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December 1, 2011

Can Physical Practice Get you to a Spiritual Place?

Flicking through a yoga magazine lately, I came across an article written by a yoga teacher the central premise of which was that “a physical practice cannot get you to a spiritual place.” As a dedicated yoga practitioner and teacher, I was taken aback. It has been my understanding that the whole point of the physical practice is to get us to a spiritual place! When we practice asana we are not just using our bodies, we are using our bodies to refine our sensitivity to ourselves and consequently the world beyond ourselves. In hatha yoga the body and the breath are the means by which we create balance throughout the entire field of being. Sustained asana practice (and controlled breathing) works on every facet of our selves from the gross physical to the energetic, to the machinations of the mind, our habitual reactions, our inner dialogue, our ability to tolerate discomfort.  Doesn’t working on your habitual ways of thinking and reacting, many of which adversely affect others (for example, your tendency to bail when the going gets tough) constitute spiritual work? Leading a spiritual life is all about being conscious of the impact we have on others, as the lives of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, mother Theresa and Mandela exemplify.

Yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein says of the physiological benefits of asana “they improve musculoskeletal flexibility, strength, resilience, endurance, cardiovascular and respiratory efficiency, endocrine and gastrointestinal functioning, immunity, sleep, hand-eye coordination, balance. Experiments also have shown various psychological benefits, including improvement of somatic awareness, attention, memory, learning, and mood.” But, he points out the traditional purpose of asana is to assist the Hatha-Yoga practitioner in the creation of a divya-deha, a divine body which is entirely governed by the adept’s will, which is merged with the Divine will. Such a body “is an energy body that, depending on the adept’s wish, is either visible or invisible to the human eye. In this body, the liberated master can carry out benevolent activities with the least possible obstruction.” Feuerstein points out for most of us, this ideal of the realized Hatha-Yoga master is unattainable given the constraints of our lives, but, that doesn’t mean that we can accrue only the physiological affects of asana, rather asana practice is a means to transcend duality and taste non-duality (advaita).  (Feuerstein, The Spectrum of Yoga Practice)

The previous paragraph is somewhat dense, so I’ll break it down a little. Traditionally, asana practice was a means to work on the energy body, to attain mastery over the subtle dimensions of our being via the tools of physical postures with a view to not just refining our connection to ourselves, but also to everything else, and, to become so skillful in control of the physical body as to be able to convert it into pure energy in order to do good deeds unhindered. Clearly, most asana practitioners nowadays are not quite on this page, but the traditional schema may not be as outlandish as it appears at first blush. An important point to get is that the motivating force for the practice was traditionally to transcend the physical limitations imposed on our being, those limitations obtaining on any physical object subject to the laws of physics (for example causality) in the spatiotemporal realm.  Another way of saying this would be that the practice was designed (at least in part) to enable us to experience ourselves as more than our physical bodies. The practice was – and is – a technology for giving us access to the sublime, for creating a pathway by which our limited, finite selves could (can) taste the infinite boundless beyond all form. In Advaita Vedanta (non-dualism) this infinite beyond is called Brahman, the ground of all being, formless Reality.

Lets take stock of the conversation so far: hatha yoga teacher asserts that a physical practice cannot lead to a spiritual place, I disagree and use Feuerstein for support citing his explanation of hatha yoga as means for converting our bodies (matter) to energy in order that we may minimize suffering by benevolent acts. The austerities required to master the ability to convert ourselves to energy and become invisible to the human eye are beyond the ken of hatha yogis these days; I agree with Feurestein’s claim that the physical practice of asana gives us an opportunity to merge with the nondual ground of all being.

When we practice asana, we use the body to transcend the body. Granted, most of us didn’t begin to practice hatha yoga because we wanted to transcend our limited selves! We began because our friends told us it was cool, or we wanted to improve our flexibility, or we heard it was a great workout, or we knew that it helps to manage stress. And yes, the physical practice of yoga yields the aforementioned benefits and so much more besides. Though fleeting and impossible to choreograph, it can also lead to moments where we lose ourselves in the rhythm of our breath and the of flow of the poses, body, breath, awareness and movement merge into one. THIS is advaita, this is the taste of the ineffable. In these exquisite moments our finite selves merge into the infinite Self. This is the real reward. Describing our true nature as part of the eternal Self (or ultimate Reality) Kabir, the great mystic poet said “all know that the drop merges into the ocean. Few know that the ocean also merges into the drop.”

Hatha yoga offers us a set of tools to work with the mind, and the subtle energy body via the gross physical body, and to experience ourselves as beyond form, however fleeting that experience may be. By taking many different physical forms (asanas), we actually merge with the formless. Isn’t this ‘spirituality’? All of the great traditions, from the monotheistic religions to mystical teachings from every tradition, tell us that an essential component of living a spiritual life is choosing to identify not with our limited selves, but rather that aspect of ourselves that is limitless. The Upanishads state that only that which is eternal in us can recognize The Eternal.

In addition to being a doorway to transcending our limited selves, asana practice is an ideal forum to cultivate and refine our practice of the yamas (restraints) and niyamas (observances), the ethical guidlines which form the first two limbs of yoga in the traditional ashtanga system. Ahimsa (non-violence, refraining from harm/injury in action or thought) is the first yama. Asana practice is a great place to practice this. How many of us can identify with having practiced while injured, or pushed further into a pose even though it hurt our bodies, because we really wanted to get the pose, or because the person beside us/in front of us was doing the pose? For years I was in pain every time I practiced because of an injury I sustained when I was 19 years old. During my first teacher training with Ana Forrest she pointed out to me that it was a really childish way to practice. As yoga teachers, we wouldn’t let our students practice through their pain, we would give them an alternative pose, or a modification, so why as yoga teachers would we not apply that same principle to ourselves? Ahimsa begins with oneself. It took me years to learn this, I was really learning to love myself unconditionally. Many of the great ones have told us “learn to see God in yourself, then you can see God everywhere.” Isn’t unconditional love fundamental to a spiritual life?

We also get to work with aparigraha (non-hoarding) and santosha (contentment) in our hatha yoga practice, particularly those of us who have type A personalities! Sometimes we just have to let go and realize that we won’t get all the way into hanumanasana (full splits) today and be content with where we’re at. On a more substantive level I had a very visceral experience of aparigraha with relation to death about 8 years ago while taking a yoga class in Chicago. It was approaching the fourth anniversary of my mother’s death from cancer at a young age. I was very close to her and my world collapsed when she died. I was dreading her anniversary, but in an instant during that class (I don’t remember what pose) I realized that, rather than mourning her death on the day of her anniversary, I should celebrate the fact that on that day she was released from suffering.

It seems to me that commitment to refrain from causing harm, un-clutching and being satisfied with one’s life are hallmarks of a spiritual outlook and practice and are values central to all spiritual paths. Sustained and regular practice of hatha yoga can without doubt help us to embody these virtues. Yes, we fail to observe them all the time, just as we fail to do a perfect handstand, or to balance in tree pose all the time, but this should not alarm us. We simply get back on our mats with a renewed commitment, not just to our physical practice, but also to the person we are becoming because of that practice.

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Dearbhla Kelly

Born and raised in Ireland, Dearbhla Kelly M.A. is a Los Angeles-based yoga teacher, writer and neurophilosopher. She began her academic training in Amsterdam and received degrees in philosophy in Dublin and Chicago.

She is particularly skillful at marrying the more esoteric teachings of yoga with modern scientific insights and the practicalities of everyday life. Her writing has been published in the Huffington Post, Yoga Journal, Elephant Journal and Origin Magazine.

A dedicated ashtanga practitioner, she teaches yoga and neuroscience workshops worldwide. Her lilting Irish accent and Dublin wit make her classes uniquely enjoyable.