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Walk past almost any gym that offers group fitness classes, and there will probably be a sign advertising yoga classes. Browse through stress relief blogs, and there will almost certainly be a series of images that feature people either in various yoga positions or meditating. Look through the internet for information on increasing energy levels, and there are likely to be a list of suggested yoga positions to refresh and energize those that practice them. Yoga, it seems like, is everywhere. 

Yoga has absolutely exploded in the West. Yoga studios pop up across cities like particularly Zen dandelions. People compete to see who can hold the most complicated pose for the longest. Social media sites such as Instagram and Pinterest are covered in images of people doing yoga on the beach or in front of beautiful sunsets. Yoga in many ways seems like any other fitness craze at first. Those who begin to dig into it, however, quickly find that yoga is couched in a great deal of spiritual language. Even yoga classes at gyms that are meant as exercise often have a religious feel to them. Does that mean yoga is a spiritual practice by nature?

Yoga originated in ancient India as a form of religious practice that later went on to become its own theological school. It is considered to be one of the six major orthodox schools of Hinduism, a strange concept on its own given that Hinduism is far more varied by nature than any of the other major world religions. Yoga as a Hindu theological school is seen as a form of mysticism, but it has the same goals as any school or tradition in Hinduism. Yogis, or yoga practitioners, aim to obtain moksha or liberation from the suffering of samsara, the cycle of birth, death and rebirth that is at the center of Hinduism. 

Many traditions practice some form of yoga, but the goal is always to achieve moksha. The so called orthodox school of Yoga argues that a living being is made up of a consciousness and of matter. These are then subdivided into senses, feelings, activities and elements that make up a human being. In Yoga, some of these elements overwhelm the others. When this happens, a person is trapped in bondage. Yoga helps balance out those elements. When balance is restored, a person achieves moksha and will not be reborn into the suffering of samsara after they die. Other schools of yoga see a person achieving moksha in different ways. Kundalini yoga in Shaivism, for example, is an attempt to awaken Kundalini, a form of primal energy located at the base of the spine. Kundalini is awakened by deep meditation and is said to result in a feeling of enlightenment and bliss that comes along with a feeling of electricity running up and down a person’s spine. Yoga is then used to direct Kundalini, which is often depicted as a snake, up the body through the various chakras to the crown of the head where the Kundalini can either escape to the sun or unite with Shiva depending on the tradition.

Kundalini yoga has been growing in popularity in the West, but it is unlikely that most practitioners are aware of the deep religious significance the practice originally carried. The same is true of more traditional Western yoga. 

Yoga in the West usually downplays the religious elements of yoga. The spiritual language and feeling is not removed entirely, but the explicit references to Hinduism have been removed in order to make it possible for people of any religion to take part in yoga classes. As such, yoga has flourished across religious, ethnic and generational lines. 

In addition to deliberately removing many of the religious references from yoga, the actual practice of yoga as it is carried out in the West looks very different from most Indian traditions. Yoga in India is more focused on the breathing, meditative and other spiritual elements. Yoga in the West focuses almost solely on the various poses or asanas. These are an important part of the branch of yoga known as Hatha Yoga in India. The asanas, while a defining part of Hatha Yoga, are only a small part of the greater religious practice.

Given how many of the religious elements have been deliberately removed from the Western version of yoga, it is safe to say that Western “yoga” bears very little resemblance to Indian yoga. One focuses primarily on physical exercise while the other is more concerned with helping the soul escape from samsara. The focus on the physical in the West in many ways gives it more flexibility and attracts a greater and more diverse crowd. This means that people from all walks of life can enjoy the benefits of yoga without feeling like they are compromising their own religions. As such, yoga can be used as a spiritual practice that is disconnected from the faith in which it originated. How much religion or spirituality a person wants to put back into their yoga practice really does simply depend on the individual in the West. There is no doubt, however, that yoga was originally meant to be a form of spiritual practice far beyond what many Western “yogis” experience today.