Yoga is a $16.8 billion industry in the United States alone. An estimated 36.7 million Americans participated in some form of yoga in 2016, but most likely the yoga they partook in doesn’t resemble yoga’s origins or spiritual roots at all.
Yoga is much more than downward dog poses, yoga pants and anything that appeared in box office flop, “The Love Guru.” It is a spiritual tradition that goes back thousands of years, and it’s one of the most important concepts to the Hindu faith.
Yoga’s root “yuj” means to unite. According to Nanette Spina, assistant professor of religion at the University of Georgia, the yoga most Westerners are familiar with is a category of yoga called hatha yoga.
“(Hatha yoga) can be taken out of its original context and be used for its mind body alignment,” Spina said, whose main research interest is the Hindu tradition in India, Sri Lanka and North America.
But this physical type of yoga is only a small aspect of yoga’s larger spiritual meaning and tradition. Yoga dates back to the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu holy text thought to be written by 300 BCE, and it includes three different types of yoga: Bhakti, Jnana and Karma.
All three are paths to achieve moksha (release from the cycle of reincarnation), which is the ultimate goal for Hindus. It’s effectively three different methods to the same goal, which is a higher form of life.
“We’re using yoga and path interchangeably,” Spina said. “They’re both modes or means or practices. It’s not just a belief — it’s a practice.”
Bhakti yoga is the path of devotion, and it typically involves lots of meditation, prayer and worship to fully dedicate one’s self to God. Slowly, the devotee loses self-identity and merges with God to achieve moksha.
Jnana yoga is the path of self transcending knowledge, and its the process of converting intellectual knowledge into practical wisdom so one can see the difference between the immortal soul and the body. This is done through meditation, philosophy and self-realization.
Karma yoga is the path of selfless action. It’s where the colloquial concept of karma comes from, where good is rewarded and bad is punished. Spina described Mahatma Gandhi as the spitting image of karma yoga.
“It’s the idea that one can reach union with the divine through our responsibilities to each other and the divine,” Spina said, “like Gandhi (does through) service.
All three of these types of yoga are almost nonexistent in most yoga studios around the Unites States. The physical aspects have grown, overshadowed and replaced the spiritual history. Spina has her own theory on how Western yoga came to be.
“One of the reasons maybe in presenting these practices to Westerners, some schools of yoga thought it would be more universal or even inclusive if they reduce the amount of Hindu cultural associations,” Spina said. “Other schools of yoga in the U.S. do not do that. They explain more about the original context, but it depends on the school.”
In Athens, most of the yoga studios offer overtly secular classes. However, some individual yoga instructors focus on the spiritual aspects more than others.
“I have to be very careful because I do use it as a portal into a much greater reality,” Burke, who also attends Catholic mass, said. “Instead of using the word God, which gets a little slippery, I use the word mystery. It leaves it up to whatever that means to you.”
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The Sangha Yoga Studio is where she instructs her hatha yoga classes. She said sangha basically means “your spirituals peeps.”
“Because I want the studio to appeal to everyone, I’m really the only one that has a more spiritual slant,” Burke said. Pretty much every other class here is different — a little more body based.”
Hatha yoga is a very effective form of exercise, but Spina said the health and physical benefits of yoga are merely side effects, not the main purpose of Hindi yoga.
“The side effects of yoga are stress reduction, focus, regulating breathing and stretching,” Spina said. “Some will say that’s enough benefit to do it.”
It’s uncertain whether many of those 36.7 million yoga participates are attempting to reach moksha, but regardless of religious faith, there are many people, such as Burke, who still use hatha yoga to get closer to God in their own way.
“I just think it’s a portal into a greater inquiry,” Burke said, “but if you just want to use it to lengthen your hamstrings, that’s cool.”