When I talk about yoga as it pertains to Ayurveda, I am not referring to the practice that has been popularized in the West. Ayurveda and yoga are considered sister sciences, as they are intended to be practiced together. In the book, when we talk about yoga asanas, we are referring to a small yoga routine (a sequence of asanas, or postures) that stimulates the body in the morning. The purpose is to help us stay comfortable in the body as we prepare ourselves for breathing exercises and creating a stillness of the mind. You can call it yoga, pranayama, and meditation, or you can call it stretching, breathing, and praying (or silence). Regardless of the name, the intention behind this daily practice is to bring the mind, body, and spirit together.
Yoga is a stepping-stone to having a deeply meaningful spiritual life. It is not reaching out to find something outside of yourself, but building a connection to the Self so you can be more connected with the Great Spirit, whether you call that nature, consciousness, or God. This is true spirituality from an Ayurvedic perspective. It is the reason that Ayurveda asks us to create self-reflection through a daily practice of yoga, meditation, and pranayama. This self-reflection enables us to get in touch with ourselves and make the right decisions for what we need in this life. Swami Brahmananda Saraswati, a great Shankaracharya (teacher) in India, once said that we have been given something no other animal has, and that is the ability to self-reflect. If we do not use this great ability, it is like selling diamonds at the price of spinach.
In general, I would encourage you to treat the cultural and religious aspects of yoga as separate entities. Some would disagree, as many consider yoga as it is practiced in the West — usually devoid of its roots — to be a form of cultural appropriation. Yoga comes to us from the sacred Vedic texts recorded 5,000 years ago in India, which have been passed down over the years through the wisdom and spirituality of their custodians. From an Ayurvedic perspective, however, yoga is a very personal practice, and its knowledge is not limited to place, time, culture, or religion. It is the path that one takes to bring the body in tune with the mind and spirit. My ask is that we acknowledge the source of this great knowledge without attaching it (or ourselves) to someone else’s religion or way of life.
Western practice tends to swing the pendulum far in the opposite direction, focusing primarily on the physical aspects of yoga and using it as a form of exercise. The example that comes to mind is of those who overdo it and get hurt doing yoga, as if yoga were a sport to keep the body active instead of a way to get back in touch with ourselves. Yoga for fitness is certainly a good activity for maintaining an athletic lifestyle, but it is wise to understand the purpose of the practice so we can bring it into our lives accordingly. When I see advertisements for yoga with beer, yoga with goats, happy-hour yoga flow, or other practices that do not aim to bring a sense of purpose into one’s state of being, I am often quick to joke that the organizers have accidentally misspelled “stretching.” This does not come from a place of judgment — anyone can do any form of yoga they want. If you enjoy hot yoga, doing a quick 5-minute yoga session in the morning, or spending the yoga hour with your friends followed by a glass of wine, that is fantastic! What is important is that you understand the roots of this ancient practice and how it can, under the right circumstances, prepare your body for a union between the mind, body, and spirit. There is not a lot of mind-body union happening when your reward for doing yoga is alcohol. The point is, if you attend a yoga class like this, there is no harm done, but please understand that yoga did not occur.
I am a proponent of breaking the rules, so do as you wish and live in accordance with what your body tells you to do. I only ask that you recognize that yoga is not yoga without intention. Maybe you came to yoga to address tight hamstrings or locked hips, and I am not telling you to give it up. My suggestion is simply to bring awareness into your practice and understand that it is not truly yoga without intention.
If and when you are ready to open your eyes to the ancient science of understanding the Self, yoga can reveal a path to who you are and why you are here in the world. Your practice can become more than an exercise routine and more about how to step naturally into a holistic way of being. You may still walk away with tight hamstrings, but you will at least know yourself better.