Yoga Body, Yoga Spirit: How Can We Have Both? ~ Ramesh Bjonnes

Via Ramesh Bjonnes
on Oct 14, 2010
get elephant's newsletter

It’s easy to understand why John Friend highly recommends the book Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Yoga “for all sincere students of yoga.” Because, Mark Singleton’s thesis is a well researched expose of how modern hatha yoga, or “posture practice,” as he terms it, has changed within and after the practice left India.

But the book is mainly about how yoga transformed in India itself in the last 150 years. How yoga’s main, modern proponents—T. Krishnamacharya and his students, K. Patttabhi Jois and B. K. S. Iyengar—mixed their homegrown hatha yoga practices with European gymnastics.

This was how many Indian yogis coped with modernity: Rather than remaining in the caves of the Himalayas, they moved to the city and embraced the oncoming European cultural trends. They especially embraced its more “esoteric forms of gymnastics,” including the influential Swedish techniques of Ling (1766-1839).

Singleton uses the word yoga as a homonym to explain the main goal of his thesis. That is, he emphasizes that the word yoga has multiple meanings, depending on who uses the term.

This emphasis is in itself a worthy enterprise for students of everything yoga; to comprehend and accept that your yoga may not be the same kind of yoga as my yoga. Simply, that there are many paths of yoga.

In that regard, John Friend is absolutely right: this is by far the most comprehensive study of the culture and history of the influential yoga lineage that runs from T. Krishnamacharya’s humid and hot palace studio in Mysore to Bikram’s artificially heated studio in Hollywood.

Singleton’s study on “postural yoga” makes up the bulk of the book.  But he also devotes some pages to outline the history of “traditional” yoga, from Patanjali to the Shaiva Tantrics who, based on much earlier yoga traditions, compiled the hatha yoga tradition in the middle ages and penned the famous yoga text books the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the Geranda Samhita.

It is while doing these examinations that Singleton gets into water much hotter than a Bikram sweat. Thus I hesitate in giving Singleton a straight A for his otherwise excellent dissertation.

Singleton claims his project is solely the study of modern posture yoga. If he had stuck to that project alone, his book would have been great and received only accolades. But unfortunately, he commits the same blunder so many modern hatha yogis do.

All yoga styles are fine, these hatha yogis say. All homonyms are equally good and valid, they claim. Except that homonym, which the cultural relativist hatha yogis perceive as an arrogant version of yoga. Why? Because its adherents, the traditionalists, claim it is a deeper, more spiritual and traditional from of yoga.

This kind of ranking, thinks Singleton, is counterproductive and a waste of time.

Georg Feuerstein disagrees. Undoubtedly the most prolific and well-respected yoga scholar outside India today, he is one of those traditionalists who holds yoga to be an integral practice—a body, mind, spirit practice. So how does Feuerstein’s integral yoga homonym differ from the non-integral modern posture yoga homonym presented to us by Singleton?

Simply put, Feuerstein’s remarkable writings on yoga have focused on the holistic practice of yoga. On the whole shebang of practices that traditional yoga developed over the past 5000 plus years: asanas (postures), pranayama (breathing exercises), chakras (subtle energy centers), kundalini (spiritual energy), bandhas (advanced body locks), mantras, mudras (hand gestures), etc.

Hence, while posture yoga primarily focuses on the physical body, on doing postures, integral yoga includes both the physical and the subtle body and involves a whole plethora of physical, mental and spiritual practices hardly ever practiced in any of today’s modern yoga studios.

I would not have bothered to bring all this up had it not been for the fact that Singleton mentioned Feuerstein in a critical light in his book’s “Concluding Reflections.” In other words, it is strategically important for Singleton to critique Feuerstein’s interpretation of yoga, a form of yoga which happens to pretty much coincide with my own.

Singleton writes: “For some, such as best-selling yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein, the modern fascination with postural yoga can only be a perversion of the authentic yoga of tradition.” Then Singleton quotes Feuerstein, who writes that when yoga reached Western shores it “was gradually stripped of its spiritual orientation and remodeled into fitness training.”

Singleton then correctly points out that yoga had already started this fitness change in India. He also correctly points out that fitness yoga is not apposed to any “spiritual” enterprise of yoga. But that is not exactly Feuerstein’s point: he simply points out how the physical exercise part of modern yoga lacks a deep “spiritual orientation.” And that is a crucial difference.

Then Singleton exclaims that Feuerstein’s assertions misses the “deeply spiritual orientation of some modern bodybuilding and women’s fitness training in the harmonial gymnastics tradition.”

While I think I am quite clear about what Feuerstein means by “deeply spiritual,” I am still not sure what Singleton means by it from just reading Yoga Body. And that makes an intelligent comparison difficult. Hence why did Singleton bring this up in his concluding arguments in a book devoted to physical postures? Surely to make a point.

Since he did make a point about it, I would like to respond.

According to Feuerstein, the goal of yoga is enlightenment (Samadhi), not physical fitness, not even spiritual physical fitness. Not a better, slimmer physique, but a better chance at spiritual liberation.

For him, yoga is primarily a spiritual practice involving deep postures, deep study and deep meditation. Even though postures are an integral part of traditional yoga, enlightenment is possible even without the practice of posture yoga, indisputably proven by such sages as Ananda Mai Ma, Ramana Maharishi, Nisargadatta Maharaj, and others.

The broader question about the goal of yoga, from the point of view of traditional yoga is this: is it possible to attain enlightenment through the practice of fitness yoga alone? The answer: Not very easy. Not even likely. Not even by practicing the kind of fitness yoga Singleton claims is “spiritual.”

According to integral yoga, the body is the first and outer layer of the mind. Enlightenment, however, takes place in and beyond the fifth and innermost layer of the subtle body, or kosa, not in the physical body. Hence, from this particular perspective of yoga, fitness yoga has certain limits, simply because it cannot alone deliver the desired results.

Similarily, Feuerstein and all us other traditionalists (oh, those darn labels!) are simply saying that if your goal is enlightenment, then fitness yoga probably won’t do the trick. You can stand on your head and do power yoga from dawn to midnight, but you still won’t be enlightened.

Hence, they designed sitting yoga postures (padmasana, siddhasana, viirasana, etc) for such particular purposes. Indeed, they spent more time sitting still in meditation over moving about doing postures, as it was the sitting practices which induced the desired trance states of enlightenment, or Samadhi.

In other words, you can be enlightened without ever practicing the varied hatha postures, but you probably won’t get enlightened by just practicing these postures alone, no matter how “spiritual” those postures are.

These are the kinds of layered insights and perspectives I sorely missed while reading Yoga Body. Hence his criticism of Feuerstein seems rather shallow and kneejerk.

Singleton’s sole focus on describing the physical practice and history of modern yoga is comprehensive, probably quite accurate, and rather impressive, but his insistence that there are “deeply spiritual” aspects of modern gymnastics and posture yoga misses an important point about yoga. Namely, that our bodies are only as spiritual as we are, rom that space in our hearts, deep within and beyond the body.

Yoga Body thus misses a crucial point many of us have the right to claim, and without having to be criticized for being arrogant or mean-minded: that yoga is primarily a holistic practice, in which the physical body is seen as the first layer of a series of ascending and all-embracing layers of being—from body to mind to spirit. And that ultimately, even the body is the dwelling place of Spirit. In sum, the body is the sacred temple of Spirit.

And where does this yoga perspective hail from? According to Feuerstein, “It underlies the entire Tantric tradition, notably the schools of hatha yoga, which are an offshoot of Tantrism.”

In Tantra it is clearly understood that the human being is a three-tiered being—physical, mental and spiritual. Hence, the Tantrics very skillfully and carefully developed practices for all three levels of being.

From this ancient perspective, it is very gratifying to see how the more spiritual, all-embracing tantric and yogic practices such as hatha yoga, mantra meditation, breathing exercises, ayurveda, kirtan, and scriptural study are increasingly becoming integral features of many modern yoga studios.

So, to answer the question in the title of this article. Can we have both a limber physique and a sacred spirit while practicing yoga? Yes, of course we can. Yoga is not either/or. Yoga is yes/and. The more holistic our yoga practice becomes—that is,  the more spiritual practice is added to our posture practice—the more these two seemingly opposite poles—the body and the spirit—will blend and unify. Unity was, after all, the goal of ancient Tantra.

Perhaps soon someone will write a book about this new, ever-growing homonym of global yoga? Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body is not such a book. But a book about this, shall we call it, neo-traditional, or holistic form of yoga would certainly be an interesting cultural exploration.

Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, Mark Singleton, Oxford University Press, New York, 2010


About Ramesh Bjonnes

Ramesh Bjonnes is the co-founder of the Prama Institute, a holistic retreat center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and the Director of the Prama Wellness Center, a retreat center specializing in detox by incorporating juice fasting, ayurveda, meditation and yoga to cleanse, relax and rejuvenate. Bjonnes is also a writer, yogi and workshop leader. He lived in India and Nepal in the 1980s learning directly from the traditional teachers of yoga and Tantra. He has taught workshops in many countries and is the author of Sacred Body, Sacred Spirit (InnerWorld) and Tantra: The Yoga of Love and Awakening (Hay House India). He lives and practices in an eco-village in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.


29 Responses to “Yoga Body, Yoga Spirit: How Can We Have Both? ~ Ramesh Bjonnes”

  1. Padma Kadag says:

    Probably many of the responses, if the "yogis" are being honest with themselves, would be that they are not really seeking enlightenment. Yoga has become an "I feel good" social activity. There is nothing wrong with making one's self feel good or "Happy". But it seems as though they want to drive a Ferrari to the corner two blocks away to pick up a gallon of milk. Yoga, and some aspects in Buddhism, are being used in ways which they were not designed. Enlightenment is a commitment not a weekend retreat. However, there is some blessing just by coming in contact with the dharma. Ramesh this article is interesting. Would you agree that all of the traditionalist "vehicles" you mention, themselves, could not lead one to enlightenment without a Guru who has gone before?

  2. Ramesh says:

    Padma, having a physical guru can be helpful on the path; it can also be a distraction, even a detour, if the guru is not enlightened, but most importantly, in yoga philosophy the true guru is Brahman, and the grace of Brahman, God, Spirit, as well as That presence's inner teachings, is available to us all, so having a guru is not ultimately necessary for enlightenment.. What is important is our ability to access that inner Grace of Brahman, who is truly the true and only real guru. As swami Beyondananda jokingly said, the meaning of guru is: "Gee, you are you!" So, yes and no. Both yes/and….

  3. […] Yoga Body vs. Yoga Spirit: Can We Have Both? ~ Ramesh Bjonnes … […]

  4. Hi, Ramesh. Thank you for this very interesting and insightful essay.

    I think your response to Padma is right on target. Padma, it seems to me Yoga has always been about seeking happiness, or its synonym phrase "an end to suffering". Nothing new about that. Infinite bliss is how enlightenment itself is defined in the ancient texts. You can say there are different types of happiness, some more profound than others than others. But, it seems to me, it is inaccurate to say Yoga is not about finding happiness.

    Bob W.

  5. Ramesh says:

    Very well said, Bob. One of the Sanskrit terms for happiness is Ananda, or bliss, which, in its ultimate state denotes union, oneness with Spirit. So the more we feel this union, the more we experience this bliss, this happiness, the more walk the path of yoga. And, as you say Bob, that happiness is different from the happiness derived from eating ice cream, as it is not dependent on an outside source and is primarily a sensory experience, while true, yogic bliss is internal, heartfelt, not dependent on anything but its own state of being.

  6. Ben_Ralston says:

    Another lovely article Ramesh, thank you.

  7. Padma Kadag says:

    Hi Bob, Believe me…I have no problem with people doing Yoga for really any reason at all. We can safely assume that whatever people do, we do it to create some kind of "happy" circumstance. Though being happy for individuals comes in every kind of form. My comments or questions for Ramesh are really in the spirit of Yoga of the "traditionalists" and
    their actual intent to attain enlightenment in one lifetime and the Modern Yoga's seemingly leaving that original intent of seeking enlightenment behind. This is not a judgement on my part. I did think that this was the thesis of Ramesh's article. Do you feel that the Yoga that you practice is such a path to enlightenment? Are you wanting to attain enlightenment yourself? Do you see the Yoga, as it is taught today by thousands of teachers here in the west, capable of enlightened accomplishments? This questions, for me, are not taken lightly.

  8. Ramesh says:

    Thanks, Ben, always lovely to get your sweet pearls of wisdom, too…..keep them coming!

  9. Ramesh says:

    Carol, thanks again for a very thoughtful and insightful reply. Always wonderful to read your comments. Did you read Singleton's book, or did you base your comments based on my article?

    I agree with your points above, and I think that similar thoughts were expressed in my article. Put it this way: someone only practicing posture yoga may be far more spiritual than someone practicing meditation, which is supposed to be more spiritual. It all depends… it is always very subjective… that said, if that same spiritual person only practicing asanas would couple that with deep meditation, the spiritual experience would increase even more. That is what I meant. His criticism of Feuerstein for pointing out basically the same seemed out of line, especially beacause it was used in the summary of the book at the end.. But i am open to have missed the mark with Mark, as well.

  10. Rit says:

    Thank you for what seems the definitive word on this subject… for now, at least!
    I enjoy your insight and facility with written word.
    Appreciate your shout-out to Robert Bly as well. He was influential in my early years.

  11. Great insights in this comment, Carol. Thank you.

    Bob W.

  12. […] Bjonnes argues in Elephant Journal that yoga is holistic, in his review of Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Yoga, by Mark […]

  13. Ramesh says:

    Rit, thank you for your nice comments. These are complex but important issues and I think the truth is somewhere in between all our points of view, and that we are closer to a common understanding than it may at times seem.
    Wonderful to hear of your love for Robert Bly's work. Great man and a true poet-sage….

  14. Carol Horton says:

    Hi Ramesh: While I don't claim to have much expertise on traditional yoga, from what I have read about it I would agree with you. I would just phrase it a bit differently. Again, just based on what I've read, it seems that traditional yoga was a fierce, radical, ascetic, wholly demanding spiritual discipline, under a guru-disciple relationship, in which one committed wholly to reaching Samadhi. Modern yoga is an accessible, adaptable mind-body-spirit practice designed for householders engaged in work, education, family, etc. So the spirituality of traditional yoga seems way more committed, intense, and demanding. I would assume for those who were able to stay on the path it also produced much deeper spiritual experiences. But even at the time when this was an established part of Indian culture, very few people were yogis. It was not meant for everybody, like modern yoga, but for the initiated few.

    I would be interested to know if this sounds right to you.

  15. Ramesh says:

    Carol, yes it does sound right for those on the ascetic path. However, as Bob mentions below, there were many paths of yoga in the old days as well. One of them was Bhakti Yoga, for some, like Kabir and Mirabai, it was also a fierce path, but for the householders a rather sweet, heart-centered path. I would like to add to what Bob says that the kind of hatha yoga often practiced in the US today, which is physically quite demanding and fierce, was never practiced in India by itself until the changes Singleton describes in his book. So this is a new development, and as Feuerstein says a departure. If that is all you practice, it is also a detour spiritually and hence not as spiritually intense as if it's complimented with study, meditation, etc.

  16. Ramesh says:

    Carol and Bob, would like to add, though, than many very advanced and also enlightened yogis were householders and spent much time in meditation, as much as the ascetics. So there is a tradition of that kind of path in India as well. Examples: Nisargadatta Maharaj, Lahiri Mahasaya, Ananda Mai Ma, Kabir, and many other great saints. So, living in the world is no hindrance to living a fierce, radical path of spirituality.

  17. Linda-Sama says:

    "living in the world is no hindrance to living a fierce, radical path of spirituality."

    thank you. and hallelujah.

    I always wonder at what peoples' definition of "enlightenment" is….AS IF it is really something that is so out there it needs to be continuously run after.

  18. Carol Horton says:

    Hi All: Thanks for the feedback – just to clarify, I was thinking specifically of hatha yoga, as the most direct (at least in theory) precursor to what we're doing today, not bhakti yoga etc. If hatha yoga has in general shifted from being primarily for ascetics and rennunciates to primarily for householders, then that is a significant change. And I think that if hatha yoga was redesigned to be accessible to as many people as possible, then the type of spirituality it typically embodied would change too (in the direction of becoming less demanding). Of course, there are always exceptions – but my interest in is trying first to identify the more general patterns.

  19. Hi, Carol. I don't think I'd change anything I wrote if you had said "Hatha Yoga" instead of "Yoga". My impression is that Hatha has always had the kind of rich diversity Feuerstein describes as well. Ramesh?

    Bob W.

  20. Thanks, Ramesh. That's very helpful.

    Bob W.

  21. Ramesh says:

    Carol, Bob: After writing the above, I checked Feuerstein's Encyclopedia of Yoga and found this very interesting passage from the Hatha Yoga Pradipka which states that "there are those who practice hatha yoga without the knowledge of raja yoga. These practitioners I deem deprived of their efforts." In other places, the same book says that hatha yoga and raja yoga are to be practiced together.
    So here we have a scriptural source for this schism already back then. So, perhaps we are just repeating an old human story, as it appears also in the old days that at least some people mostly practiced yoga for the physical joy of it.

  22. […] yoga in the US involve borderline obsession with the physical form. I acknowledge the value of Iyengar yoga, and B.K.S. Iyengar’s wonderful teachings, but I get pretttty agitated when an instructor […]

  23. indian_cave_yogi says:

    Aim of yoga is moksha, everything else is a byproduct , mostly very useful byproduct

  24. Ramesh says:

    Nice way to put it, IndianCaveYogi.

  25. Ramesh says:

    Wonderful comments, Carin. And that was basically why I spent so much time in my review to highlight Singleton complete disregard for where Feuerstein was coming from.

  26. Ramesh says:

    Yes, this makes sense, but Vivekananda did not adapt any postures; he never taught posture yoga at all; it was Krishnamamcarya who adopted the postures, while Vivekananda promoted Vedanta philosophy and meditation.

  27. […] problem with other than it being called “yoga”), is the contrived and often eclectic “spiritual” yoga practices taught by people that don’t come from a real lineage and don’t have real […]

  28. […] in the yoga community about the “yoga body.” Body image has and will be forever recycled as a topic of interest, concern, impact, and awareness in many […]

  29. yogijulian says:

    enlightenment may be the biggest red herring in our zeitgeist. perhaps it is best to consider it a kind of archetypal mythic symbol?

    all the emphasis here on something "beyond the body" is for me perhaps a fetishistic tilting at windmills and holding onto exotic fantasies.

    "enlightenment" typically means coming to some kind of higher knowledge (usually of a theistic variety) about the nature of the universe, combined with some kind of ability to not be bothered by neurotic concerns or emotional attachments.

    in practical terms i think it is most likely a neuroplastic effect of spending a lot of time alone, disconnecting from the world and other people combined with a predisposition for powerfully altered brain states in which one becomes convinced of various metaphysical beliefs.

    in today's spirituality it is a mystified, unknowable, ultimate realization that holds a kind of holy grail reverence, even though (and perhaps because) no-one can define it.

    red herring fantasy.

    now – to my mind the truly integrated approach comes after one realizes that we are bodies with extraordinary neurochemical capacities and that by accepting our mortal, biological nature we can sacralize our embodied, emotive AND poetic, mythic, intellectual nature, whilst facing existential reality and finding that love and insight become more valuable precisely because we are NOT eternal, there is nowhere else to go and suffering, injustice and death are inevitable aspects of a cosmos that was not set in motion for our benefit by some benevolent force.