Is Yoga ‘Spiritual’?

I was recently interviewed by a journalist for a magazine and was asked the question ‘Is yoga a spiritual activity?’ I thought this was an interesting question. As a yoga and meditation teacher I often come across the word ‘spiritual’. People I meet may think of me as someone who is spiritual, particularly as I have a Buddhist name.

Spiritual may mean different things to different people so, to begin with, we need to clarify what is actually meant by the term ‘spiritual’. The dictionary defines it as ‘relating to or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things,’ which I think may be helpful. It alludes to transcendence, moving beyond the mundane and material world, to something or someone concerned with higher matters. Personally I am not very keen on the word spiritual, as I feel it encourages a potential tendency for aloofness, seeing spiritual practice as escape, cut off from our lived experience and engagement with the everyday world. Sometimes this tendency can lead to a desire to repress aspects of ourselves such as our sexuality and our relationship to our bodies. I think the late Jungian psychologist James Hillman captures this well when he says “The Spiritual point of view always posits itself as superior, and operates particularly well in a fantasy of transcendence among ultimates and absolutes.” This Spiritual view can express itself with ideas like drinking a pint of beer down the pub or enjoying fish and chips for your supper are not very ‘spiritual’ activities, whereas going on retreat, meditating and practicing yoga are somehow higher or more spiritual activities. A view like this, I feel, has an aspect of Spiritual arrogance and is not very helpful, as it can potentially lead to a cutting off from the ordinariness of human life.

Hillman draws out a counter-balance to this aspect of Spirit or Spiritual. He calls this Soul. He sees Spirit as concerned with transcendence, to move beyond, to distance oneself, the realm of ideas, clarity, masculinity. Soul in Hillman’s sense is not used in the way we sometimes think of it, as an eternal part of us that will be liberated from the body after death. Soul in this sense is not a thing but a quality: dark, mysterious, moist, associated with the earth, the body, imagination and the feminine. Soul by its very nature is relational and is very much about being in the world.

I believe that spiritual traditions can have, by their very nature, a view of transcendence. As someone who has spent the last 20 years exploring Buddhism, this has been my own personal experience. For me, I have found a healthy balance is needed between these two qualities of Soul and Spirit. We all need spirit in our lives to enable us to see beyond the horizon, a glimpse of something bigger than ourselves, but we also need soul, to remind us of our bodies and the earth beneath our feet. I think during my first 10 years of practicing Buddhism I had a view that I wanted to transcend the world in some way, partly because my experience of being in the world and my own inner life were at times painful or difficult. Now I feel rather than trying to transcend the world I am more interested in making my way through it.

I am reminded of the words by the American poet Wallace Stephens:

“The way through the world is more difficult to find than the way beyond it.”