The Body- Spirit Question

by on Jul.28, 2010, under Yoga Retreat

I’m going to try to blog a bit more regularly, and much more spontaneously. Like writing an email to a friend. That way I will actually sit down and blog, and satisfy those of you who have wondered if I’m posting new content these days.

Apparently, the blogosphere is abuzz with all the New York Times coverage of yoga this past week. This is good news on many fronts. First, it’s interesting in this e-age, that the Times- a good old fashioned printed newspaper -still gets people’s attention the way it always has. Second, how cool that everyone is talking about yoga…again.  This time the articles deal with the review of two new yoga books ( in the Book Review)  and one yoga teacher ( in the Magazine)  John Friend.
I’m posting the links to it all here, including Friend’s response to his Times profile. I’m not going to go on too long about the Anusara (Friend ) profile just yet. What I’m really interested in exploring is how both the Book Review, and the Teacher Review, focused on the split in the yoga world between the physical and the spiritual dimensions of the practice.  Both articles addressed the lament of many yoga teachers that Americanized yoga is too focused on the yoga poses, and not on the spiritual side of things. This is a topic that has been raging for years. Usually, the story goes like this: “yoga students and teachers are too focused on the physical asanas and are not getting the deeper teachings of yoga. They are ignoring the spiritual side of yoga in pursuit of the perfect pose, the toned and buff body.”  For me, this argument just misses the point of yoga entirely. The deeper so called “spiritual” teachings are contained in that continuum called the Body/Mind. Yoga aims to integrate us.  Hatha Yoga is a practice of body and breath and mind (spirit). Note that I say a practice. What can you practice?  Asana and Pranayama. Everything else flows from these basic, rudimentary practices, including the spiritual stuff, including meditation, including even the yamas and niyamas.

The yoga of the American yoga studio is Hatha Yoga- the point of this practice is that the body becomes the vehicle for liberation itself.  It’s not the end in itself, but the body stands as the field of practice.  Alongside these physical practices you could be studying the texts from the different traditions of yoga such as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, The Tantras, The Gita, etc. but the experience of yoga transformation is a direct one. You either have it or you don’t, on a moment -to -moment, or practice- to -practice basis. The beauty of this practice called Hatha Yoga is that it actually includes the Body.  How many other spiritual practices do this?  Usually the body is either neglected, or vilified. So, this question of “over- practicing” yoga poses seems caught in it’s own criticism. We do need to practice. And when we practice “off the mat”- guess what? We’re still in our bodies. Every moment becomes an opportunity for the balanced pose.

Don’t get me wrong. I do understand the very real aversion to the material aspect of the practice. The other day, I was taking a fun and advanced Vinyasa class with a good teacher. After about the 6th creative arm balance, I had the impression that we were acquiring yoga poses, the way we acquire material things. “Enough,” I thought. I felt full enough of yoga poses and was ready to be still and quiet. But I wouldn’t have felt that way without the body practice. There was too much on my mind. I needed the practice to discharge my “mental fluctuations.”  Because although I have practiced for years, I’m still a beginner at this thing called life-throwing- me-obstacles.

Another important issue for the detractors of physical yoga to remember is this: people in the US are sedentary. We have lost our connection to hard physical labor, our bodies are yearning to be used to their potential.  Not only is there an epidemic of obesity, but also of depression and anxiety. Hatha Yoga has been proven in several studies to help control the symptoms of depression and anxiety. People are flocking to yoga studios to ease their minds through the body, the breath and spirit, and in community. People want to reduce their personal suffering,  and they do get immediate results through yoga practice.

What yoga teaches us is that our personal liberation, and transformation is tied to that of every other living creature. The way forward for yoga in America is to connect to each other through embodiment of our spiritual ideals.

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