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.”