While most people associate yoga with a series of gentle exercises, the truth is that this practice has deep spiritual roots with practices written by Patanjali thousands of years ago that when followed to the letter, could lead to self-realization and even enlightenment.
In order to truly appreciate how truly spiritual yoga uses, let us first take a look at the meaning of the word. Yoga is taken from a Sanskrit word that means unity. The ancients took unity to mean unity with the One mind or Supreme Consciousness or God. So, success in yoga meant being able to commune with and become one with God.
In order to achieve this, the ancient yoga sutras prescribe a set of practices for the ascetic life. Chief among these are the physical postures being practiced by millions around the world today. You might think these physical postures are for toning muscles, but actually, they are being prescribed in order to regulate the internal glands with the end in mind of controlling the bodys hormones. When the hormones are controlled, it is easier for a spiritual seeker to feel harmony and well-being, all pre-requisites to a spiritual experience.
Meditation is another practice that is fundamental to yoga. What is meditation? It is basically controlling your mind through the repetition of a mantra, typically a two-syllable word in Sanskrit. The idea is to repeat it enough so that a practitioner becomes one with the idea of the mantra. Most mantras are different words that mean God so that when you repeat the mantra enough, you will have acquired God-like qualities like compassion and overall happiness.
Another practice that is basic but is probably not as common as meditation and the yoga postures is breathing or pranayama. With pranayama, the practitioner controls his breath through a series of breathing exercises. The most common of these is the alternative breathing technique where you breathe in through one nostril and breathe out through the other. Pranayama is all about calming the mind - if you are able to slow your breath, it is easier to reach a calm state of mind and has a wonderful meditation experience.
The yoga postures, meditation, and pranayama are really just three of the many practices of yoga. Others include the study of the ancient religious texts, karma yoga or being in service to others. All these practices taken together are meant to help students achieve a spiritual state.