(First published 10/11/2008)
The body is mentioned frequently in yoga, in relation to the breath, and in relation to the mind. There is a vast selection of postures available in yoga, from gentle resting positions to complicated athletic positions that seem impossible to get into. But is it all about the body? >
It is possibly not surprising to discover that the body and its abilities can appear to be the most important factor in yoga.
This is the question I would like to answer in this chapter: if yoga practice is spiritual and about finding peace and stillness, why is there so much emphasis on the body?
Hatha yoga is the yoga tradition that uses the body as a means to an end, as opposed to other types of yoga – such as bhakti yoga which is a devotional path or karma yoga which is path of selfless service.
Hatha yoga uses the body, through asanas (physical postures) as a tool. The benefits one derives from asanas can range from the physical to the spiritual level. The use of the body provides the link between the external and internal selves.
To look at one’s yoga practice in terms of practical benefits, the body is a vehicle that carries us through life. And a healthy vehicle travels more efficiently and further.
One of the traditional explanations as to why physical postures are practised, is that these exercises are designed to tune and tone the body so that the practitioner is then able to sit comfortably in meditation, without the hindrance of bodily pains blocking the ability to access deep meditation.
Some of the holy men of India, the sadhus, take this practice on an extreme path, where they push the body to the limit, as well as the mind, with activities such as sitting in a ring of fire, standing on one leg for years, getting into contortionist positions and other such activities that look very painful.
They do this to demonstrate that they are “beyond the body”. The body is seen as a material object that they renounce, as part of their spiritual journey. Some sects of sadhus, the “naga babas”, have rejecting all worldly objects, including clothing – they are the ones that can be seen in India, smeared with ash, but not a lot else.
Most yoga practitioners do not take this extreme path of yoga, but it illustrates that the purpose of yoga is to go beyond our attachments – both emotional and material.
I mention the sadhus of India because I wish to highlight the subtle and often paradoxical message within yoga. These holy men take the body and demonstrate what they can do with it, to show that its meaningless to them.
In this case one practices yoga with its physical postures, but one doesn’t want to become caught in the form – in the physical pursuit just for the opportunity of a physical beauty.
Put it another way, the yoga postures that we practice are not an end in themselves, but a means to an end. Most people I have met who practice for many years, notice that as their understanding of their practice progresses, the importance of the physical practice subsides. That may have, however, come after many years of a strong physical yoga practice, where the body became able to twist and turn into all manner of postures.
It is a great benefit to our health that the body, mind and soul becomes healthy and full of vitality during this practice, but the subtle lesson is not to become caught and trapped by the physical aspect. Of course, healthy body can mean a healthy mind. And your body is the vehicle to carry you this journey, and looking after it, tuning it and keeping it in good physical working order, helps to stay on the journey. But as many, who have had physical injury or limitation, will attest, there is more to this than the body.
Which brings me to my point, which is to know that these physical postures in yoga will help you to get to a better place, in your heart, in your soul, in your whole being, but it also takes awareness not to get caught up in the physical practice and forget where it is taking you.
As I said at beginning, the physical side of yoga will help you to sit in peace, and stillness, without distraction.
And if you translate this message into daily lifestyle: a healthy physical yoga practice can help you through the day. It can remove those aches and strains so that you can go through the day comfortable, it can improve the immune system so that you don’t get ill, and it can help reduce stress and depression so that each day is greeted with a smile.