For a very long span of time both Eastern and Western thought and spiritual practice have puzzled over the place of the body in spiritual awakening. Is it the “temple of the Spirit” as yoga master BKS Iyengar calls it, or is it a foul, rotting pool that traps the spirit?
This is not an esoteric question for theologians to ponder but rather an important question for every yogi to determine. Are you using your yoga practice to create “buns of steel” and hold onto youth, or as a means to understanding how to live meaningfully?
If we do not see the body as sacred, we might fall into the trap of judgment, aversion and behaviour which leads to injury. Many yogis come to the class reporting spinal, hip, knee and shoulder injuries caused by overdoing, unconsciousness movement, or an aggressive approach to their bodies.
We can use the body to determine the truth of how things are. If we bring concentration and reflection to our yoga we are strengthening our capacity to see through to the very nature of reality or existence. At the very least, concentrating on the body’s sensations and the quality of breath bring us in touch with the present moment. In that way, emotions and fluctuating thoughts will not overwhelm or distract us. And staying with what is, supports us to work with physical and emotional pain.
Our Western culture advocates using drugs to numb pain of any sort. As though one could magically replace life as it is with a pain free existence. Broken relationship? Take a drug. Painful body? Subdue the pain with analgesics.
Either way, aversion to what is causes contraction. And then the site of the pain becomes an even deeper, more insistent focus for our attention. The spiral continues as we contract, trying to avoid pain and deny the behaviour of aversion and consequently
irritate our nervous system.
Alternatively, attending to the messages of the body and the emotions, shifts the sensations and relieves the double burden of aversion and denial. The pain becomes more bearable.
Many who come to yoga for the first time are staggered by the unfamiliarity of stretching muscles and feelings of inadequacy or embarrassment as they consider the work necessary to establish new habits of balance, strength and peace of mind. But if they softened their approach and made yoga a life’s companion by adopting a patient attitude, they would release the patterns of holding in the body and mind and enjoy the process, despite protesting muscles, joints and habits of posture.
The same is true for pleasant emotions and physical sensations. Imagine being on a hike in Strathcona Park and feeling intense joy watching the sunrise. Suddenly you find yourself planning the next trip. Your mind takes you off from the actual joyful moment into a fantasy of the future. You are holding on so firmly to increasing the
pleasure of the moment or repeating it that you don’t actually experience it. That is called attachment to pleasure.
Think about a yoga class or perhaps your own practice for a moment. Do you have favourite poses and others which you avoid? Why do you prefer some to others? Is it the ease you find in the favourites or some other sensations that your body registers? Or is it an emotional attachment? Be clear about your preferences and you will detect something else about yourself: your means of attaching pleasure to some things and pain and aversion to others.
Personally, stiff hips came with me into this lifetime. My body shape makes some poses very difficult. Furthermore, I have difficulty holding onto the gains I make in the preparatory aspects of some poses. This combination of problems is what the yogi Patanjali calls an obstacle. Once, in my misplaced zeal to “attain the pose”, I hypocritically subjected my body to an injury. The teaching was immediate and long lasting. I had to back off and accept what is. If I wish to create change it will be slow, cautious and skillful. Hypocrisy occurs when we call our practice of yoga spiritual, yet we force the body to fit some sort of image.
The body can also be the seat of focus for meditation. When one is able to attain deep states of concentration, one opens to various meditative states. One perceives layers of meaning below the obvious surface experience of daily life. Patanjali calls this samahdi.
The body may become an access of meditative states whether by emotion, breath or physical movement. An added dimension of intensity may occur. The kosas, a topic I will explore at a later date, name that layer of awareness the pranamaya kosa, or vital energy.
When yogis have worked sufficiently on conscious awareness and reflection on the physical body, then the pranamaya kosa may be touched and a new level of saddhana or practice is available.
Yogis must explore the breath and the deepening awareness that yoga can offer to the disciplined and persevering saddhu.
It was the Buddha who said: “If the body is not mastered, the mind cannot be mastered. If the body is mastered; mind is mastered.”
Kelly Murphy is owner of Bend Over Backwards Yoga Studio in Nanaimo.