In the dance of yoga, we can feel inspired and we can feel grounded. Inspiration and connection are manifestations of spirit and soul.
For most of us in the West, soul and spirit seem like synonyms: when someone we love dies, we may say his soul has departed, or we may say his spirit has left. What’s the difference?
In the Eastern Daoist philosophy, there are five distinct kinds of soul, not just one. In Western psychologies, such as the model proposed by Carl Jung, we also recognize that our inner landscape is not just one flat terrain: within each of us are many personalities and functions. Within each of us are both spirit and soul, two vastly different aspects of our being.
Spirit is that which inspires us; lifts us up.
Spirit is exciting, and gives meaning to life and what we do. Spirit is the top of the mountain. It is our inhalation. Spirit is the deep longing for purpose; it can pick us up and move us thousands of miles away from our front door and comfortable bed. Pilgrims are moved by spirit.
Spirit has its negative aspects too: it can be very cold, dry and lonely on the top of a mountain! Spirit can be too analytical, clinical and aloof from feelings and from others.
Soul is found in the valleys: it is being with others, communicating, belonging and living with our daily dramas.
Soul is baking bread, cooking meals and cleaning toilets. Soul is deep; spirit is broad. Soul is our exhalation. Soul is antecedent to meaning. It is life in its primal expression—we can grow in its rich soil but we can also get stuck and wallow in the slime and the refuse of life. Spirit is enriched by ideas. Soul is nourished through rituals: the family gatherings at special times of years where old squabbles are reignited are soul expression.
You will often hear people talk about finding, or wanting to find their soul mate, but what they often are looking for is their spirit mate! Someone to bring meaning and excitement to their boring, drab, ordinary life—a special friend (it doesn’t have to be a lover) who will go with you on an impulse to Greece or India, or join you on some other wild adventure.
And sometimes, what we really do need is a soul mate rather than a spirit mate: someone we can deeply communicate with—not always with words, but always with presence. A special friend with whom we can take a long walk through the woods or along a stretch of beach, and not exchange a single word—that is a soul mate.
Soul and spirit combine to make us realize our true wholeness.
Often we look for someone, our soul mate, to help us become whole, but the whole is always the whole: pour out half a glass of wine and what remains is all of what remains—diminished but still whole. Refilling the glass does not restore wholeness; it simply adds to it.
Symbols of totality have been found in every culture and most often it is depicted simply by a circle. A little circle is not less whole than a huge circle. The symbol of the Daoist yin and yang reflects this wholeness and it also illuminates the complementary nature of the territory within.
The darkness of the yin side complements and completes the light of the yang side. The whole could not exist without these two aspects. It is easy to think of light and dark as opposites, but they do not oppose, they complete!
Look more carefully: the darkness doesn’t exist at the expense of the light. There is darkness even within the light. Light requires darkness to give life contrast and definition, and vice versa. A life lived fully in the dark is empty and void, but a life lived completely in the light is blind and sterile.
Soul and spirit are not opposites; they are complements —like the yin and yang symbol: the dark, soulful swirl complements and completes the light, spirited swirl. We absolutely need both in life and these two forces pull us back and forth. Sometimes we shrink from committing to one aspect of life, or to one person because we fear we will have to give up the other. If I choose this person, who makes me feel so alive and inspired, am I giving up my soul? If I choose this other person who makes me feel so happy, safe and comfortable, am I abandoning the purpose of my life?
Spirit is in the head: it is calculating and visionary: it is Leonard Cohen’s major chord. Soul is the minor chord: it is in the gut. It is real and present. They meet in the heart, halfway between the head and the gut, where the dance begins. In our yoga practice, we can enjoin the dance: there will be times of soaring spirit and times of deep soul-felt emotion.
The North American culture is very spiritual but at a cost of a loss of soulfulness. We seek inspiration; we want constant improvement; joy and happiness is our divine right and pulls us away from that which builds soul. “Smile” and “have a nice day” are oft heard, high-spirited invocations of spirit. In more traditional cultures, family, religion and rituals provide the soulfulness that grounds life.
To balance, to become whole, we need to create space for both spirit and soul in our lives.
Yoga can provide a wonderful way to build our spirit. Many people come to yoga classes to be inspired, to be lifted up and to find purpose in life. Yoga can offer more than that. Yoga can also provide regular rituals that also take us back down into the valley of soul and help us reconnect with the depths of our nature. A yoga class is a chance to reconnect to a community of fellow students, to the studio or teachers you have come to know and enjoy. Yoga can become your regular, soul-building ritual. The ritual can be as simple as sitting for a few minutes before and after the class begins.
Many years ago, in my first yoga teacher training, I was told a teacher should never play music that has words during a yoga class, especially English words, because it was too distracting. I wondered, distracting from what? Words inspire us: words are one of the most important ways that we communicate with others. Words can’t be bad, but they can be used in unskillful ways at times.
Many yoga teachers get around this edict by playing songs that have words of another language—usually Sanskrit. But, the symbols of South Asia mean little to most of us in the West. What do Hanuman, Ganesha and Kali Durga really mean to an accountant in Toronto? If we want to evoke and explore spirit and soul, it can be very helpful to use symbols and types of music that are part of our culture.
In your yoga practice, choose some music that has meaning to you, or that viscerally affects you. Music can be inspiring or it can be soulful: notice how you feel when you listen and move to your own chosen music. Imagine a great movie without its soundtrack. Star Wars would not have become the mythic movie it is without its music. Imagine Lord of the Rings or Avatar with no music. There would be no movement.
While you practice your own, unique physical yoga, indulge yourself: see if you can dance with the dark swirl of soul and the soaring swirl of spirit. At times, allow yourself to be lifted higher, and then allow yourself to be brought down low.
Rejoice and wallow in equal measure. Life is not always clean and antiseptic. Love is not always milk and honey—sometimes it is down and dirty. We need dirt and sunshine. Find the dance in the intersection: it is not one or the other. Seek the synthesis between yin and yang, between soul and spirit. When you have found that synthesis, pay attention—something interesting is about to happen.
End Note: To learn more about soul, check out Thomas Moore’s seminal book, Care of the Soul.
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Ed: Brianna Bemel