On practicing yoga and performing spirituality

I recently attended a training with a yoga teacher who, over the course of our 4 days together, revealed that she doesn’t chant om with her classes, nor does she use the Sanskrit names for poses. Moreover, if she’s teaching a 12-week program, it might be week 6 before she teaches a recognizable yoga pose with a Sanskrit name. Instead, her teaching focuses on simple movements of the body, “mini-movements”, she calls them.

First of all, I have no problem with any of that. But it did get me wondering: How much can you strip away from a yoga class and still call it yoga?

Another example: I teach at a popular fitness centre that offers many different classes under the umbrella term “yoga”. Recently, a student approached me before class to say he was new to yoga. I asked, “Is this your first yoga class?”, and he replied, “Well, I’ve been doing Yoga Tune-Up®* for almost a year, but this is my first real yoga class”.

I would love to know when this student began to distinguish Yoga Tune-Up® from other styles of yoga. Did he arrive at this conclusion on his own without ever having tried, in his words, a “real yoga class”? Or did someone tell him that Yoga Tune-Up® isn’t real yoga?

It’s true that Yoga Tune-Up® looks and feels different from other yoga classes at the fitness centre. There’s no chanting of om and very few recognizable yoga poses. Students chat informally with the teacher throughout the class, and the teacher alternates between teaching advanced anatomy and telling personal anecdotes. (I’m basing this character sketch on the Yoga Tune-Up® classes I have attended at the fitness centre and fully acknowledge that it may not be representative of all Yoga Tune-Up® classes.) So, is it yoga?

What is the essence of yoga?

I’ve collected many definitions of yoga over the years:

  • Yoga is the union of body and mind.
  • Yoga is the restraint of the modifications of the mind.
  • Yoga is intimacy.
  • Yoga is cleaning the mirror.

I tend to favor the last definition when I’m teaching, because I find the imagery so powerful. Imagine you only have one mirror in your home, and your entire self-image is based on your reflection in that mirror. Except there’s a problem: the mirror is very dirty so your reflection is cloudy and distorted. But because it’s the only mirror you have, you don’t know this. You believe this is simply how you look. The practice of yoga is like taking a damp cloth to the mirror and slowly beginning to clean its surface. As the mirror becomes cleaner, your reflection becomes clearer. Over time, a consistent and enthusiastic yoga practice will bring you closer and closer to seeing yourself as you truly are.

By this definition, yoga is anything that brings you closer to your truest self. In yogic terms, your truest self is your divine nature. It’s the part of you that doesn’t change, isn’t born, and doesn’t die. It’s the light that we recognize in ourselves and others when we bow and say “Namaste”.

Yogis have developed techniques to clean the mirror: postures, breathwork, chanting, concentration practices, selfless service, devotional singing, scripture study… but these are all means to an end, and anything that achieves that end can be considered yoga. For some people, walking in nature, gardening, travelling, and making art can be practices that clean the mirror.

Back to my two examples: My colleague who doesn’t om or use Sanskrit or teach recognizable yoga poses? If she’s creating space for people to clean the mirror, that’s absolutely yoga. Same goes for Yoga Tune-Up®. But here’s the thing: cleaning the mirror is something that happens on the inside, and we have to do it for ourselves. Teachers can’t clean the mirror for us, they can only provide instructions and set the conditions for mirror cleaning.

Spiritual materialism

The flip side is that it’s possible to go through the motions of a yoga class without the mirror getting any cleaner. “Spiritual materialism” is a term coined by Chögyam Trungpa to describe using spiritual pursuits to strengthen egoic desires. Rather than cleaning the mirror, this kind of spiritual narcissism only adds more layers of distortion.

“Walking the spiritual path properly is a very subtle process; it is not something to jump into naively. There are numerous sidetracks which lead to a distorted, ego-centered version of spirituality; we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques. This fundamental distortion may be referred to as spiritual materialism.”

-Chögyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism

Spiritual materialism can include anything from killing in the name of God to taking selfies during meditation practice. It can include wearing mala beads as jewelry and placing Buddha statues around your home as décor. It can include doing advanced yoga postures in a public setting that you would never do in your home practice. It’s anything done in the name of spirituality that clouds rather than cleans the mirror.

Discerning spiritual materialism from yoga isn’t always easy. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself:

  • Is this action/speech/thought in service of ego or in service of the divine?
  • Am I performing spirituality for an audience (real or imagined)?
  • Would I do/say/think this if it were unfashionable?
  • Does this action/speech/thought make me feel more spiritual than others?

While spotting spiritual materialism in others may be easier than recognizing it in ourselves, remember that we are only responsible for own mirror. However, if, like me, you’re a yoga teacher, know that our students take their cues from us and that we lead by our example. We can either perform spirituality for them, or we can roll up our sleeves and clean our damn mirror.


*Yoga Tune-Up® is the registered trademark of yoga therapist Jill Miller. It is a fitness therapy designed to eliminate pain, improve posture, and enhance performance using corrective exercise, self-massage, and yoga.

Image © 2018 Erin Bidlake

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  1. Hope Carey

    Erin, what ever one you are doing…You have helped me sooo much in Spirituality, and in my Body Function..I will never be able to Thank You enough..

  2. Laura E Fowler Massie

    Thanks Erin. This is a topic I have been thinking a lot about myself lately. To step onto the spiritual path with honesty and commitment can be intimidating. It is about a personal level of honesty and integrity that you hold yourself to. Walking the spiritual path also requires a level of bravery and an ability to accept when you slip from the path, observing this in yourself and stepping back, and moving forward again. Thank you, Laura