Yoga…inQUIRE! Yoga…inQUIRE!

Question from Jennifer:

I am doing a research paper on Peace Through Yoga and one of my reasons for suggesting yoga as path for achieving peace is that it can be practiced by anyone, of any faith. However, yoga is very much a spiritual practice and before recommending it to everyone I wanted to get an atheist perspective on the practice. I have read a few articles but none have fully answered my questions.

My main question, which may not be easily answered, is whether or not the benefits of yoga can truly be achieved by disregarding all spiritual aspects. I don’t know too very much about atheism so if you could also provide me some insight as to if you believe in any higher power than the individual self whatsoever, be it a collective conscientiousness or mind that would also be very helpful for me.

Thanks so much for your help!

Answer by SmartLX:
Likewise, I don’t know very much about yoga, but to answer your questions I don’t think I need to.

If you completely disregard the spiritual aspects of yoga, you are unlikely to benefit spiritually from it. If on the other hand you consider the spiritual aspects of it as you do it, without actually believing in the supernatural parts, you may very well benefit mentally as you do physically, in a way that could be called spiritual.

The chinese concept of chi (or ki or qi) is applied in quite practical ways to the martial arts of kung fu, tai chi and qi gong. Practitioners may visualise chi energy in and around their bodies, moving as they do, flowing and striking on command. There’s no evidence for the existence or any tangible physical effects of chi (which is a big problem for acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine), but to think this way while performing the movements makes them more satisfying, helps to maintain the precise forms of the techniques and creates a conducive, positive mental state.

There have got to be parallels between this and the Hindu-based spiritual aspects of yoga. Whatever spiritual effects are supposed to result from the physical practice of yoga, simply meditating on these for the duration will probably have measurable results on a person’s mental state, and eventually affect emotional wellbeing. Think of it as a mental aid to relaxation and stress release.

Moving on to the more general question, atheists usually don’t believe in any collective consciousness, because the existence of one would require a level of connection between individual minds that hasn’t yet been achieved. (A colony of ants or bees may behave as if it has a collective consciousness, hence the term “hive mind”, but this is just the outward impression given by thousands of insects following very simple instincts and communicating by scent or movement.)

There are however many entities which can be more powerful than a single human being, for example two human beings working as a plain old team. The more we co-operate, the more amazing things we can build and do. There’s also natural displays of power like earthquakes, tidal waves, evolution and continental drift, which can eclipse or destroy almost anything we build with the scale of their effects. Just because something is more powerful than you doesn’t mean it’s worth worshipping, or even cares if you do, so none of these serve as a substitute god.

P.S. The title is a Street Fighter II joke. I kept hearing Dhalsim in my head as I wrote this.

One thought on “Yoga…inQUIRE! Yoga…inQUIRE!”

  1. I’ve always viewed Yoga with skepticism. The asanas (body postures) seem to me to be open invitations to cramps and dislocations!

    Yoga itself as espoused by Patanjali was more of breathing and meditation – much like in Buddhism. What we consider nowadays as yoga (the exercises) is actually “Hatha Yoga”. The focus here is more on the body than on the mind. Hatha Yoga, if I am not mistaken, was aimed at the purification of the body and had little to do with the spiritual. So if you are focusing on peace thru Hatha Yoga, then you do not have to worry about the spiritual aspect too much. If Hatha Yoga works, it should work on all as it does not focus that much on the spiritual – more on the body and on the coordination of mind and body.

    Whether Hatha Yoga works or not is a question I have no answer to. I have had friends practice it and exclaim about how calm it has made them (the difference was not obvious to me). I’ve also had my mother in law try it on her own and get a slipped disc! My advise would be to tread with caution and do it only under the guidance of a good trainer.
    There seems to be some medical evidence that Hatha Yoga makes one calm and focused. A lot of doctors in India tend to scoff at it though.

    If you are focusing on the breathing and meditation aspects of yoga (the “original” yoga), even that could in some sense be beneficial to all irrespective of religious belief. Its pretty similar to Buddhist meditation and it does not involve too much spirituality – just a focus on the breath. I think Sam Harris espouses meditation without its religious and metaphysical underpinnings.

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