The Roles of the Body in Yoga: From Fitness to the Divine
People begin practicing yoga for a variety of reasons: as a means of exercise, to “de-stress”, to supplement one’s health and wellness, to incorporate ancient tradition into one’s life, and even to expand consciousness, among other motives. The body has a role in each of these vindications, whether through poses or asanas, breathwork or pranayama, or reciprocating the still mind during meditation. The body may also be the vessel meeting one’s self-concepts for the first time. The boundary of “self” disintegrates and joins the universe as one loses the concept of space and time during a transpersonal episode in the yoga practice.
I came to the mat for the first time when I was sixteen years old. I was looking for a new way to work out, and began attending hot power yoga regularly. At some point, my practice turned from exercise to a contemplative practice. I let my ego go and attended beginners’ yoga classes in order to slow down the practice and really focus on the breath. Today I have been a yoga practitioner for five years. I informally teach yoga at a local Curves fitness-center for women, where I incorporate breathing exercises, meditation, and teachings of mindfulness into the gentle classes. I will be interning at Soni Yoga in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the fall, where I will be learning the Indian tradition of Ayurveda and reading the Bhagavad Gita. My goal is to begin my yoga teacher training with Soni Yoga in April of 2012.
II. Yoga and the Body as Fitness
Yoga requires self-discipline. One aspect of the practice is instructing the body into various asanas. Asanas may affect the physical body by cleansing internal organs, toning muscle by holding a posture or balance, balancing hormonal glands, strengthening joints and bones, and possibly burning fat (Bauman, 2010, PH. 7-17). Those who use yoga as a fitness regimen manipulate the body into an asana for the result of toning the body. Hollywood and its celebrities have turned to yoga as a tool towards the pop-culture “ideal body image”. According to Lavina Melwani (2010), celebrities including Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Aniston Sting, Charlie, Jerry Seinfeld, Angelina Jolie, Sarah Jessica Parker, and the country-music trio the Dixie Chicks, and many more practice yoga (PH. 1-5). These media figures are looked to as symbols of beauty in our culture, and thus yoga serves them in keeping up their appearances. One yoga class can cost fifteen dollars or more, suggesting that those who belong to the middle and upper classes have the advantage of attaining a “perfected” body, because they simply can afford to do so.
Jenny McCarthy is a celebrity using yoga as athleticism, who sports her six-pack abs, thin thighs, and toned arms on the cover of Shape Magazine’s May 2009 issue. Inside the cover McCarthy credits her perfected body to her daily yoga practice led by her personal yoga instructor (Detz, 2009, PH. 1-2). Here we see the body being worked with the clear intention of manipulating and toning it. Although yoga caters to a large audience of fitness-minded practitioners, I believe it is crucial to step back from this focus and examine the broad cultural, theoretical, and historical context of yoga in order to be experience yoga as a knowledged practitioner.
III. The Feminist Perspective
Hand-in-hand with yoga practiced for exercise, so is yoga practiced to remain youthful in appearance. Modern western culture pushes the idea of youth as perfection and rejects the natural aging process. Yoga has fallen into this category of “anti-aging” tools, as seen on LifePositive.com (“Benefits of Yoga”, 2010, PH. 1). The unknown author of this website makes the surreal comment, “The aging process, which is largely an artificial condition, caused mainly by autointoxication or self-poisoning, can be slowed down by practicing yoga” (p.1). There is nothing more natural than the individual’s physical transformation over her or his lifetime. To engage in a contemplative practice such as yoga, believing it is the fountain of youth, is a reflection of the media’s morbid idealism.
Feminist philosophy argues that the media’s influence is directed towards women, thus paralleling the majority of mainstream advertisement of yoga towards women and not men. Jacquelyn Zita (1996) explains this phenomenon according to the philosophical femininist Susan Bordo, stating, “According to Bordo, the contemporary body is profoundly gendered as it mediates culture and social power relations under the sign of the commodity and in the frenzy of consumerism committed to the undying need to transcend the imperfections of the body” (p. 792). Our societal culture constantly delivers the statement that the body is flawed, coupling consumerism’s call to invest in anti-aging methods. Unfortunately the practice of yoga may be used as a manipulated medium within this phenomenon.
IV. Yogic Perspective on Health and Wellness
The ancient yogic texts Hatha Yoga Pradipika and The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali do not discuss methods of treating disease (Saraswati, 2008, PH 1-4). However the practices and philosophy described in each allow the individual to play an active role in their physical, psychological, and spiritual health. This is the basis of yoga therapy. Yoga therapy addresses body, mind, and spirit working towards healing, contrasting with current Western allopathic model of addressing the body towards eradicating symptoms. In Yoga as Medicine, McCall (2007) differentiates between Western and Eastern approaches to health.
“The absence of symptoms is in no way equated with health in yoga. Health to the yogi extends far beyond not having a headache or knee pain-or even being cured of cancer. It is about optimizing the function of every system in the body. It is about emotional well-being, spiritual resilience, and buoyancy, even joy. Yoga teaches that only when these elements are aligned can you maximize your chance for health and healing” (p. 2).
In yoga, what is done with the body is in turn done with the mind. When the functions of the body are optimal, such as detoxification and purification, as stated in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (Muktibodhananda, 1998), the mind thus functions optimally. When the body is clouded with foods that are stagnant and heavy, the mind too is stagnant and dull. When the body is rushed, the mind is a monkey jumping from thought to thought without a moment of stillness or rest.
The heart of yoga emphasizes the unity of mind, body, and spirit. Thus, what is done with one of these three elements in turn affects the others. Rumi Ravindra (2006) states in The Spiritual Roots of Yoga: Royal Path to Freedom, “since body and mind are intimately connected, physical flexibility contributes to an increasing freedom from a rigidity of the mind (p. xii). The asanas, the physical postures of yoga, and the “fitness” which may result from the practice of the asanas, are simply one aspect of the yogic path. To illustrate this statement, Ravindra (2006) adds, “The way a person sits, walks, feels, and thinks can lead to a deeper self; the contact with the deeper self is then reflected in the way a person sits, walks, feels, and thinks” (p. xvi). An asana has the ability to lead the body into a place of stillness and stability, in turn bringing the mind to a place of stillness.
V. Experimenting with the Sacred
In the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, you can find about thirty-two different yoga venues (YogaFinder.com, 2010) amid the chaos of urban life. The stress of urban living, in part due to the fast pace of city life, has led to the phenomenon of yoga’s popularity. External stimuli in the city, such as the congestion of people, inundating sounds, etc., begs the attention of the individual to the degree that internal awareness is likely to fade into the background. These factors, joined with disconnection from nature, create stress in the body and mind. The yoga practice provides a time where one can slow down, check in with emotional and mental states, and be aware of bodily sensations.
Urban life is also associated with secularization. Universities and places of learning in the cities, such as the Massachusetts Institute for Technology here in Cambridge, teach the Western concepts of rationalization and linear thinking. As a result, many people long for tradition and even a sense of spirituality in an environment of science and analyzation. We can see the roots of spiritual practices interlace in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Hartranft, 2003) leaving religious alliance aside, and today leading to a secular conceptualization of yoga. James Morley (2008) argues this, stating, “The Yoga Sutras can be viewed as a practice manual that is theologically agnostic and, in contemporary terms, pluralistic in a way that oﬀers the paradoxical possibility of a “secular spirituality”—that is, a point of view which is neutral in matters of religious doctrine (or belief or non-belief)” (p. 147). Yoga can be practiced in this framework as a supplement to a spiritual lifestyle. Elizabeth DeMichelis (2008) adds the role of the body in the aforementioned context, “Thus the modern postural yoga (MPY) session becomes a ritual which affords various levels of access to the sacred, starting from a ‘safe’, mundane, tangible foundation of body-based practice” (p. 251). The yoga practice does not have a religious affiliation, and therefore is an outlet to explore “the sacred” through the bodily postures.
Kriyas are cleansing techniques outlined in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (Muktibodhananda, 1998, pp. 186-224) that may serve as rituals connecting ideas of the mystical to the body for the spiritual aspirant. These techniques are advised to be kept secret until learned through a guru, and result in energy flowing freely throughout the body (Muktibodhananda, 1998, pp. 188-189), both of which appeal as occultist or esoteric conditions.
VI. Exploring Self-Concepts Through the Body
Coming into and holding a pose in the yoga practice can be tortuous. Self-concepts arise in these moments of tension. You may judge or comment on yourself, thinking that you will never be able to move into an asana, or that you’re not “good enough”. The authority, the yoga instructor, may also be the recipient of judge and blame. Here the student thinks, “Why are they making me do this? I hate them!” One may also bring a sense of humor and play to the posture by leaving blame to the side. These concepts reflect general attitudes in day-to-day life. Thus “it seems to be these various moments of ‘self-encounter’, made available through the practice of yoga, that lead many practitioners to describe the practice as a ‘mirror for the self’” (Smith, 2007, p. 40). The yoga student eventually uses this knowledge of the body-mind relationship in order to simply note tendencies as they arise. Simply, not only does the mind help us learn about the body in the yoga practice, but the body also helps us learn the mind’s patterns. Sevika Douglass (2001) illustrates this by noting,
“It’s not that being able to get my foot comfortably behind my head was the highlight of my life. What was exciting, however, was what I learned about my mind along the way. Hatha Yoga helped me understand the limitations I placed on myself because of the conditioning (and complaining) of my mind. A very difficult concept for me to embrace initially was that flexibility of mind could invariably lead to a more flexible body” (p. 11).
Remaining open and aware of our thoughts around the yoga postures allows the student to clearly see the mind’s power over the physical body. Our relationship to the world is understood by understanding the body, as brought about through emerging thoughts during yoga.
VII. Transcending the Body
Awareness of the psyche’s multi-faceted dimensions and of the body’s experiences leads one to integrate these aspects of the self. Self-concepts and bodily sensations, our patterns and tendencies, are not often truly seen until the yoga practice causes them to surface. The bodily experience of eating may be one area where bodily occurrences are experienced, yet are not brought into direct consciousness for lack of awareness. Sundar Surakkai (2002) illustrates this phenomenon:
“We experience swallowing the food; we experience its passage through the food pipe into the region of the stomach. These experiences all constitute an experience of dimensionality, an expression of the ‘inside’ of the body. We are usually unaware of these processes except in times of pain and distress of the inner body. But practices like yoga allow us a continuous, conscious grasp of the inner body” (Surakkia, 2002, p. 466).
Nonjudgmental awareness is the first step towards integrating our parts and patterns. In my opinion, transpersonal psychology applies to the yoga student. The self’s parts are integrated through the asanas, pranayama, and meditation so that time and space ceases to exist, however momentarily this exists. The seer (the subject- the person) and the seen (the object- the action of asana, pranayama, kriya, etc.) become one in the student’s experience. The notion of self expands from the skin-boundary (self vs. not-self) towards disintegration of this boundary; the student and the universe “are one”. In other words, self-growth in the yoga practice is present-moment awareness of one’s innate connectivity with the environment…with all that is. Ken Wilber (2001) teaches this philosophy in No Boundary: Eastern and Western Approaches to Personal Growth. One’s true identity emerges, above self-concepts and worldly restrictions, in what may be thought of as a spiritual episode. The body is no longer the focus of the yoga practice, but one facet in attaining higher, one might even say universal, consciousness. In these moments “the individual comes to feel, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that he or she is fundamentally one with the entire universe, with all worlds, high or low, sacred or profane. The sense of identity expands far beyond the narrow confines of the mind and body and embraces the entire cosmos” (Wilber, 2001, p. 2). Yoga is a contemplative practice encompassing the body and the mind, an avenue leading to transcendental moments.
Everyone has his or her own unique relationship with the body. This includes the yoga student. A multitude of yoga schools, each with their own philosophy, exist to address and cater to the different approaches to the body. Although I may not necessarily agree with those who take part in yoga for purely exercise, I respect the fact that yoga can evolve and match different lifestyles. I find myself looking at the ways the body is approached as a circular process. No matter if you are a beginner or an “experienced” practitioner, realms of fitness, wellness, esotericism, self-concepts, and spirituality arise throughout the yogic journey. How we arrive at these areas through the body is simply a reflection of our relationship to ourselves, others, and even the world.