Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Spirituality and Yoga and such

I love it when blogging gets going in a cycle of mutual inspiration. Thanks Hilary. In a recent blog written in response to a recent blog, she tackled the issue of yoga as spiritual practice and tried to pin down what that meant. Much as her blog started as a comment overflowing its little box, so did mine. So you'd be well advised to do any background reading you haven't already done (i.e. the blogs mentioned above), but also feel free to dive in without a net if you so choose.

She references an essay on the meaning (or meaninglessness) of the term "spiritual." While I'm not unsympathetic to what the writer is saying, and in fact largely agree, I think the question of the meaning of "spiritual" also depends on context. The context of the essay is almost exclusively the designation of how one defines one's religious beliefs, i.e. "spiritual but not religious" (which I've always, perhaps rather cynically and certainly a bit tongue in cheek, defined as "too lazy to go to church"). But what I'm getting at is a difference between "being spiritual" and "spiritual matters." To me, the latter refers to things other than physical. To some people, that would be a soul, perhaps "God," or "meaning." The idea seems to derive at least in some measure from the mind-body duality, which I believe to be bullshit--but rather useful bullshit in the right context. That is to say, I don't believe in a soul or a mind as distinct from the body... but as a practical matter, I think it can sometimes be useful to think of them as separate.

But I also think that this artificial distinction gets at the meaning of spiritual that Hilary was getting at with her idea of sacred space. Something or somewhere is sacred because of the meaning and significance that human minds attribute to it. Whether that place is a church or mosque, a hill where something happened or a quad at a school, it gains significance from our thinking of it as significant, as special.

In any case, I want to get back to the idea of yoga as a spiritual practice as opposed to just an exercise. I was thinking about the difference this morning while in a yoga class, and one of the things that occurred to me was that yoga is perhaps the only exercise routine we do where an integral part of it is laying down and relaxing. At the end of it, after we've stretched and worked our muscles to the shaking point, what do we do in yoga? We lay down and take the opportunity to relax. Even if we do not also take the opportunity to practice meditation as well, we nonetheless have changed our minds in a very real way. Hilary gets at this in her story of her experience discovering yoga in college. You've worked your muscles and tendons, ligaments and joints in such a way that you can really--really--relax them, and that can't help but alter your mental landscape. For myself, there are few times that I feel more clear-minded than right after a good yoga practice. Refreshed, focused, ready.

I think most exercise changes the mind, because of course I don't believe that there is a mind separate from the body. The body isn't just where the mind hangs out, it's all interconnected. And thus, what affects one (which is really one part) effects the other. We all know this, don't we? What's on our mind can make us tense or relaxed, upbeat or sluggish. And the state of our body can certainly change our mental landscape.

But I'll say again that yoga is different from other physical exercise, either because of the nature of the exercises or because of the practices that have attached to it or both. Certainly, I think the range of motion, flexibility, and work we do is an important part of it, because it offers our bodies such variety and uses the body in ways very different from the ways that daily life uses us. But so, too, is an integral part of yoga the way that yoga engages our attention and draws that attention to our breathing, to tension and relaxation, to little-used muscles, to balance. And, again, there's the relaxation at the end, which both changes our mind and opens space for using it in different ways (i.e. meditation).

Is that "spiritual"? At least in some senses of the word, I should think.


  1. All that I appreciate -- Pilates, too, and even other forms of exercise, are good for the mind and soul and heart (the heart in the psychological sense, as well as the physiological).

    But I would bet some yoga practitioners would go further and say that this "spirituality" is to theirs what "spiritual but not religious" is to believing Christians.

  2. Marcy, can you clarify the analogy there? It may be the unclear referent of "theirs" that's throwing me off...

  3. Sure -- I was trying to say I'm not sure a religious yoga practitioner would be happy with the way you detail the spirituality of yoga (or the way I would approach a yoga class) -- they would see yoga's spirituality as more specific to their religion, and any "lesser" view of yoga's spirituality to be insufficient at best.