Through yoga, I first had exposure to the Eastern traditions of spirituality. At the time though, I didn't think of it as spiritual. I was looking for a form of exercise that didn't involve lifting heavy weights or spending hours on a treadmill. I think that's how a lot of Westerners come to yoga. We find it at our health clubs, gyms, or on videos that allow us to exercise at home. It sneaks in, but soon, if we are lucky enough to have a good teacher, the precepts can sneak in too. Yogic philosophy becomes integrated into our outlook on life. The postures become not just exercise, but life teachers. We manifest their qualities in our day-to-day life. We know to hold strong with the power of the mountain, or bend with the arch of the Moon.
Though we first associate yoga with a form of exercise, and in alternative health, look to it for its therapeutic value because it helps with the mind-body-spirit connection so integral to true healing, yoga is really an Eastern science that leads us to harmony and connection with the divine source. Yoga is not a religion, but a philosophy. The word yoga is usually translated as "union," referring to union with the source of all things, the divine creator. There are many forms of yoga, and not all of them involve the typical physical movements that Westerners associate with yoga.
What most think of as traditional yoga is usually a form of Hatha yoga, a tradition of using breath and physical postures to bring union. Mantra yoga is the use of specific chants, repeated silently or out loud, to induce union. The little-known Karma yoga achieves this union through action. You find your divine connection through service in daily life. Your everyday actions become your yogic practice. In truth, any practice that encourages union with the divine can be thought of as yoga, though the Hindu traditions have very specific names and practices.
In terms of encouraging health on all levels of being—from the physical to the mental, emotional, and spiritual, traditional yoga postures and exercises are of great benefit to everybody. Modern spiritual disciplines encourage their practitioners to find forms of spiritually-based practices that align the body to the spirit. Even most traditions of modern ceremonial magick, a very intellectually-based tradition, have encouraged practitioners to learn various forms of yoga.
An excellent text on practicing yoga, for the beginner as well as one with a more metaphysical slant, is The Beauty of Yoga by Jacine Harrington. What I really liked about this book is the personal touch that Jacine Harrington gives it, as well as weaving together the basics to begin your yogic practice, culminating in the classic Sun Salutation. The subsequent chapters go chakra by chakra, using poses connected with each of the seven major energy centers. The flow of poses and material is great, for those of us with both an intuitive and logical mindset. The third part contains more esoteric information on the seven chakras for those who seek to go deeper into the metaphysical wisdom of the seven power centers.
She teaches a simple, easy yogic breath technique known as Alternate Nostril Breathing, or Anuloma Violoma. It cleanses you mentally and physically, and can be done by most people, regardless of their flexibility or muscle tone.
In a slightly different vein, moving from the traditional yoga form, we have the highly practical 100 Days to Better Health, Good Sex & Long Life: A guide to Taoist Yoga & Chi Kung by Eric Steven Yudelove. The program is a concise guide to a variety of exercises that will improve overall health, explained in a clear, concise and easy-to-follow manner. The illustrations are great, and make it even clearer to the reader. One of my favorite exercises, from week three, is Getting the Tear Out and Growing the Positive Energy on page 80.
Getting the Tear Out is only one of many different exercises over the course of the year. Others include Self Rejuvenation Massage, The Muscle-Tendon Change Classic, Protecting the Aura, Spinal Cord Breathing, and Sexual Kung Fu.
For a deeper understanding of the spiritual philosophies of yoga, and how to integrate them into your life, no matter your tradition, I suggest Yoga: The Ultimate Spiritual Path by Swami Rajarshi Muni. This easy-to-understand text outlines many of the spiritual truths of yoga.
Yoga: the Ultimate Spiritual Path outlines the five yamas, or five restraints, including:
Also explained are the five niyamas:
The author gives advice on how to practice both the yamas and niyamas in daily life. There's a lot of esoteric wisdom being applied to every day life in this book.
When making yoga a part of your life, you can take your practice as deep into your life as you desire. Many practice yoga once a week at the local gym. Others make it a daily practice, as both a form of physical exercise and meditation. You can learn to integrate the concepts of yogic philosophy, Hinduism, and Taoism into your every day life. Some alter their diet, sleeping patterns, and daily regiments to bring the principles of yogic healing into their life. If yoga calls you, balance its practice with what is practical in your life. Only you can decide what is right for you.