I once lived in Nepal for over a year in a yoga ashram on the banks of the Bagmati, a river as sacred, and perhaps as polluted, as the Ganges in India. We would bathe in the freezing cold waters, even in winter; meditate four times a day, and practice yoga asanas morning and night. Once in a while, charred body parts from the funeral pyres up river at Pashupatinat Temple would float by. In the small adobe structure that was our home, meditation room and yoga studio, I learned how the physical postures of yoga were designed by ancient yogis. How these exercises were designed to achieve health, longevity and equipoise, but most importantly, to enable yogis to sit still, and relatively pain free, for hours on end in deep, blissful tranquility.
While recently looking at nearly 20 years of cover designs and photos of a popular yoga magazine, however, it seemed as if modern yoga practice is primarily designed for outer appearance, fitness and flexibility. It also appeared as if yoga is primarily designed for perfectly shaped white women. Quite strikingly, the covers illustrated that a radical change took place some time in the late 90s. Prior to that time, the magazine covers were artsy, the content often philosophical. But from then onward, the covers featured only attractive women with serene yoga-smiles and bodies exuding a wholesome allure.
Still, the increasing popularity of yoga, in all its profane and divine manifestations, is a healthy and welcoming sign. As a young female yoga teacher told me: “I came to the deeper understanding of yoga by starting out thinking yoga was only about physical flexibility.” She quickly learned that yoga was so much more. She learned that yoga was about flexible bodies and flexible minds moving together. Moving together toward spirit.
In India, around 200 years before Christ, Pantanjali wrote in one of his famous yoga sutras that the goal of yoga is “the cessation of mental propensities.” (But in reading his text, I did not find any information about perfect anatomical alignment or sculpted hips.) Patanjali’s main focus remained way beyond bone and flesh, and to enable people to reach this goal of spiritual tranquility, he developed Asthanga Yoga. In this comprehensive system, yoga postures, or asanas, forms only one of eight parts: yama and niyama (ethics), asanas (yoga exercises), prathyahara (sense withdrawal), dharana (concentration), pranayama (breathing exercises), dhyan (meditation) and Samadhi (spiritual peace). This system, often termed Classical Yoga by Western yoga scholars, built upon much earlier forms of yoga. French-Indian author Alain Danielou wrote that Patanjali built his comprehensive system upon the much older Samkhya philosophy as well as the prehistoric Shaiva yoga tradition, today better known as Tantra. The goal of yoga, said Patanjali, is not just to attain control of the body, but rather to tame the mind. The final spiritual goal of yoga, he said, is reached when the mind is free of thoughts, desires, needs.
In the creation philosophy of Shaivism, or Tantra, the causal consciousness of Shiva and the creative energy of Shakti are always entwined like the embrace of two cosmic lovers. Shiva’s Cosmic Consciousness is inherent in everything. Shakti’s Cosmic Energy creates everything. Metaphorically, they are two sides of the same androgynous being; two dualistic sides of the nondual Oneness of Brahma. This ancient Tantric concept of yoga appeals to my contemporary, ecological sensibilities: everything is One, everything is interconnected.
Patanjali’s yoga inspires us to find inner peace. In Tantra, the goal of yoga is explicitly God-centered. Tantric Yoga is therefore a practice of both earthly balance and spiritual union. First a yogi attempts to harmonize body and mind, then to live in harmony with the world. Ultimately, he or she seeks Samadhi, or spiritual union—the union between the human soul, or jivatman, and the soul of God, or Paramatman.
Ecstatic dancing and spiritual longing is also an integral part of yoga. Today, these timeless expressions are bursting out of yoga studios, where kirtan artists such as Jai Uttal, Krishna Das and Wah! combine the sacred and the profane with beat-savvy rhythms from both East and West. With the help of poets and translators like Coleman Barks, medieval mystic Rumi is now a bestselling poet among yogis in America. These are expressions of yoga practitioners’ deep search for magic, ecstasy and otherworldly love. Meditation practice and classes on yoga ethics are also becoming an integral part of an increasing number of yoga teachers’ offerings. Yes, in many yoga studios flexible bodies and flexible minds are fusing into spiritual union and oneness. But in studios where there is a clear focus on yoga as a fitness exercise, kirtan artists are generally not invited.
The goal of yoga’s physical exercises is to create a healthy body and mind and thus a conducive environment for spiritual practice—for meditation. The physical exercises are part of a nested continuum, from body to mind to spirit. The body is thus a springboard from which a self-inspired and sustainable spirit can soar. Many of the fitness yogis and yoginis of today may not see it the same way. For them, a beautiful, healthy body and an alert mind is more likely the main goal. In other words, if yoga makes me more flexible, more relaxed, more beautiful, so that I can be more efficient, more powerful, more attractive, why ask for more? Why ask for more, if the body simply is a springboard from which a dazzlingly successful me will ascend?
The yogis of old, however, did indeed ask for more. The intertwined distinctions they made between body, mind and spirit is a brilliant insight of yoga practice and philosophy. Yoga teaches us that any improvement on the physical or mental levels can never be perfect, can never be ultimately fulfilling, and will always leave us shortchanged. Truth is, that perfect body will never quite be perfect enough. The physical realm of our existence is indeed limited. The body will finally age. It may start to ache. Disease may come. So the yogis of old would agree with visionary poet William Blake: “He who binds to himself a joy does the winged life destroy. But he who kisses the joy as it flies lives in eternity’s sun rise.” I am not this body, the spiritual yogi would say. I am not this mind. I am That. I am Divine.
Behind the covers of today’s yoga magazines, I see glimpses of the deeper, subterranean flow of yogic wisdom and practice. In yoga studios all over the world, harmoniums and tablas are placed before outstretched yoga mats; yogis in tight clothing are loosening up their bhakti souls to Indian chants; ayurvedic massage and herbs are integral healing modalities of many yoga studios; many yoga teachers end their classes with at least rudimentary forms of meditation; popular yogis such as Sean Corn see karma yoga, or service, as a way to heal, express gratitude, and to stay centered. These are all signs of a holistic tapestry being woven together from all the integrated strands of wisdom yoga can offer. Still, the question lingers: What do we yogis really want? Keeping this question in our mind, like a silent mantra behind silent lips, I think will keep us more balanced, more authentically yogi-like—both on and off the mat. As Rumi says, it is indeed important to know what you want. Because, says this wise poet of ecstasy: “There is a subtle truth: whatever you love, you are.”