May 15-20, 2022
I’ve gotten variations on this question several times over the past month or so, so it appears that this is the thing to write about.
In classes, I was recently reading the chapter entitled “You Are Not Who You Appear to Be” from Stephen Cope’s Yoga and the Quest for the True Self. Part of the Yogic teaching—but also from most spiritual traditions—is that we are not this physical body. OK. This seems to be potentially true from our individual perspective. We make up entire worlds in our dreams and fantasies; so maybe this world, including me, isn’t what it appears to be. We also have a mind which seems often to be even more powerful than the body, and we certainly have emotions that often overpower body and mind!
One person, rightly, asked, “If we’re not the body, why focus on it and do the physical exploration on the mat? Aren’t we just continuing to focus on the ‘false’—or the temporary—and not on finding and realizing our True Self?”
Another person asked, “What makes an asana practice a spiritual practice and not just an asana practice?”
I imagine anyone involved in Loving Kindness Yoga School and the Yoga Shala is interested in these pertinent and meaningful questions. We certainly don’t want to be wasting our time, and we definitely don’t want to be heading away from our big-picture Goal.
There’s a paradox in the physical exploration on the mat. When we focus on the body—with strong concentration and deep feeling—we realize that we are not the body. That realization just happens. We start where we are—thinking and feeling that we are our body—and pay closer attention there. By giving deep attention to the body and directly experiencing it as it is, as fully as we can, we notice that we can observe it. If we can observe it, there’s the body—the observed—and something else—the observer.
In my experience, the awareness of not being the body comes fairly quickly in the physical Yoga process. Obviously, though, we are all starting at different places, and the Western yoga world shows us many examples of people who apparently are getting more and more stuck in believing that they are their body.
This deepening stuck-ness can happen because we have an ego invested in maintaining its separateness, and everyone is at a different stage of “growth” or “evolution.” The physical practice, instead of freeing us from the apparent and the constantly changing nature—freeing us from the world of dying—can have us get more and more enmeshed in it. Instead of moving away from ignorance and separateness, we can tend to cultivate it.
Fortunately, if we are simply aware that there is this potential danger in the physical practice, then we are almost guaranteed to avoid it. Barring that, awareness is a self-corrective mechanism as long as it remains loving and non-judgmental. If we just pay attention deeply enough and for long enough time, we will eventually see what is right there—what always was right there. We will eventually see what is True. Ignorance is simply not sustainable. To quote Peace Pilgrim, my first spiritual influence, it “contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction.”
As I said, I believe this realization of not being the body comes relatively quickly in the process, but there are also levels to that realization. We can easily know in our clear moments that we are not the body. However, as we’ve undoubtedly experienced multiple times, when the body is in pain—or hungry, or tired, or somehow uncomfortable—that awareness of the observer is gone. Only the familiar feeling of being our body and the painful impact of our sensations remain. Fortunately, as our awareness and experience of not being the body deepens and repeats, it becomes more and more “impregnable” and harder to lose.
Another positive point to the physical practice is that, in my experience, there is nothing that is “purely” physical. The singularity of that simply doesn’t exist. In my view, the body is solidified memory, and every little body “quirk” is tied into some mental “quirk” as well. Every physical tension has a corresponding mental/emotional tension; every cell is a reflection of some thought. As we explore the body and bring more of it to consciousness, we are, in effect, bringing the unconscious to consciousness, slowly and sustainably. Remember the brilliant and obvious quote from Erich Schiffmann’s Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving Into Stillness, “the main obstacle to our consciousness is our unconsciousness.” That means, from one perspective, the main obstacle to being aware is not being aware. But it also implies that the main obstacle to consciousness is this vast, nearly infinite unconsciousness.
If we take the recent teaching from Stephen Cope, via Gitanand, Yogis and physicists, seriously—“there is nothing ‘out there’ that is not ‘in here”— then the possibility of our consciousness is infinite, and we are painfully and obviously not experiencing infinite! That means that beyond our small conscious mind is a huge amount of unconscious mind. In the end, it’s our small-m mind, this unconsciousness, that is getting in the way of seeing the Truth, of experiencing our Oneness with Reality.
On the mat, we can study our mind through the exploration of the body. Taking it a step further, I believe that we can heal our mind and body through the physical practice of Yoga. This healing may not always be completely possible by ourselves, and we may need adjunct supportive processes, but for people who need healing from “normal” levels of trauma, it’s largely, if not completely, possible.
Then, if we our only practice is asana, what distinguishes it from “just” an asana practice, from “just” exercise? Is there some way to have it be a “spiritual” practice? A lot hinges on our intention. Some are doing “purely” physical yoga and disparage anything appearing to be “spiritual” in a Yoga practice. Fine. Let those people do their thing. They’ll live feeling happier and healthier in their bodies which will hopefully result in them doing more good (or less harm) in the world than they might do otherwise. And five hours after their death, their body will be as stiff as the next corpse. In the final analysis, was there benefit to their practice? Hopefully. They were at least cultivating a level of attention which they can then build on next time around. But I think they missed out on the huge potential of the practice (remember infinite?).
If we have the intention of our practice moving us toward a greater Truth and freeing us from our mistaken beliefs, then that’s what we will get. If we want just to get a good “yoga workout” and feel happier and healthier in our body, then that might be what we get… though that effect may not remain limited only to that. I taught for 14 years at the “Name-Changing Gym” in Carrboro with the belief that if people pay attention long enough and deeply enough, they’ll eventually see what’s always been there. It turns out that “that thing that’s always been there” is spiritual. The material perishes and is constantly changing, but there’s something that underlies it all.
Having said that, I agree with the Hatha Yoga Pradipika that the physical practice is a preparatory process toward some other path to full enlightenment. None of the “only” physical yogis, that I know of, ever got Self-Realization from it. To go that far, some other Path, such as meditation or bhakti (devotion), is necessary. But with the physical practice, we can go pretty deep.
Finally, if we want our physical practice to be a spiritual practice, we have to reflect back over a year of our practice (but better is 5 or more years). Have we made progress? Have we become more aware, more compassionate, more loving? Are our buttons on less of a “hair trigger” and harder for others, and Life, to push? When our buttons have been pushed, are we quicker to come back to a calm, clear, grounded, centered state? Are we quicker to serve without thought of reward when the opportunity is presented to us? These are some of the more obvious signs that our practice is not just physical but grounded in something deeper.
Ultimately, we ask ourselves, is the world a better place because we are/were in it? On one level, that’s a good “bottom-line” to shoot for, not for the sake our spiritual ego, but for the sake of the world!