Yoga as Spiritual Discipline

Mark Whitwell


Yoga is primarily a spiritual discipline, or as my teacher Mark Whitwell would put it, it is “a discipline of pleasure”. And it is very ancient. It is a discipline because it is a constant process of conscientious learning and personal evolving, and it is a pleasure because it must be intensely and deeply pleasurable from the very start. It is ancient because it was invented thousands of years ago, and nobody knows when, where, why and by whom exactly. There are some indications that Yoga is more than 4 000 years old such as the extant seals and statues from the so called Mohenjo-Daro or Harappan civilization, or the Proto-Indian civilization, as it is sometimes called, that flourished around 3 000 years before Christ and mysteriously disappeared some 1 500 years later. However, the oldest written record of Yoga is found in some of the oldest Upanishadas, such as Taittiriyopanishad and Kathopanishad, where it is usually defined as bringing the senses under the control of the mind. Later on, in the first centuries AD, in the classic work the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, it is defined as the cessation of all mental agitation and spiritual wakefulness or samadhi, which leads to true wisdom known as prajna and total freedom called kaivalya. Esoteric Hinduism repeatedly defines Yoga as the union of the individual self (atman) and cosmic sprit (brahman), and various Tantrik schools define it as our intrinsic identity with Siva, Sakti or some other supreme principle or deity. Whatever the definition or ideology behind it, Yoga was invariably perceived and practiced as a path of self-transformation and self-realization.


In contradistinction to traditional Yoga (the one developed until the beginning of the 20th century), innumerable forms, schools, styles and brands of modern Yoga have more or less declined from this traditional orientation and have often reduced Yoga to mere physical gymnastics or some exotic spiritual gymnastics. The traditional way of teaching Yoga one-on-one is now almost entirely forgotten and Yoga got commercialized almost beyond recognition. Most of the modern Yoga innovators such as T. Krishnamacharya, Swami Sivananda Saraswati, Shri Yogendra and Swami Kuvalayananda emphasized hatha yoga practices as essential for the renewal of Yoga in modern India. When transplanted to the West, those practices were often misunderstood and taken out of their natural and traditional context, and so Yoga lost much of its original beauty and effectiveness. Furthermore, the majority of the modern styles are harmful and lots of people get injured, which gives a bad name to Yoga and inspires repulsion to Yoga in many actual and potential practitioners. This is so unnecessary and sad, knowing how immensely beneficial Yoga can be if practiced properly. There are certain principles that secure the appropriate application (viniyoga) of Yoga to each individual practitioner and can serve as a reliable guidance in the teaching and practicing of Yoga. The first three basic principles of Yoga are therefore the following:


  1. Yoga must not cause any kind of injury.

  2. Yoga must really be effective.

  3. Yoga must, in time, become maximally effective.


Other principles, most clearly and most scholarly stipulated by T. Krishnamacharya, were given to the public in the attempt to popularize Yoga in postcolonial India that was searching for its new identity and dignity. All those principles are given here and they have all been tried out by many sincere practitioners and teachers of Yoga. An important point to understand is also the fact that hatha yoga is not a lesser practice preparing for “higher” meditative practices, as it is often misinterpreted by the Hindu traditionalists, but is the Yoga of actual participation in the Wonder that is our Life Herself. So, Yoga is organic and natural; it is not an artificial exaggeration aiming at a distortion of reality, but is a wholehearted enjoyment in the Given reality, which is the power and peace of “the natural state” (U. G. Krishnamurti) that spontaneously transforms whatever needs to be transformed.


The Fundamental Principles of Yoga:


  1. Yoga is a wholehearted participation in the Wonder of Life that we utterly are as human beings with a Heart.


  1. To be truly effective, pleasant and safe, yoga must be adapted to each individual, not the other way round.


  1. There are ancient yoga principles that make possible such adaptation, known in the tradition as the viniyoga of yoga.


  1. The basic purpose and benefit of yoga is a robust relatedness with the Whole of Existence, or the development of our innate ability to love and be free.


  1. The breath is central to yoga because it is central to Life.


  1. Asana is therefore moving pranayama, conscious breathing with the whole body.


  1. Pranayama is being consciously with the breath, with That which breathes us.


  1. Dhyana or meditation is a direct insight into the depth of Life that spontaneously arises through the deepening of the breath.


  1. So yoga is a process of enhancing person’s self-awareness, her moral integrity, her relational integration with the immediate surroundings and her cosmic integrality with the Absolute, the Source, the Divinity or the Whole of Life.


  1. The breath initiates and envelopes the movement.


  1. Asana creates bandha, and bandha serves the breath.


  1. Other techniques of yoga such as kriya, mudra, mantra, yantra and personal ritual or puja can all be creatively employed in creating a personal practice for each practitioner and help her experience more clearly her total immersion into the cosmic momentum of becoming and being a human being, her human strength of receiving and giving love, her sakti.


  1. In its very essence yoga is a devotional practice, so the universal and trans-cultural techniques of yoga actually serve only as a help in feeling one’s own or other person’s bodiness, emotivity and spirituality.


  1. Through practicing yoga we discover our power of creating peace, that is we learn how to feel better and how to feel better the overall reality.


  1. Yoga is the peaceful power and powerful peace (cit-sakti) of Life boldly lived straight from the Heart, for the Heart.



The basic principles of developing a personal practice of Yoga of Heart are the following:


  1. Everybody who wants it (and can breathe) can practice yoga, but not just any yoga.


  1. There is an appropriate yoga for everybody, and that is the only yoga that should be practiced.


  1. Only the yoga that is well-adapted to a concrete individual is truly harmless and fruitful.


  1. It is not the individual that should adapt herself to “yoga” (some more or less arbitrarily standardized and imposed regime of “physical” or “spiritual” exercise), but it is yoga itself that should be continuously adapted to the individual, for whom it was invented in the first place.


  1. Different approaches, forms, schools, styles, brands and standardized systems of yoga actually are not yoga. Yoga is the unique integrative force in every human being that gets awakened and developed thorough an appropriate application of yoga techniques in each particular case.


  1. This naturally happens in a sincere and equal communication between the teacher and the student, who are primarily friends, and so their mutual trust is not based on any kind of false exploitative authority.


  1. A sincere student is the one who is really willing to learn, who appreciates her teacher and the contents transmitted by the teacher in the atmosphere of true care for the well-being of the student.


  1. A sincere teacher is the one who still has or once had a teacher herself, and so has gone through a process of apprenticeship, who truly empathizes with the student and doesn’t impose on the student anything she is not willing or ready to accept, especially the teacher’s worldview.


  1. The teacher should teach only what she knows and give the student only what is really relevant for that particular student, and she should do it with patience and humility.


  1. The student, on the other hand, should practice conscientiously and confidently what she has received in such a sincere relationship of human transmission of spirit from Heart to Heart, and then, when the right time comes, share that knowledge unselfishly with others.


  1. Yoga is a natural and conscious process of integrating the dispersed life energies in oneself, and it happens through a non-obsessive, pleasurable and regular practice of bodily postures (asana) and similar techniques, breathing exercises (pranayama) and meditative absorption (dhyana), in that order, to establish a better relationship with one’s immediate social surroundings and nature in general, that is to connect oneself with Life or Divinity, with that mysterious power that pulsates in our veins, moves our breath, moves us to each other and makes possible our participation in all the vital processes of being a human.


  1. In order to be really effective, yoga must constantly and carefully be adapted to the changing needs, abilities, desires, interests, goals, aspirations and circumstances of a particular person who wants to practice yoga, that is a host of the person’s characteristics must be taken into account: her cultural, ethnic and religious background, her intelligence, education, profession, sex, age, health, body type, level of motivation, and even her presuppositions, prejudices and ideas about yoga if she has any, or in short, the entire context and all the elements of her living situation and she herself as a unique human being.


  1. Asana or physical postures that are practiced in yoga are not practiced for their own sake, but are actually pranayama in movement, and so they prepare the practitioner for stationary pranayama since their main purpose is to enhance the quality of the breath.


  1. Asana is therefore always performed in conjunction with the breath: the breath initiates and envelopes the entire movement of the body making possible for the whole body to participate in the respiratory process during a careful coordination of the body and breath with the mind. Other similar techniques, such as kriyas, bandhas and mudras, make possible and facilitate, come out of pranayama and prepare for pranayama.


  1. Yoga is the union of the body, breath and mind that empowers the practitioner to participate more heartily in relationships of all kinds, as it fuels our natural integration with our environment or our wholehearted participation in the process of living.


  1. The breath is central to life, so pranayama is the most important yoga practice.


  1. The mind brightens up spontaneously when a person breathes optimally.


  1. A clear mind promotes self-knowing and provides an insight into the world and life.


  1. Wakefulness and meditation cannot really be practiced or enforced in any way, they are a gift, or siddhi of a well-adapted and properly practiced yoga.


  1. Asana, pranayama, dhyana and Life are therefore a seamless and unified process.


  1. The natural result of a proper yoga practice is a deepened feeling of one’s own aliveness, a better relational life and an awakened religious intuition, that is the peaceful power or powerful peace of a free life surged with love.


  1. Yoga, from the very beginning, must be a very pleasurable activity, but it is a discipline nevertheless, it is a discipline of pleasure or the right use and fulfilment of all our human potentials.


  1. Yoga of Heart is our own yoga that spontaneously and systematically develops or awakens in us our innate capability of love and sincere care for the well-being of all living things.


  1. So, we practice our own yoga as a daily discipline of pleasure while being utterly immersed in our unique experience of being alive as this breathing, thinking and feeling body in relationship with the Whole of Existence.


Yoga Lineage
Yoga as Therapy