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.