When I first began practicing yoga it was all so simple. Breathe and move in a certain way and the life-enhancing benefits of yoga would flow into your body. Then things got more complicated. Yoga experts began to abound – and they disagreed about practically everything – from technique, methodology and physical alignment, to the meaning and purpose of yoga itself.
I began to question was I doing yoga wrong or right? Were my knee’s locked, was my pelvis tilted? In or out? Should I be stressing my body or activating my relaxation response? Was I a cultural appropriator or a decolonizer? Or even worse a new ager? Was my practice congruent with my deepest beliefs and what were those beliefs – exactly? It went on and on. Obviously, all this self scrutiny only served to disconnect me from my actual practice – i.e. feeling the “good stuff” flow into my body.
While I love the discourse (and I really do) I’ve found its left me well, a little disembodied. So lately I’ve begun to feel a deep need to reconnect to my personal beliefs about the nature of yoga. And (thank goodness) I’ve come full circle to the premise that underlies this blog – that the body is an instrument of spiritual practice.
Despite the current trend towards the desacralization of yoga – I still believe yoga means recognizing, as the great modern guru B.K.S. Iyengar put it, that “the needs of the body are the needs of the divine spirit which lives through the body.” But I’ll go one step further, because the way I see it, the divine doesn’t ‘live’ through the body – it is the body.
For modern seekers accustomed to seeing the body as a house in which their spirit resides – I realize this idea may seem strange. The popular yogic rhetoric of ascension and transcendence speaks to an assumption that the divine lies outside of us, especially our corporal “meat suit”.
But if we go back to yoga’s earliest roots, to the vast ancient body of esoteric knowledge contained in the earliest Tantric, Buddhist, and Taoist traditions – the goal was not to leave the flesh behind like an old suit, but to ascend in the body – to a higher level of being. As an old sage expounds in a Taoist fable, “There are two paths, that of lesser people who leave the body and go, and that of greater people who go with the whole body.”
The practitioners of this early yoga believed that with dedicated practice, we could ‘refine’ and ‘perfect’ the ordinary body into an immortal, illuminated, rainbow or diamond body – the body divine. This was, as J.C. Cooper, writes in Chinese Alchemy: The Taoist Quest for Immortality “not merely a matter of arresting the normal processes of ageing and decay, but through a life time of practices creating a new subtle body, capable of flying on the wind, of being in more than one place at once, immune from harm and able to assume invisibility; in fact having all the supernatural powers.”
Today the goals of Transhumanism (merging man with cybernetics and robotics) have much in common with the ancient enlightenment agendas; the acquisition of superhuman powers, a perfected body, the achievement of immortality. We are still being driven by the same impulse to transmute ourselves – but c’mon do we really need all the hardware? Because the ancient sages did it au naturel. And in my totally amateur personal opinion, they left two main premises to follow.
Properly harnessed, our mind, emotions and thoughts constitute a ‘body technology’ that can alter the physical dimensions of reality. There is no division between consciousness and flesh – so when one transforms the mind, they transform the body – and vice-versa.
Secondly, in order to have more time to achieve enlightenment one must extend longevity. This was done by communing with and enhancing the life force energies (qi, jing, shen, prana ) that permeate the universe through breathing and meditation techniques, ritual body postures and yoga, the utilization of astronomical and geomantic forces, and the consumption of magical herbs and foods.
Whether you want to dismiss this ancient spiritual art, science or technology as superstition or one big fat placebo, science is increasingly demonstrating that the ancients were right about one thing. Our minds, bodies and the cosmos – are deeply linked.
We may seem like solid flesh and bone, but we are animated by invisible energies. At the very ‘ground’ of our being, we are waveforms of energy spread across time and space. Here, the separation between body and consciousness dissolves, the energy forms of your thoughts and emotions are one with the energy waveforms of your fingers and toes.
Further, the body is constantly, sending, receiving and storing information from the universe. At an energetic level, our electromagnetic fields flow continually, intermingling constantly, without separation, with the electromagnetic fields of the sun, moon, earth, mountains, streams, plants and lichen. And shifts in any one part of the system affect all others.
The ancient Tantric, Buddhists and Taoists already understood that everything was one. The goal of yoga and spiritual practice was not to reject the natural world or the body, but to consciously access its eternal energy aspect. And the way I see it, they did not seek to escape from the dross matter of the body, but to awaken to its truest nature. It was not to be either spirit or matter – but both at once.
Is the body really just a vehicle that we drive along the path to enlightenment? Or are we are already here? Could it be that what separates our ‘meatsuit’ from the immortal realm of spirit – is our minds? Maybe we don’t need technology, cybernetics or a magic pill to achieve the “body divine”? After all hundreds of pharmaceutical funded medical trials have already shown the power of belief (placebos, sugar pills and sham treatments) to heal disease, rejuvenate cells, reverse tissue damage, cure warts and even enlarge breasts.
Studies in epigenetics demonstrate that our minds, thoughts and psychology create an information pattern, or “bio-field” that produces either stress or healing responses which echo through our biological system, turning disease related genes on or off.And in a landmark study conducted by Harvard University, researchers placed a group of seniors in an environment that recreated the 50’s – a time when they were all in the prime of life. After two weeks their cardiac functioning, strength, hormone levels, blood pressure, eyesight and hearing had all improved. In other words they were able to reverse the markers of aging.
And best of all, consider this. Medical research on telomerase (the enzyme in cells that repairs the shortening of chromosomes that occurs throughout life) reveal that long time meditators like yogis and Buddhist monks are aging at a slower rate than the rest of us!
So I’ve decided to place my faith in the ultimate spiritual technology – belief itself. What we believe about who and what we are matters. Are we dust in an oblivious cosmos destined by time and genes to rust and decay? Or perhaps we have as yet undiscovered – and still evolving – realms of human potential? Forgive me for using this new age cliché, but just as a pupae becomes a butterfly and discovers new paradigms of flight, what may we yet discover?
Whether we arrived here by sheer random mutation or premeditated design, one thing is pretty clear, nature took vast millenniums of time, eons worth of effort, to evolve the individually unique bodies many seekers are eager to dispossess.
That’s why, after all the of years of questioning, I’m still placing my bets on the body divine. Like the ancient Tantric and Taoist yogis and sages, I see the divine as immanent, alive in everything we experience and behold – even ourselves. I choose to see the body – not as a predetermined closed system, but as an open one in which anything and evolution is possible. And I believe that waking up to this greater, higher, wider, deeper reality, is the purpose of yoga. Now that’s an adventure!
That’s why I’ve decided it no longer matters whether I’m doing or thinking about yoga wrong or right. What matters, whether my pelvis is tucked in or out, is my continuing faith in yoga as a practice to connect with the divine in myself and the universe. And voila, it lets the “good stuff” flow.