(excerpt from my book Inside Yoga)
There is a sort of natural spiritual dimension in the yoga practices. How can we define it? What exactly is this yoga spirituality? Does it have any link with religious traditions like Buddhism or Hinduism, or is it something independent from that?
Can yoga become a natural path of self-realization for our modern society, free from religious dogmas and rituals?
Many people who approach yoga often wonder about the spiritual roots of this ancient discipline.
Some people believe that to practice yoga in an authentic way is necessary to embrace elements of the Hindu religion, like, for example, doing the aarti (the ritual of the fire and ghee offered to the Hindu deities), or to sing devotional songs dedicated to Hindu gods, or maybe to wear the sari or turbans (a practice relatively popular nowadays among some modern yoga schools).
If we study the history of yoga, though, we understand that the ancient yogis were not Brahmin priests busy with Vedic rituals and prayers inside temples, but, as I said in a previous chapter, they were rather people more similar to ancient Greek philosophers, especially those Greek philosophers influenced by the school of Pitagora, Plato, or
Zeno (Stoicism). In fact, the ancient Greek king Alexander the Great, when he met the yogis in India in 326 BCE, used to call them “gymnosophists” (the naked, ascetic philosophers).
The ancient yogis were people who, in most cases, preferred to live a simple, solitary existence, abandoning the comforts and superficial pleasures of a conventional social life, abandoning rituals, beliefs, dogmas, and the traditions of their families to come into deeper contact with their atman (their true self) through meditation practices and philosophical investigations.
The life of Buddha is a good example of this. He used to be a wealthy man, the son of a powerful king, and he decided to abandon all the aspects of his privileged life to retreat into a forest and practice meditation. No rituals, no temples, no priests.
Only him, sitting in meditation, in deep contact with Life and with himself. Pure freedom.
Therefore, it is not true at all that those who want to practice authentic yoga have to become Hindu, though it is true that the ancient yogis left some of their spiritual wisdom hidden inside the symbols, the myths, the allegories we still find nowadays in temples and holy books.
And, surprisingly, not only in India!
The fascinating thing of a deep, authentic, yoga-meditative experience is that it’s universal. It goes beyond the limited, subjective, relative point of view of the practitioner and it can potentially reach a point of universalism that resonates within the souls of everyone.
The experience of union and harmony an ancient yogi felt three thousand years ago in India still resonates with us when we read his biography or his poetry, or when we look at the art that maybe he or his disciples made to represent their yoga experience through symbols and analogies. Those special words, visual symbols, colors, and allegories have some kind of empathic energy that remains alive and can influence people of any culture, in any age.
So, it is very interesting to see that we find symbols that represent experiences and concepts related to yoga not only in the Indian culture, but also in Taoism, in European and Native American mysticism, or in the spirituality of many other traditions.
On a recent trip to Italy, for example, I found in some churches symbols similar to those used in Indian Tantric-Yogi traditions. I found sculptures seeming to be related to the symbol of the Kundalini, the vital energy flowing through the spine. These sculptures portray a snake that rises from the dust of the ground up until the grace of Heaven. There are also paintings reminding of the chakras (centres of energy in the body), and other interesting, mystical symbols.
Beside yoga and music, the other passion of my life is traveling, and it is always fascinating for me to find so many symbols associable with yoga-ideas in so many cultures of different countries around the world where I have been traveling. I’ve found these types of symbols in Mexico, in ancient sculptures made by the Aztecs, Maya, or those of the Zapotecas. I’ve found them in Ireland, and also in Scandinavia.
Regarding the Scandinavian ones, the effigy of the so-called “Viking Buddha” found in the burial mound of the Oseberg ship is particularly interesting. This effigy portrays a figure sitting in a lotus position and decorated with red swastikas (nothing to do with Nazism, of course; the swastika in this case is a symbol of life, victory, and rebirth/ regeneration, typical of many ancient cultures, including the Tantric-yogic one).
Another fascinating sculpture is the figure painted on a stone found on the island of Gotland in Sweden. The figure seems to represent a sitting woman holding a snake in each hand. The snakes face each other like the snakes of the Caduceus of Hermes Trismegistus, or like the meridians (nadiis) Ida and Pingala crossing the channel of the Kundalini (Shushumna) through the chakras, and ending at the level of the nose, under the Ajna.
So, how this can happen? Where do all these similarities in sacred symbols of cultures so far away from one another (in time and space) come from? Did the ancient yogis travel to Europe and America in ancient times? Who knows? Maybe… There are theories that support this idea, actually. But I personally believe these similarities among symbols of spiritual and mystical knowledge of different cultures and different traditions are simply the evidence that the experience of Union (Yoga) with life, Self, and the Universe is the same for everyone, and the intuitive analogies used to describe the journey of the Self from a state of ignorance and disharmony to a state of wisdom and harmony are also the same, or very similar.
Yoga, the feeling of union and harmony, and the felling of self-realization, is something that belongs to the whole of humanity and not just to the people of one specific country. That is why we find mystics and philosophers who talk about these experiences in any country of this planet. In Africa, Europe, America, India, China, Japan, Australia… They use different languages, slightly different words, different gradations in case they express themselves through paintings… but the essence of their messages, I believe, is the same. It is not something religious. It has nothing to do with the holy rituals of one specific culture.
Yoga, the experience of union, is simply a free, natural, human experience (even if the sacred rituals of some religions might have been inspired by this experience).
Dattā treyayogaśā stra (13 century CE) verses 41a–42b: “Whether a Brahmin, an ascetic, a Buddhist, a Jain, a Skull-Bearer or a materialist, the wise one who is endowed with faith and constantly devoted to the practice of [haṭ ha] yoga will attain complete success.”