3 ways to practice Yoga: for the body, the soul, or both?

Via Ramesh Bjonnes
on Aug 5, 2011
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Do you practice yoga to get a flexible body, a bendable brain, an enlightened spirit, or to achieve a little bit of everything? Either way, you are not the first. Yoga has experimented with all these paths and expressions for centuries.

But while looking at nearly 20 years of cover photos on a popular yoga magazine recently, it seemed as if modern yoga practice is primarily designed for the body, 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 nineties.

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, you will 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 systematized Ashtanga Yoga based on already known yogic wisdom and practice.

In this comprehensive system, yoga postures, or asanas, forms only one of eight parts: yama and niyama (ethics), asanas (yoga exercises), pratyahara (sense withdrawal), dharana (concentration), pranayama (breathing exercises), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (spiritual peace).

This system, often termed Classical Yoga by Western yoga scholars, built upon much earlier forms of yoga, including Samkhya philosophy, Tantric (Shaiva) meditation practices, and also on Vedanta.

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 and needs.

While Patanjali’s philosophy was dualistic, in the creation philosophy of Shaivism, or Tantra, the cosmic consciousness of Shiva and the cosmic energy of Shakti were entwined like the embrace of two cosmic lovers.

Shiva’s cosmic consciousness is inherent in everything, says Tantra—in the body, in the soul—while Shakti’s cosmic energy is that which metaphorically takes Shiva by the hand and creates everything, the body and the soul. These twin lovers were also known as Purusha and Prakriti in the dualistic philosophies of Samkhya and Ashtanga Yoga.

Metaphorically, these “opposites” are two sides of the same androgynous being; two dualistic sides of the nondual Oneness of Brahma. And they were figuratively expressed in ancient art in the androgynous Ardhanarishvara statue (see photo above).

This ancient Tantric concept of yoga appeals to my contemporary, ecological sensibilities: everything is One, everything is interconnected. Where there is Energy, there is Consciousness. Where there is Consciousness, there is Energy.

In Tantra, the goal of yoga is explicitly both Spirit-centered and Body-centered. Because Shiva and Shakti are one. 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 jeev atman, and the cosmic soul of  param atman.

But that’s not always the case. Not all yogis have viewed the body in the same positive light as Tantra.

Indeed, many famous modern yogis, including Vivekananda, did not think much of hatha yoga, or posture yoga, at all. This body-negation has been common in India since ancient times and is, in part due to the influence of Vedanta, which viewed the body and the world as an illusion. In other words, yoga has expressed itself in different ways throughout the centuries, some forms viewed the body as divine, others as an illusion, or even sinful.

Ecstatic dancing and spiritual longing was also an integral part of some forms of yoga, most notably Bhakti Yoga. Today, these timeless expressions are bursting out of yoga studios, where kirtan artists such as Jai Uttal, Krishna Das and Wah! combine the sacredly inward with the beat-savvy outward rhythms of 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. This type of body-focused posture yoga has its roots in the tradition developed about a hundred years ago by Krishnamacarya, who mixed ancient yoga with modern gymnastics. This new hatha yoga tradition, in which meditation plays a minimal or non-existent part, has exploded in popularity and multiplicity in recent years in the US and Europe.

The goal of yoga’s physical exercises in Tantra, for example, was 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. That why it was emphasized in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika that Raja Yoga and Hatha Yoga should be practiced hand in hand.

And that is perhaps why B. K.S. Iyengar, the modern Hatha Yoga Master par excellence, said that he wished he had started to meditate when he was younger, not at 60 plus.

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?

Many of 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.

But, truth be also told, some yogis of old were as extremely body-negative as many of today’s yogis are extreme in their hedonistic body-positivity.  In other words, there is a lack of ecology, of balance in each of these approaches, in the cult of the Yoga Journal body-sculpting women as well as in the body-negating cult of yogis who deny the body through their sickly display of atrophying arms or legs.

Tantra has attempted a different approach, and has often walked that fine balance beautifully by embracing both body and soul, both Shakti and Shiva, both Prakriti and Purusha, both the inner and outer world.

The physical realm of our existence is indeed limited. The body will finally age. It may start to ache. Disease may come. So some 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 sensuous gloss on the covers of today’s yoga magazines, I do see some 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. Some are even dusting off Krishna’s urging by doing selfless service or social change activities.

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 Seane 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. So let these questions linger: Why do yoga? For the body? For the mind? For the soul? For the whole being? Whatever our answer, our practice will reflect it, our lifestyle, our talk and our walk. In that regard, there is nothing new under the yogic sun.

Keeping this perspective in our mind, like a silent mantra behind silent lips, will keep us more balanced, more honest, 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.”


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.


27 Responses to “3 ways to practice Yoga: for the body, the soul, or both?”

  1. Ramesh says:

    From facebook "Great article Ramesh! Thank you for sharing!… wise and touching words!"

  2. yogijulian says:

    wonderfully written, well researched, informative, inspiring article ramesh! suggestion: make the text larger and add some pics!

  3. Ramesh says:

    thanks so much for your feedback…it means a lot when coming from you, brother! Yes, I should increase the font and add some photos…good point!

  4. Ramesh says:

    From Facebook: Marta Ferreira Espinosa Thanks for sharing !A very important article.Well writen and explained

  5. Ramesh says:

    Julie wrote: "Namaskar Ramesh.Thank you for posting the link. A great article which contains a lot of interesting information, and a really good reminder of keeping the right focus.

  6. Ramesh says:

    Iris Fortes commented on your link.
    Iris wrote: "Great article! thank you Ramesh, hopefully more people will be interested in a more integral and consistent form of Yoga, but any start is a good start :)"

  7. Ramesh says:

    Yes, any yoga is good yoga… it becomes just gooder and gooder!

  8. yogiclarebear says:

    Great Ramesh. I like your hope, your positivity. 🙂

  9. Ramesh says:

    I resonate with your perspective here–yoga is body, mind spirit practice….

  10. Ramesh says:

    Thanks for seeing and feeling the great hope and joy that yoga brings….

  11. tanya lee markul says:

    Excellent Ramesh! This really resonates with me. I love this: 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.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Assoc. Yoga Editor
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  12. tanya lee markul says:

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  13. Ramesh says:

    Thank you, Tanya!

  14. Ramesh says:

    Yes, yoga philosophy is wonderfully rich in metaphors to live by….

  15. […] 3 Ways To Practice Yoga: For the Body, the Soul, or Both?! […]

  16. yogijulian says:

    as much as i enjoy the article, i have a personal mission to keep challenging dualism, so: when are we gonna stop perpetuating this notion of a soul that is distinct from the body? it is an outdated and archaic notion with no basis in fact, very little likelihood in reality and part of a way of thinking about spirituality that projects the sacred somewhere beyond this life, in this world, with our intact humanity…. that's all. 🙂

  17. yogijulian says:

    free of thoughts, desires and needs?! sounds like either being comatose or having asbergers… 🙂 just sayin.

  18. Ramesh says:

    keep on challenging me, everyone… you said in a previous message that you thought wilber's four quadrant were a brilliant way of looking at the world….
    using his quadrant model, the interior is different from the exterior, the body different from the mind, but because the mind is more subtle, more expansive than the body, it includes and envelopes the body… in other words, the spirit is the interior of the exterior, a continium. hence nondualism, which I embrace, is embracing the spirit, mind, body complex–it all hangs together, but what is experienced internally in the spirit is qualitatively different from what is experienced by the senses (math is different from sensual touch, but both are real)–another level of the spectrum…
    besides, it is only in this life I can experience my spirit, when my mind disassociate, it becomes hard to do asnnas and repeat my mantra, so it is here and now, baby!

  19. Ramesh says:

    just another way of saying that I am blissed out in an interior state of deep meditation… by negating intyerior reality of freedom/bliss/samadhi you are, in my mind, conflating reality rather than embracing its multiplicity of experience–the spec trum of consciousness and its manifestation from body to mind to spirit and back again….it is all one baby, but also different in expression–the rainbow is one, but it has many colors…

  20. yogijulian says:

    this is beautifully said ramesh – very nicely done…

    yea i used to really be convinced of this wilberian schema – not anymore though…. perhaps we can go deeper another time into why not. 🙂

    the very notion of "spirit" is inherently dualist – we just have to be honest about this: it proposes something conscious, essential etc that transcends the body and in this schema is supposedly the origin of the body/superceding it… we have no reason whatsoever in today's world to believe this other than wishful thinking!

    similarly – while i agree that one can (and indeed does) have a non-dual unity of interior and exterior, that are distinct but interdependent….. we must be careful to follow that nonduality all the way through – which basically means that no body = no mind (or soul or spirit or whatever signifier we choose to use).

    i think we do better to think of "spirit" as a metaphor for the interiority of our human awareness – and not buy into dualist notions of trying to somehow transcend our humanity in order to attain to our spirituality… dig?

  21. Ramesh says:

    If, as you say, spirit transcends the body, it is dualist. in yoga that is what is characterized by dvaita, in advaita, spirit is all, there is nothing outside of spirit as that is simply illusion, in tantric nondualism body and spirit are always one….two sides of the same paper, flame and heat, body and mind as hand in glove.. that does not ,mean spirit does not exist… nor that its notion is dualist. not the way I see it. so I am confused by your sudden antipathy towards wilber. it was only a week or two ago you agreed he was brilliant. i taste a strawberry with my tongue through sensory experience, I experience poetry and inner ecstasy in my meditation. in my mind and spirit, my tongue does not taste my spirit, my spirit does…each on its own level, body mind spirit these are three strands of a greater being of oneness
    reading it diferebtly, one is a materialist–there is only body, senses, but that is conflating my yoga experience… and to and to tantra that is dualism

  22. yogijulian says:

    hahahaha! i can see how that would seem confusing. i have studied and admired wilber for about 15 years. i was impressed with just about everything he wrote for he first ten years – after that i started to find i had some criticisms and as i continued on my own journey of seeking to integrate science and spirituality and psychology, i found he was very lacking in some areas.

    also wilber's model has evolved over time and i think his work in the 90's was his best….. the direction integral institute and his books have taken in the last 10 years are not so much my cup of tea.

    i also can simultaneously find wilber brilliant but some of his key ideas deeply flawed.

    as you know, the conundrum of dualism vs nondualism is a tricky one and i think you are doing a nice job of dancing down the razor's edge.


    my main point is that i don't think we are doing yoga for some afterlife reward that is located in the limitless realm of pure deathless spirit beyond the body. for me that is just christianity in different mala beads.

  23. Ramesh says:

    I mostly agree. I was part of the political branch of wilber's institute for some years, so I m familiar with the changes and appreciate your criticism, which i share in many respects. systems, no matter how integral, are only maps, and some maps are bound to be flawed.
    I also agree with you that yoga is practiced for today, not tomorrow, not for some heavenly reward, not for some dip in the holy river of the mythic imagination.

  24. tanya lee markul says:

    Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  25. […] 3 Ways To Practice Yoga: For the Body, the Soul, or Both?! […]

  26. […] contorting and sweating bring you face to face with yours without exception, without relief in true Tantric fashion. Of course, with practice the student can come to find peace, calm, control and even […]