quibble as the general public doesn't know this and we needed a name for our style of yoga.
Paramhansa Yogananda never really explained his hatha system to anyone (that we know of). Nor have we ever seen any accounts of how and from whom he learned hatha yoga. He only lived 3.5 years after Swami Kriyananda’s arrival in 1948. One or two of the monks were, at first, better versed in hatha at the time but by the Master’s grace Swami Kriyananda quickly became the leading representative.
Presumably Yogananda taught Kriyananda many aspects of the postures but if so Swamiji never distinctly explained that to us. Yet, Swami Kriyananda found that when his guru would ask him to assume a specific (and difficult) pose before guests, he could do so effortlessly, even though he was not practiced in the pose.
A discerning yogi, reading Swami Kriyananda's books such as "Yoga Postures for Higher Awareness," and "Art and Science of Raja Yoga," discovers that Swamiji tuned in to many subtle aspects of both individual poses (pranayams, bandhas and mudras) AND into the system of hatha yoga. We simply don't really know the details!
Ananda Moyi Ma, a woman saint, however illiterate, and featured in Yogananda's life story (Autobiography of a Yogi), was known to assume yoga positions as a girl by virtue of energy (prana) in her body, without her conscious control. The yoga poses are said to have been formed in a much higher age (or higher state of consciousness) when certain highly advanced souls could, like the articulated sound of mantras (but instead using the human body), give physical shape to specific aspects of higher consciousness.
Thus we come at last in this article to my central point and thesis: hatha yoga, if practiced safely and with correct understanding, can stimulate states (attitudes) of consciousness because the body-mind-soul spectrum is a continuum (in either direction), and the human body, a hologram. Ananda Yoga is characterized by the use of specific and individual affirmations with each yoga pose. These affirmations are related to the consciousness from which the pose was created.
When, therefore, a yoga pose is practiced with the intention of attuning oneself to its characteristic consciousness (or attitude), the precision, the exactitude, and the perfection of the posture becomes less significant (though still valuable) because its inherent consciousness is latent and innate. Ananda Yoga can thus operate to awaken higher awareness in the normal range of body types and abilities for this very reason! It is truly for every-body!
Ananda Yoga classes remain focused on classic yoga postures. The affirmations are enjoyed by students for their obvious positiveness. Notwithstanding the gist of this article, our teachers don't preach. They practice! The awakening potential of hatha yoga is something that cannot be imposed upon another person. If it is to be awakened, it takes place individually, from within. If a student is primarily interested in health and well-being, then these benefits are there for him or her also.
Ananda Yoga is sometimes described as "spiritual yoga." This, too, however is redundant though not entirely unfair, given how hatha yoga is generally viewed and taught to the general public. We are essentially spiritual beings inhabiting a human form. Hatha Yoga can awaken us, individually, to that latent joy which is our true nature. Ananda Yoga is taught and practiced with this understanding at its core.
Joy and blessings to you!