Yoga sure has changed over the past 3,000 years. Now Instagrammers show off their bendiest Dancer’s pose captioned with myriad hashtags; Facebook ads push 21-day yoga shred programs; and yoga studios often feature yoga sculpt classes.
These days, most Westerners practice yoga for the physical benefits — to achieve lean, strong, flexible, enviable bodies. But if your sole purpose for taking a yoga class is to get ripped, then you’re missing out on benefits that go far beyond a six-pack.
While most yogis are aware of yoga’s spiritual roots, many have divorced themselves from that vital part of the practice. Sure, yoga offers a number of physical benefits. But it's important to acknowledge that yoga is a holistic package that not only transforms the practitioner physically, but also unites the body, mind and spirit.
Getting Back to the Roots of Yoga
Yoga is an incredibly old spiritual practice that has only recently evolved to emphasize the physical practice. And even today, most of the world still holds to the more spiritual roots of yoga.
If you note the four most popular yoga styles around the world (Karma, Bhakti, Jnana and Raja), you’ll notice they’re much more spiritual than physical. In the United States, by contrast, the most notable styles (Hatha, Bikram and Vinyasa) are more fitness-oriented and weren’t established until much later in the yoga timeline.
While the exact roots of yoga are uncertain, its development centers largely on the spiritual. Take this yoga timeline as evidence. The earliest written records of yoga’s origins take place approximately 1500 B.C. to 500 B.C., and the evolution of yoga can be divided into four periods:
- Vedic Yoga introduced the spiritual paths for humanity to unlock all the laws of the universe. Mantras are used to reflect the pattern of these laws and transform the mind.
- Pre-Classical Yoga encompassed two yoga disciplines: Karma (the path of action) and Jnana (the path of knowledge). These practices, along with texts like the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, taught yogis the unity of everything and how to practice meditation.
- Classical Yoga was the age of Raja yoga. The father of yoga, Patanjali, created The Yoga Sutras, which were organized into an “eight-limbed path” to enlightenment.
- Post-Classical Yoga focused on the body and physical benefits of yoga. Yogis began to teach and practice asanas (poses) with the intention of healing and energizing the body. This led to the creation of Hatha yoga.
- Modern Yoga brought yoga to the West, which led to the evolution of the many different modern yoga styles, such as Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Kundalini, Bikram and Yin.
"True yoga is not about the shape of your body, but the shape of your life." —Aadil Palkhivala, master yoga teacher
Finding the True Purpose of Yoga
Yoga has suffered from the spiritual poverty in Western culture. The essence of yoga has been washed away by the desire to be as fit and bendy as the yoga model on Instagram or in magazines, which detracts from the true purpose of yoga.
Here are words of wisdom about the true purpose of yoga, written by some of the masters of the practice:
“The true purpose of yoga is to discover that aspect of your being that can never be lost…. Your thoughts, beliefs, expectations, goals and experiences may come and go, but the one who is having the experiences — the experiencer — remains.”
—Deepak Chopra, “The Seven Spiritual Laws of Yoga”
“Yoga allows you to rediscover a sense of wholeness in your life, where you do not feel like you are constantly trying to fit broken pieces together.”
—B.K.S. Iyengar, founder of Iyengar Yoga, “Light on Life”
“The traditional purpose of yoga, however, has always been to bring about a profound transformation in the person through the transcendence of the ego.”
—George Feuerstein, German yogi Indologist, “The Deeper Dimension of Yoga: Theory and Practice”
“True yoga is not about the shape of your body, but the shape of your life. Yoga is not to be performed; yoga is to be lived. Yoga doesn’t care about what you have been; yoga cares about the person you are becoming.”
—Aadil Palkhivala, master yoga teacher
“[Yoga is] the progressive quieting of the fluctuations of the mind.” —Patanjali, the father of yoga, The Yoga Sutras
So What Changes Can You Realistically Expect?
Though yoga is strongly tied to Hinduism, many practitioners claim yoga is not a religious practice. Yoga is a holistic practice to balance and connect the mind, body and spirit. When practicing yoga, practitioners are likely to see physical, mental and spiritual changes.
1. Physical Changes
Yoga might not get you ripped, but it provides a host of physical benefits (which, yes, may include a more toned physique). From shaping your body to healing pain and injury, studies back up how yoga can aid your body and health, including improving flexibility, strength, balance, cardiovascular health, blood flow, metabolism, energy, posture, immunity, weight loss and bone density.
- Researchers at the University of California, Davis found that eight weeks of regular Hatha yoga elicited improvements in overall body strength, muscular endurance, flexibility and maximal oxygen uptake.
- A study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology found that yoga improves cardiometabolic health because it improved the health outcomes of those with cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome risk.
- A study by Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine found that yoga improved vital capacity of athletic performance.
- And Psychosomatic Medicine published a study in 2011 that found yoga reduces stress and inflammation in the body.
2. Mental Changes
With regular yoga practice, you may notice increased inner strength, improved body awareness, relief from anxiety and stress, sharpened focus, a calmer mind and a better mood. But how can holding a pose like Downward-Facing Dog give rise to these mental shifts?
- Several studies prove that holding a yoga pose and breathing deeply allows the body to shift from a state of tension to a state of calm. Poses lower the brain’s response to threat as the body turns off arousing nerve chemicals.
- Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice International Journal published a study in 2016 that found yoga is a great alternative method of medical therapy to treat depression, stress and anxiety disorders.
- The American Psychological Association published a study that found yoga increases concentration in adults and children.
- The Asian Journal of Psychiatry found that yoga can lead to significant improvements in psychiatric and mood disorders by changing the underlying neurological and biological mechanisms. Their findings led them to recommend mental-health professionals use yoga either as a supplement to modern treatments or as sole treatment in some disorders.
3. Spiritual Changes
Yoga has the power to lift your spirits, help you experience joy, gain clarity on your purpose, become grounded and connect with your true self.
And while science hasn’t found a way to quantify these changes yet, just ask some yogis how they feel after their daily practice. Chances are they’ll respond that they feel refreshed, reinvigorated and reconnected to themselves, those around them and the universe as a whole.