Thursday, December 17, 2009

Yoga: Physical or Spiritual?

"It is generally believed that Raja Yoga and Hatha Yoga are entirely distinct, different and opposed to each other, that the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali deal with Spiritual discipline and that the Hatha Yoga Pradipika of Swatmarama deals solely with physical discipline. It is not so, for Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga complement each other and form a single approach towards Liberation. As a mountaineer needs ladders, ropes and crampons as well as physical fitness and discipline to climb the icy peaks of the Himalayas, so does the Yoga aspirant need the knowledge and discipline of the Hatha Yoga of Swatmarama to reach the heights of Raja Yoga dealt with by Patanjali.
-B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga, 22nd paragraph of the Introduction.

Yoga: Physical or Spiritual?

There are as many paths to Yoga as there are people on the planet. So I recognize that what has worked for me might be experienced differently by someone else.

For me, the spiritual aspects of Yoga are essential. And a Spiritual Education has helped me through confusing experiences on and around my Yoga Mat.

About ten years ago (!) my mind and emotions were totally insnared in the yoga I was doing at the time. I was confused about why it was just so powerful. So I started finding books to help me understand. I wanted to find context for the intensity. I knew that Yoga was feeding me like nothing I had ever known before, but it seemed to contradict some notions I had held about myself until then. I, like many others, had thought that the mind and intellect were the most important things. If this was so then why was this experience of Yoga, grounded in the body, so fulfilling (I wondered at the time)? In fact, I remember feeling fearful and ashamed as I picked up my first issue of Yoga Journal magazine off the rack of the Borders bookstore on Michigan Avenue. I felt like I was buying pornography or something--it just seemed so body-based. I was an Artist and a lover of Ideas; I just wasn't ready to admit that I was also a BODY.

Several years ago I was confused about how much emotion I felt towards one of my Yoga Teachers in particular, but I also felt kind of loving toward all of them I practiced with. On I just happened to come across (as these things go) The Tree of Yoga, by B.K.S. Iyengar! This book really set me straight. It is a great primer of Yoga Philosophy. I think it saved me. There is a part of the book where it describes the relationship between teacher and student as intense, similar to the relationship with a spouse, or between parent and child. Reading this book let me know that I wasn't alone! Yoga is intense!

I think that I might be like a baby bird who has been lucky enough to be fed the partially digested info from Mr. Iyengar through his books--like a just-hatched birdie gets the freshly-upchucked nutriment from the belly of its mama.

In the above excerpt from Light on Yoga, Mr. Iyengar mentions the importance of physical and spiritual instruction, and how they can work well together. Physically, good instruction is clearly helpful as it can help us to move into and out of the poses safely. But, (guess what?) there is also a Internal Psychic Terrain that people who have gone there can also teach about and help with, and it can be accessed through the body.

Yoga includes the inner and outer world.


YogaforCynics said...

Can't say I've ever really gotten the duality of physical and spiritual, anyway...

Bob Weisenberg said...

Well done, Brooks. I agree with YogaforCynics.

Many religions (and even some Yoga traditions), treat the body as though it is something to escape from, into the purer world of the spirit. The body is treated almost like the enemy to be overcome in one’s spiritual quest, particularly in the ultra-traditional Catholicism I grew up in and struggled with as a kid.

Yoga is the opposite (at least the branches of Yoga that appeal to me). The mind, body, and spirit are inseparable and the same. We are unified beings, and our physical presence and actions are an integral part of our quest for happiness, not separate and distracting.

Thanks for another great blog and reason to read Iyengar.

Bob Weisenberg

Anonymous said...

Luckily I've always been taught that "primacy of the body" is imporant in yoga.

Since we live in a physical world, we can't seperate ourselves and our spiritual evolvement from our bodies. In fact, it *is* the path to our journey.

So we must treat it with respect and purify it. That's the only way we can learn to sit for meditation for the long periods of time that are required (for most people) to achieve the awakenings of enlightenment.

I know that confusion and emotion you speak of towards certain teachers... its kinda how I ended up with a guru. :)