After summer break, with a new session of yoga classes approaching, my thoughts turn to what I most want to embody and share as a teacher. This year though, I am finding it especially challenging. My discovery that modern asana based practice was no sacred, time-worn discipline but a 20th century invention (see here and here) was a bit of a shock.
Not only did it undermine everything I’d been so evangelically teaching, it left me searching for a new language to describe yoga to my students. Can I, without reference to history, to ancient tradition, explain what this practice of postures we call yoga – is really all about?
Well, I have to try. Because I haven’t lost faith in what modern yoga-whatever it is- can accomplish. Medical science demonstrates that yoga makes us healthier and happier – and for this reason alone it deserves our committed practice.
So the big question then becomes – how to most effectively teach it? What framework should be provided, what context to explain yoga’s miraculous ability to revitalize, heal and transform?
I don’t disregard the influence of Eastern mystical wisdom. Because the irony is that while post modern practice has little to do with historic yoga, it has paradoxically distilled the essence of enlightenment teachings.
I believe modern yoga, by amalgamating ancient spiritual wisdom with modernist ideas of somatics and embodied cognition is forging a revolutionary new/old body technology that is capable of unlocking undreamed possibilities of human consciousness and potential. Possibilities, it seems, already well understood by the yogi’s of old.
Now that’s a pretty big statement I know, so bear with me as I try to unpack it.
The Healing Art of Embodiment
Lets start with the idea of “conscious embodiment” – a concept central to somatic psychology and body work. According to yoga historian Dr. Mark Singleton, somatics began to “interact with twentieth century international yoga through the development of psychoanalytic body work” pioneered by William Reich and Alexander Lowen. The term somatics is derived from the Greek “somatikos”, soma: “living, aware, bodily person”which posits that neither body nor mind is separate from the other; that both are part of a living process.
This idea is also fundamental to yogic philosophy and Singleton points out many somatic practices “are explicitly derived from asana and pranayama, with the many of them identical to the prop-assisted posture of Iyengar yoga.”
One of the most important shared concepts between somatics and modern yoga is that chronic emotional tension creates physical patterns in the body, rigid shoulders, clenched jaws, restricted breathing etc. Like kinks in a garden hose, these rigidities armor the musculature, inhibiting healthy function by dampening the electrical activity of the nervous systems and spinal column, restricting the free flow of fluids, blood, lymph etc. and negatively affecting heart rhythms, blood pressure and hormonal balance.
Yoga, as does somatics, works on releasing emotional tension from our body, musculature, connective tissues and joints, allowing normal function to return. And it helps us develop awareness of the mental patterns that cause these ‘blocks’ in the first place. As the great yoga scholar and author Georg Feuerstein wrote “Gaining awareness of the body’s vital energy, one comes to realize that depression, confusion, fear, hatred, disease, and love are, in fact, cellular experiences of consciousness.” A statement, I’m sure, with which the ancient yogis would agree.
So while I think that much of modern yoga’s value in its somatic applications – in creating ‘conscious embodiment”- I think it goes even farther than that. Today science demonstrates how our minds can influence our biological functions but it is also uncovering evidence for another key yogic idea – that it also works the other way around. We can alter our psychology and our consciousness through the ‘technology’ of the body.
The Body: A Technology of Consciousness?
While scientists aren’t sure exactly why or how it works, studies reveal that reclining postures help to inhibit the flight or fight response and ease angry emotions while powerful or expansive postures boost testosterone, decrease the levels of the stress hormone cortisol and even increase tolerance to pain.
Now think of yoga poses we apply with specific effects in mind. Warrior postures, arms and legs spread wide and strong – for developing strength and power. Forward folds( triggering nerves connecting to our parasympathetic system) for cooling, calming and relaxation.
Are these postures not a real technology by which we can boost our mood and soothe ourselves? That they are centuries old or derived from 20th century calisthenics, no longer matters – because they work.
Even more fascinating are the implications raised by research exploring the ritual use of body posture to alter consciousness. Dr. Felictas Goodman‘s investigation into the use of ritual posture in cross cultural religious and spiritual practices, has documented at least seventy postures (many similar to yoga poses) which create verifiable physiological changes in brain wave function – switching the beta waves of ordinary consciousness to the low-frequency high amplitude patterns of theta waves.
In a similar range with sleep and dreaming, the theta state is one of deep relaxation and hyper awareness. Stress related hormones fall off and the brain begins to release beta-endorphins, the body’s own opiates. The theta state is associated with enhanced creativity and problem solving skills, heightened intuition, positive feelings of emotional connection, and spiritual experiences.
Taken together, the implications of somatics, embodied cognition and the mind altering effects of ritual postures, seem to suggest that modern yoga is activating what author Joseph Chilton Pearce describes as a “ biology of transcendence” hidden in our cells, flesh and bone. A biology, I believe, whose potential was already being explored by the ancient enlightenment traditions – and that we as practitioners of modern yoga, are currently reinventing today.
So in finding new words for my students, to describe why yoga is so important and relevant to us now, I want to start with this. Yoga empowers us – physically, mentally and spiritually. It provides a tool by which we, in the midst of our secular culture, can re-sacralize the body and reconnect with our transcendent capacities for spiritual development. Postural practice may not be millenia old – but it is an instrument by which we can enhance our health, boost our intelligence, heighten our creativity and make ourselves happier. All in all, it sounds like a pretty good reason to practice to me!